2015 Lexus RC F first drive
By Marty Padgett
At some point in the early 2000s, Lexus approached peak grandma. Cars like the SC convertible and the ES sedan were arguably its best efforts, just when Cadillac was brewing up a revival and BMW putting out some of its best machinery before electronic controls became a generation's voodoo curse.
A massive course correction came with the LFA. Sure,
and two body compositions to get it out the door, but even at triple its intended price, the LFA was evidence that Lexus had something more interesting in it than champagne glasses and ball bearings. The LFA influenced the rowdy IS F, then the smartly done GS F Sport followed. Now Lexus is collating all that learning into the 2015 Lexus RC F Coupe. It's the V-8-laden, all-hands-on-deck version of its new two-door RC lineup. (RC probably winks and nods to radio-controlled cars, not intentionally to perennial fourth-placer soda brand RC Cola.)
The RC F is Lexus gone wild, with aero kicks and eight-cylinder barks and electronically controlled everything, as well as a cockpit basically decorated by dropping a box of high-end audio between two seats. It's all in the effort to draw comparison with the mighty BMW M3.
So is the Lexus RC F finally legit, or are its Bimmerphile come-ons just a fantasy? The legit answer is a qualified yes. The RC F is a lovely road car with a vast track performance envelope, but it still has its mass and its badge to contend with.
Strands in the hourglass
The RC has lots of Fs to give, and they show up first in the grille. Look close: it's an Escher-like weave of hundreds of little F-shapes. The strands mesh to lighten up the bulbous nose a little, no mean feat, since it wears the most outrageous Lexus hourglass yet--like it flew into a little black dress at highway speeds.
From other angles too, the RC F is the most compelling Lexus design since the LFA, even better than the first SC coupes from which it's descended. Coupe forms are naturally more attractive than their sedan counterparts. and the RC's roofline and the uptick at its rear fenders is all the proof needed. Curving, complex surfaces wrap around to the sculpted fenders and sides. The thick helmet it wears has some Cylon in it, like the Scion tC. The headlights have sharp little LED underlining for relief. It's just more interesting to study than an M4.
At the rear, the RC F shows off some of the aero benefit of its shape. The rear fins and vents break up the pretty, the stacked exhaust outlets add a touch of mean. There's a speed-activated wing that lifts at 50 mph (or in track mode, at 80 mph).
The cockpit adapts the IS sedan's conflicting horizontal and curved shapes into a well-fitted workspace. The steering wheel is slightly elliptical, the high-backed seats are stitched elaborately. In the RC F, a digital gauge cluster adapts to the driving modes selected, toggling and varying the size of indicators for gears, engine speed, tripometer, and stopwatch functions. The dash is embellished with an analog clock that took me at least 15 minutes to find--because it's analog, not because it's right in the middle of the dash.
Those conflicting themes don't coordinate as well as they could in the RC F. For all its resemblance to high-end audio, the center stack rides over the curved console frame--like a bookshelf fell and the components are hanging precariously. There's no trim line to continue the horizon line of vents across the passenger space. At least the controls--the hard controls, not the touch surfaces--are straightforward and operate with obvious intent.
Lexus probably hopes that the interior is fourth or fifth down the list of important attributes with RC F buyers. If they were all about the style and trim fits, they might as well buy the standard-issue RC 350, in rear- or all-wheel drive form, or in F Sport trim with the same choices. Undistinguished V-6 rumble aside, it's a pleasantly sporty coupe.
Don't bring that game to New York's Monticello Motor Club, a 4.1-mile course Lexus chose to show off the RC F's handling. Blessed with big curves and long straights and a few yumping switchbacks, it's a place that gives you plenty of time to dissect a car's handling. Seriously, houseflies have written memoirs in the time it takes to lap it once.
Stepping into the RC F is an intentional choice, an anti-BMW opt-in that's made all the more enticing by a naturally aspirated 5.0-liter V-8. It's a recasting of the former IS F V-8, growth-hormoned into 467 horsepower and 389 pound-feet of torque through bigger intakes, titanium valves, and reprofiled cams. BMW's twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter in-line six: a mere 425 hp, and a caustic engine note at that. This powerplant opens up with an airy snarl at about 4000 rpm, but like the BMW, it's sometimes calculated trickery. In its most edgy sport setting, the RC F's V-8 gets amplified, synthesized sound piped into the cabin.
This burly V-8 is all about hustle. There's not the same explosive force as the twin-turbo BMW, just mighty oomph. Zero to 60 mph hits in about 4.4 seconds, and the RC F redlines at 7300 rpm. It's two ticks quicker than the IS F--but a boosted M4 will skitter to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds. The RC F's top speed has been electronically limited to 170 mph.
It's also capable of running on a lean-burn cycle to boost fuel economy when it's not tooling around a track on the usual Otto cycle. Lexus says the lean mode lets it consume premium gas at a rate comparable to a 4.2-liter V-8. EPA-rated fuel economy for the 2015 RC F is 16/25 mpg city/highway and 19 mpg combined, not bad considering the RC F's portly 3,958 pounds, versus the M4's 3,585-lb curb weight.
The engine is mated to an eight-speed automatic gearbox with paddle shifters. Does it shift as quickly as some of the eight-speeds bought from ZF? Not until it's been cycled through nearly all of the RC F's driver-selectable modes: Econ, Normal, Sport and Sport+. Sport mode will drops the car into a lower gear for cornering based on deceleration and yaw rates, letting you power out of a corner impressively, while Sport+ also enables quicker downshifts. You can also select Manual, which holds gears even at redline in second through eighth gears, and cuts shift times even more.
Traction gets all sorts of electronic attention in the RC F, from its stock Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires (255/35s front, 275/35-19s rear on ours; also Bridgestone Potenzas) to a standard Torsen limited-slip differential. An optional performance package adds a new torque-vectoring differential, a first for Lexus. In it, electric motors control clutch packs that can shift up to 100 percent of the power to an outside wheel, based on steering and yaw sensor input, all to get the RC F around a corner in tighter fashion. The TVD has three modes of operation: standard, slalom or track. Slalom's more like an autocross mode, with lots of darty output, but track mode's a cleaner interface for hard and fast driving. Still, it adds another 70 pounds to the hefty RC F--and the Torsen diff does a fine job of managing the rear wheels as it is.
The traction and stability control systems have their own variable modes, too, including the usual Normal, Sport, and a new Expert mode that turns off traction control. Finally, Lexus grants another mode, which turns off the stability and traction controls entirely, but Sport and Expert mode are where even their track experts suggest we'll make the best time.
In the handling department, the rear-wheel-drive RC F has front and rear wishbone and coil-spring independent suspension, with monotube gas-filled shock absorbers and ball-jointed stabilizer bars. Returned stabilizer bars, bushings, and new lower control arms are upgraded from the RC 350, and so are the 19-inch wheels and Brembo brakes (15 inches in front, 13.6 inches at the rear). The RC F's electric steering rack conforms to the multiple modes offered on the RC 350 F Sport.
Slip into the supremely tailored RC F sport seats, push the Start button, and the RC F rumbles to the life in the warm, genial way only a V-8 can. It's like a lullaby for the rich guys and gals that live in the planned neighborhood next door--spending a million bucks to sleep next door to the $50 million or more in sheetmetal they have parked inside the track compound.
Straight off the bat, slipping out of Monticello's pits, the RC F feels as settled as it does on public roads--where frankly, it outshines an M4 or even a 4-Series Coupe with M Sport add-ons. It has a lighter touch on the pavement, almost underdamped in the way it springs slightly over small bumps.
It's beyond the first wide left-handers where the differences with an M4 clear up, where the BMW asserts better suspension development and especially, steering accuracy.
The RC F's steering and damping are Lexus' best yet. They're still shy of BMW's standard, as if they were pegged to the last-generation M3, not the lighter and spiritually re-centered new one. The RC F's steering weight buildup across its modes is moderate, and doesn't really impart any more information. Road America--where I drove the M4--doesn't have the big, unsettling, quick elevation changes that Monticello has, but it showed off the M4's tracking and zeal for attacking corners via its steering box.The elusive ride/handling combination remains its secret sauce.
The RC F doesn't feel as much like a carver. The Torsen limited-slip setup maintains so much control over the rear end, the lure of steering by right foot with the torque-vectoring differential isn't as strong, especially since it exaggerates the RC F's suppler setup. That setup works as well or better than BMW's in all sorts of conditions--except these conditions, cresting blind esses or cutting off a corner in a deep off-camber dive to the left exit.
More distinction: numbers aren't always data. The RC F's whomping V-8 outguns the M3's supremely flexible turbo six, but the BMW's carrying around a few hundred pounds less. That fact doesn't just leap off the spec page--it wends its way through every response generated by the RC F's less nailed electric steering, by every ride motion that's not quite as expertly damped.
It's more like a Bimmer than Lexus has ever managed--and that's a victory--but the RC F still is not as neural an experience as being wired into the driver seat of an M4.
Built on the same 107.5-inch wheelbase as the 2015 RC coupe, the RC F shares its Lexus GS front-end layout, its crossbraced IS C midsection, and its IS sedan
rear suspension setup. It nets out some 2.7 inches shorter than today's IS sedan, and 1.1 inches wider.
Space isn't shy for front-seat passengers, and shouldn't be in a car that weighs in at just south of 4,000 pounds even with an optional carbon-fiber reinforced plastic roof and rear wing and a dose of high-strength steel. She's a brick house. Those front seats we've gone on about? Sit in them, they're excellent, with lots of stitching going on to mimic musculature. They look a lot like the racy chairs you can buy for your office, super-wide and with big bolsters and shoulder wings that appear to fit a really wide range of body types.
The rear seats are nicely stitched shelves for a helmet. It's a coupe, after all. The back seats don't split and fold to hold longer objects, like they do on the RC 350, so there's not much more to be made from the RC F's meager 10.4 cubic feet of trunk space. Lexus says it'll hold two golf bags.
Safety and other nice things
Elsewhere, the RC F benefits from a generation of upgrades, both to safety systems and infotainment gear, and suffers some foibles that are more common in this Lexus era than any other.
The RC F has eight airbags and active braking systems that work together with the car's adaptive cruise control. There's also a rearview camera, to mitigate the terrible rearward visibility. That rear camera view displays on a 7-inch LCD screen with a big frame of black around it--as if it's waiting to be swapped out for a 12-inch display, as if someone forgot to hit the Zoom button on the TV remote when they upgraded to HD. It's even off-center to the stack.
The Lexus Enform infotainment system at least ditches its mouse in this iteration for a Remote Touch input pad that allows swipes, pinches, zooms, and other now-customary gestures. It still feels out of sync with what's on the screen, and the screen could use an artistic reskin more fitting with the Lexus brand.
As for luxury fittings on the RC F, leather is an option. So are ventilated seats, the speed-sensing rear spoiler, blind-spot monitors, and navigation. There's also an available upgrade to the base 10-speaker sound system--a 17-speaker Mark Levinson system that produces 835 watts of sound.
Those prices can drive up an RC F from its base of $63,325 to nearly $70,000. That still leaves it a couple of grand cheaper than the M4, which starts at $65,125, closer to the run-out prices of today's Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, Audi RS 5, and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Coupe.
For a decade, Lexus made its name on refinement. It advertised that its cars could balance a champagne glass--a pyramid of them--on the hood. Priorities have changed, and at least part of the Lexus division is charged now--charged with putting its grandma days behind it, expressing some new ideas about what Lexus can be.
As long as those new ideas include things like 467-hp coupes--better to leave that one-note image behind.
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