Lexus shifts from vanilla to voracious with the howling, V8-powered RC F

First drive: 2015 Lexus RC F and RC 350

Anxious to shed a brand image of vanilla luxury, Lexus introduces a pair of new coupes it hopes will captivate drivers hungry for more than just quiet comfort.

The tranquility of our rural surroundings was disrupted by the consonant howl of half a dozen V8s and screeching Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires.

I patiently sat atop a low concrete wall in the pit lane at Monticello Motor Club. I was waiting my turn to speed around the 18-turn course in the newest performance machine from Lexus, purveyor of hybrids and crossovers adored by yoga moms and golf dads. An involuntary smile took shape on my squished face, its horizontal limits confined by a tight-fitting racing helmet.

Twelve hours earlier, I had been warned that the 2015 Lexus RC F might elicit this response. At a technical presentation of the new, high-performance coupe and its tamer sibling, the RC 350, Lexus chief engineer Yukihiko Yaguchi remarked in his thick Japanese accent, “the sound of a roaring V8 always brings a smile.”

2015 Lexus RC front

On this point, Yaguchi-san was spot-on. He also told us that he and his team designed the RC F to be fun to drive for drivers of any skill. Some hot laps by this relatively cold driver also proved this point to be accurate. Although I started cautiously, I quickly worked my way up to impressively quick laps, at least for a driver with limited track experience. I certainly felt fast in the RC F, so who really cares about the numbers?

Familiar luxury

The RC F may bring a level of performance uncommon among Lexus models, but it certainly doesn’t fail to deliver the luxury one expects from the brand. A long list of features is available, from rain-sensing wipers to adaptive cruise control.

At everyday speeds, both the RC 350 and RC F are comfortable and easy to drive.

That’s important for the RC F and its tamer sibling, the V6-powered RC 350 and RC 350 F Sport. Lexus has a reputation for comfort, but the automaker hopes the new coupes will add a dose of youthfulness that will shift consumers’ perceptions of the brand.

The RC is built on new architecture derived from various other models in the Lexus lineup. The front third of the car, from the firewall forward, comes from the GS sedan. The center, cabin section comes from the retractable hardtop IS C, and the rear section is shared with the latest, third-generation IS sedan. The wheelbase of the RC is 2.7 inches shorter than that of the IS sedan, but the coupe is actually 1.1 inches longer overall.

Accessible performance

The RC 350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 producing 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. Rear-wheel drive versions use a quick-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission, while all-wheel drive versions get a six-speed automatic. Both include standard paddle shifters, and both rear- and all-wheel-drive versions are available with the F Sport package.

The F Sport package brings more to than just badges, a sportier grille and bigger, 19-inch wheels to the V6-powered coupe. Performance upgrades include an adaptive sport suspension and high-friction brakes. Variable gear ratio steering with rear steering is optional on rear-drive versions.

Inside, the F Sport package adds a racier look with contrasting stitching, aluminum pedals and TFT instrumentation. Luxury extras like heated and cooled front seats with a memory setting for the driver are included, too.

The RC 350 F Sport proved fun on the track, but the tamer variant can’t compare to the fierce RC F, whether on the move or standing still. The RC F looks decidedly more aggressive, thanks to larger cooling openings in the front fascia and RC F-exclusive ductwork behind the front wheels. The sporty body hides a host of performance advantages, too.

The RC F’s 5.0-liter engine makes a robust 467 hp and 389 lb-ft. Aside from the output advantage over the RC 350, the RC F benefits from greater chassis stiffness, large-diameter Brembo brakes with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers, and a standard Torsen or optional torque-vectoring rear differential with three driving modes: standard, slalom, and track.

At everyday speeds, both the RC 350 and RC F are comfortable and easy to drive, and both will accelerate and handle commendably in more urgent circumstances. But only the RC F is sporty in the purer sense of the word. Even without a dual-clutch gearbox, the RC F is quick off the line, with linear power delivery and, beginning at around 4,000 rpm, a sweet V8 song.

One notable drawback of the RC comes from the available touchpad interface that comes with navigation. Although better than the mouse-like controller Lexus uses on other models, the interface still lacks crucial hotkeys and requires diverting attention to locate and select functions.

In terms of value, the RC presents an attractive proposal. Pricing for the RC 350 starts in the mid-$40,000 range, while the most inexpensive RC F commands a premium of about $20,000.

Time for change

The desire for a shift in brand image – from staid comfort to excitement and emotion – explains why Lexus created the RC and, more specifically, the RC F. Neither the engineers nor the marketing pros at Toyota’s upscale brand are blind to the passion that drivers exhibit for competitors like Audi and BMW.

While Lexus does not forecast its new coupe to be a volume seller relative to its most popular models, the automaker has big expectations that the RC 350 and RC F will draw passionate drivers to its showrooms.

Highs

  • Accessible RC F performance
  • Plenty of luxury features
  • Attractive value proposition

Lows

  • Distracting navigation interface
  • Staid brand image
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