The new RC 350 F Sport finds itself nestled in a comfy niche right between refinement and subtle savagery.
Sixty thousand dollars. 311 horsepower. Very, very red paint. Orange brake calipers. A TORSEN limited-slip rear differential. Rear-wheel drive. Does that sound more like a Mustang than a Lexus to you?
Yes, but this is no Ford; it’s a Lexus RC 350 F Sport. It’s not hard to tell the difference.
For one thing, for that kind of money, you get way, way more power and handling in a Mustang. They call it a “Shelby.” The cost, however, would be in interior fitments and overall refinement, a contest the Lexus would hardly have to prep for to win. For two, the Lexus has as its final point of assembly, according to the window sticker, Tahara, Aichi, Japan. For three, the Lexus is pushing that power out of a six-cylinder, no power adders, well, added. And finally, it has a level of finesse that is much more sophisticated than what Dearborn produces.
But that same finesse is what makes it just a little bit boring. Not to look at, and not to drive, but to listen to.
Let’s unpack that. The looks are striking. Lots of edges and angles. It has paint they label “Infrared” and which is dazzling, by any measure. The drive is plenty fun, especially in Sport or Sport + mode. The RC 350 rockets away from the stop signs. You can’t upset it no matter what you do on a corner or curving road, such as the mountain path (highway) I used as my test track. But you keep waiting for the rumble, and it never comes.
The car does have a sound button, or more accurately, a wheel. It sits on the dash, inviting you to turn it up. They call this ASC (Active Sound Control), but I wonder why the car needs it in the first place.
On the one hand, if you want a muscle car, you’d probably buy one over this Lexus. If you want loud, there’s a Dodge or Ford for you. So I’m assuming that if you want refinement and you’d buy the RC 350, you probably don’t need fake sound, or what is called in the manual, “engine sound [that conveys] the kinetic situations of the vehicle’s acceleration and deceleration to the driver through the speakers . . . .”
If I want kinetics, why would I buy a car with the kind of sound damping the Lexus has in the first place?
Or maybe it’s not about sound. After all, why wouldn’t I feel acceleration and deceleration in the seat of my pants, rather than having to hear it? In any case, the artificial sound is kind of a reedy midrange noise that buzzes around the top of your head. I hated it, and not just because it’s so counter-intuitive to make a quiet car and then artificially noise it up.
There is one solution, though: of the drive modes, select “Sport” or “Sport +.” When you do, there’s just enough of a rumble to make the car feel muscle-like, though there’s a downside: when you shut the car off, the drive mode changes back to “normal.” But look at that on the positive side, and you get this: Every time I get in my Lexus, I dial up “Bad Ass” and go!
But right sound or not, this thing is a wicked little rocket ship when you hammer it, and that makes all those complaints kind of float away. That, and the obvious care and expense that goes into crafting a luxury sports coupe in the first place. The Mark Levinson audio package. The stitching on the seats and other accent areas. The driver and passenger seats that are bolstered to resemble a comfy version of those you might sit in to go racing. It’s quality everywhere. Worth the money, if you can justify it. And you can. What follows is me telling you how.
With the RC 350, you can “get away” with something—you can make what looks like a sensible investment (“I bought a Lexus—so reliable, so good at holding value”) and still have a car that, anytime you want to dial up “Sport +,” will shoot out of a cannon. As for the competition, let’s face facts: a Mustang for a 50 year-old is a bit ridiculous (though I bought one, and I love it). It’s beyond cliché to get a Corvette, even though the new mid-engine one is about 50 thousand bucks too cheap for what they’re giving and everyone loves it. So if you’ve just seen your kids off, or never had any, and you want to get back to youthful fun in your driving, this car is a great balance of dignity and goes-like-heck.
Part of what makes the car track so well is optional DRS—dynamic rear steering. Nobody explained to me how this works, but I know for a fact that the car tracks better than it should, or would without this mechanical-electronic marvel. Before I realized the Lexus had it, I surmised that it was just tuned right to get the butt end around the corners and stick to the road. Knowing that little computer-calibrated mice were back there doing their thing to help made perfect sense once I read the window sticker and realized this was worth about $1900 bucks (with variable gear-ratio steering part of the option. The manual does explain things by saying that this feature “Contributes to the turning characteristics and responsiveness of the vehicle by adjusting the rear wheel angle of the vehicle . . . .”
This car is docile most of the time but a scalded coyote when pushed hard. The rear-steer function is hard to feel but makes the RC track so well it feels like it’s able to turn around its own axis.
What else was good, or not-so-much? If you’ve been reading my reviews, you know that I think the Lexus trackpad for adjusting the radio etc. is worse than bad. This one is even worse than most, because there’s no music-note “Favorite” button to get you out of trouble by easily and immediately putting a list of stuff you actually like at your disposal, so once you’ve lost control of where your trackpad is putting the cursor, you’re kinda screwed. Please, Lexus—fix this.
Most touch points are well-executed, but the stalk for the turn signal feels cheap and has spring-action that returns it to center as soon as you flick it right or left. Not necessary, this kind of innovation, because it does nothing for functionality. On the opposite end of that, the radio dial has a soft-touch feel that’s enjoyable to use.
Some fun toys exist, too, such as the Moveable Meter in the center of the IP in front of the driver. This is a circular gauge which slides to the right when you want more information displayed on the left side of the gauge pod, things like the compass, or messages if you happen to receive them.
This Lexus is not muscular-feeling. But neither is it sedate. You’re not going to scare anybody with this car, but you’re going to make a statement when the driver in the other lane sees the F Sport badging and watches as you whistle out of sight on your 19-inch alloys.
Good on Lexus for continuing to offer this car in a segment that must surely be getting into the low-thousands in terms of numbers sold. And good on them for not creating a pony car clone, but rather going for the kind of refinement that Japanese cars have always stood for.
This Lexus will do stuff that your grandfather never imagined when he eyed up his first Toyota Celica back in the early 1970s. But it does that in line with that Toyota heritage of quality, smartness, and sleek sportiness that made the Celica so popular.