The relentless pursuit of everything the Germans are doing doesn't always work for rival luxury brands like Lexus.
But in the last two years, Lexus has found success by forging its own path. The 2015 RC350 continues that trend.
This all-new coupe competes with the BMW 4 Series, the Audi A5 and the Mercedes C-Class coupe. But rather than clone the competitors, the RC350 offers bold styling, a naturally aspirated engine — rather than the ubiquitous turbochargers on today's German power plants — and a laudable balance of comfort and capability.
The RC350 and its speed-seeking performance variant, the RC F, fill a two-door hole in Lexus' family between the compact IS sedan and the mid-size GS sedan. The RC350 starts at $43,715.
The RC's underpinnings are stitched together from the parts of three other Lexus sedans.
The front suspension comes from the mid-size GS sedan, the stiff center portion of the platform from the IS C convertible, and the rear suspension from the IS.
This mash-up is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, hooked to an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters.
While the Germans have bet the farm on turbocharging, the RC's engine is naturally aspirated, offering a more immediate surge of low-end power because there's no waiting on the turbocharger to spool up. Rear-wheel-drive is standard, while AWD is an option.
The coupe also comes standard with four drive modes: Eco, Normal, Sport and Snow. Each tailors elements like the shift timing and throttle response to the mood of the driver.
We tested a loaded rear-wheel-drive F-Sport model, which straps a $3,985 package of suspension, handling and style upgrades (but, notably, not power) to the standard RC350. This includes sexy 19-inch wheels wrapped in stickier tires, a two-mode adaptive suspension and a fifth driving mode, dubbed Sport+.
Out the door at $54,720, our tester had a malleable personality that will make a wide swath of buyers happy. At 3,748 pounds, this coupe is a smidge chubby. This means it takes the refined engine 5.8 seconds to do a zero-to-60-mph run, according to Lexus. Not a breathtaking clip, but the car makes up for it when the road starts bending. Dropping the RC350 into its most aggressive Sport+ mode yields a crisp, balanced athlete with taut steering and excellent handling.
Making the leisurely launch more enjoyable were the F-Sport package's supportive seats, which complement a quiet and comfortable interior. At least, in the front seats. Leg room in the back is half a foot less than in BMW's 4 Series.
Outside, our Atomic Silver tester was a compelling mix of bravado and class. Pull up to the curb in an RC350 and you'll attract far more attention than you might in the near ubiquitous BMW or Audi.
Highlights included the classic rear-wheel-drive proportions (long hood, short trunk lid), a black mesh grille and handsome alloy wheels. With the F-Sport suspension, our RC sat close to the ground and looked fast even when parked.
The only downside to these edgy looks is they may not age as well as, for instance, Audi's graceful A5. Blame bits like the aggressively stylized headlights, shapely grille or faux vents carved into rear bumper. Same for the RC350's interior, which works hard to throw all kinds of angles and shapes at you.
Our robustly optioned RC350 included the F-Sport kit, plus a navigation system, 17-speaker, 835-watt sound system, backup camera, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, moon roof and heated and cooled leather seats.
The angrier RC F edition goes for $63,325, but it's less impressive than the base model.
This model comes in rear-wheel-drive only, with a free-revving 5.0-liter V-8. It makes 467 horsepower and 389 pound-feet of torque, delegated to the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox with paddle shifters.
Lexus says the RC F will do zero to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, half a second slower than the BMW M4. Blame the portliness of the Lexus; it's hundreds of pounds heavier than the BMW.
The bigger problem is its tepid handling, the result of excessive weight and over-thinking stability control software.
Only when all the electronic nannies are disengaged — a multi-step process you have to do every time you turn the car on — can the driver have any fun. Jump those hurdles, and the engine turns out to be a fine piece of engineering, producing smooth, throaty power at high revs.
But even then it lacks the crispness of the RC350. This is a muscular grand-touring car rather than a sports car.
The softer personality is contradicted by the RC F's boy-racer exterior design. With a ventilated hood covering up more engine than the RC350, the nose of the car is more blunt and the front profile more pronounced. With an aggressive front bumper and wider fenders, the RC F looks swollen compared with the base RC350.
The more basic RC350 is a better car at a better price. It trades the RC F's power for crisp handling and comfort that anyone can appreciate, and provides a distinctive alternative to Audi and BMW that Lexus badly needed in the lineup.