When Lexus first burst onto the automotive scene 25 years ago, its luxury vehicles were an immediate hit — safe, solid, exceptionally reliable, comfortable and relatively inexpensive compared to the competition,
As a result, the upscale division of Japanese manufacturer Toyota earned a top-flight reputation for quality and an extremely loyal customer base that it retains to this day. Nevertheless, in recent years Lexus has not matched the sales growth of its prime German competitors.
Lexus appears to have identified its problem primarily as a lack of excitement. The “relentless pursuit of perfection” had produced a conservative line-up of vehicles that simply did not stir the souls of driving enthusiasts.
So, all the way back in 2007, the carmaker began adding some spice to the mix with the IS F sedan. It features a 416-horsepower V-8 and a track-tuned chassis. Then came the $375,000 LFA supercar powered by 552-horsepower V-10 engine. Only 500 were built.
Now come the coupes, and the mission for these coupes is very clear. Add some excitement to the brand. Bring in new, younger buyers. Throw down the gauntlet against the premium sport/luxury entries from Germany: BMW M4, Audi RS and Mercedes-Benz AMG.
Most importantly, Lexus hopes The RC 350 and RC F will be halo cars to help elevate the entire brand to new levels of interest. Their aggressive designs, accentuated by a huge spindle grille and bold colors, should be enough to at least start turning heads.
You should begin to see the RC 350 on the road in late November or early December and the RC F on road and track in early 2015.
Beneath the sheet metal, the vehicle’s architecture is a specially tailored blend of several Lexus chassis. The front end is based on the Lexus GS, the rear is based on the IS sport sedan and the center is based on the IS convertible.
Both versions of the coupe were introduced to journalists recently in a day of driving that took them from White Plains, N.Y. to the Monticello Motor Club in Monticello, N.Y., for some hot laps around its winding road-racing course.
Let’s first take a closer look at the more mainstream Lexus RC 350, which will come to showrooms with a base price of $42,790 and hopefully generate at least 15,000 sales a year. It will be available with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
The 3.5-liter V-6 engine generates 305 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. The rear-wheel-drive model is teamed with an 8-speed automatic transmission that can be adjusted for normal or sporty-driving situations or put in manual mode, where the driver can use the paddle shifers to make gear changes in a 10th of a second and enjoy rev-matching downshifts. All-wheel-drive coupes get a 6-speed automatic transmission.
There is also what Lexus calls Drive Mode Select, which adjusts the vehicle’s powertrain, power steering and air conditioning to set the performance response of the car. The most aggressive RC 350 F Sport includes a setting that can adjust the independent suspension for optimal control.
Also available is the Dynamic Handling System, which smoothes out bumps, restrains pitching motions under hard braking or acceleration and controls body lean in corners.
The handling system also features rear-wheel steering. At speeds under 50 miles an hour the rear wheels turn up slightly in the opposite direction of the front wheels to shorten the turning radius and improve cornering ability, Above 50 mph, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front wheels for improved high-speed control.
In addition, the Lexus RC 350 features a full complement of the latest safety features plus high-tech gadgetry, navigation and a premium sound system.
Potential buyers will have to wait until official price sheets are released to determine just what features are standard and which ones are optional.
The cabin has the look, feel and quality materials expected of a premium vehicle. The front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive for passengers of most any size, but the tight rear-seat is only for occasional occupancy by adults under 6 feet tall.
However the 60-40 rear seatbacks fold forward to increase the trunk’s 10.4 cubic-foot luggage capacity.
The drive route included heavy urban traffic, slow tight turns on busy two-lane roads and long stretches of four-lane concrete with police cars seemingly perched everywhere.
Still it was possible to reach a few conclusions about Lexus hopes for the RC 350. The engine offers plenty of power with a sporty exhaust note. The driving dynamics are generally excellent, offering a comfortable ride on the open road and superior handling on the twistier sections of the route. The electric power steering was accurate and the all-wheel disc brakes were strong.
Is this car ready to do battle with the Germans? Generally speaking I would say it will be an alternative to the standard BMW 4, Audi A4, and he Mercedes C class. But it is the RC F that is designed to go head to head with the more aggressive entries from Germany.
So let’s take a look at that vehicle. It will have a base price of $52,400 and an expected annual sales volume of 2,500 coupes.
Think of the RC-F as an RC coupe on steroids.
It is even more aggressively styled, lower and wider than the standard coupe with wider wheels and tires. Complete with air scoops and cooling ducts, it also features a rear wing that deploys at speeds above 50 mph to increase down force.
It all works together to help maximize the performance of the 5-liter V-8 engine that produces 467 horsepower and a maximum 389 pound-feet of torque.. A modified version of the 416-horsepower powerplant in the Lexus IS-F, it is the most powerful V-8 ever built by Lexus.
Interestingly, the powerplant is engineered so that it will perform on the more economical Atkinson cycle at cruising speeds but revert to the full-power Otto cycle as soon as maximum power is required. This allows for an estimated 25 mpg on the highway
The engine is teamed with a specially calibrated version of the RC’s 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters and four modes that can be dialed in to adjust for all driving choices from a leisurely cruise to track duty.
All aspects of the car — body rigidity, aerodynamics, suspension, brakes, tires, electric power steering — have been specially built or modified to maximize the RC-F’s performance capabilities. It is all done with the expectation that owners will want to participate in track-day events.
Among the highlights:
Optional Torque Vectoring Control, which precisely controls the amount of torque applied to each rear wheel, has three operating modes — Standard for nimble performance and stability, Slalom for steering response and Track to help keep the vehicle on its intended path while accelerating in corners. The standard setup is a Torsen Limited Slip Differential.
Combination meters in the instrument panel, which include a tachometer that changes according to the driving mode, a torque vectoring monitor, G-Force meter,, mileage information, digital and analogue speedometer, oil and water temperature gauges and even a stopwatch.
A heavily revised double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension that was tuned on Germany’s famed Nurburgring.
Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management, which coordinates many of the vehicle’s active safety systems and acts to correct a loss of traction.
In addition to the performance-oriented enhancements on the RC-F, the coupe contains a lengthy list of safety, comfort and convenience features befitting a true luxury car.. Despite its track-oriented focus, the coupe can also be driven comfortably on public roads.
My time in the RC-F was limited to a couple of hot laps around the track at the Monticello club. The course is long, windy and full of elevation changes and I was unfamiliar with all of it.
So here’s what I can tell you from a rank amateur’s point of view. The brakes work well. A quick yank on the steering wheel corrected my mistakes without making me sweat. Acceleration is terrific, the automatic shifting was smooth and the engine has a wonderful, powerful growl to it. Oh, and it was fun. I wished I had more time to learn the track and maybe even improve my pitiful skills.
From my brief encounter with the new coupes, it quickly became obvious that Lexus has gone to great lengths to create thoroughly modern, upscale, high-tech, sporty coupes. Time will tell if the designers and engineers have succeeded in turning enthusiasts’ eyes away from Europe and toward Japan.