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Lexus looks to hit Mercedes-AMG, Audi RS and BMW M where it hurts with a naturally-aspirated V8 performance coupe

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Lexus, Toyota’s premium car division, will not let the sports car market go. It’s better known for hybrids, SUVs and large saloons in this country, but its ambitions for a lucrative segment have bubbled to the surface in recent years, most obviously in the congenially flawed IS F.

However, it has never really threatened to break the monopoly enjoyed by its mostly German rivals. The RC F, a muscular coupé in the BMW M4 mould, marked the start of a fresh offensive. It was followed by the GS F, a bigger four-door super-saloon.

The RC F's naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8 produces 470bhp and 390lb ft

Aside from their badges, the strand linking the two is the engine: an updated derivative of the naturally aspirated V8 petrol engine that gave the IS F so much trouser length.

The choice looks like a strange one. Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-AMG and Porsche are well into model cycles that place unstinting emphasis on forced induction, typically with fewer cylinders and less displacement.

That Lexus has chosen to buck this trend is partly a function of its global positioning (it is at least as interested in American buyers as it is European ones) and partly due to the faith it has in its own alternative tech, including the unusual use of the fuel-sipping Atkinson cycle.

Be that as it may, the challenge facing the manufacturer is not merely one of horsepower or efficiency. There is also the comparative quality of the handling (the IS F’s major failing) and the task of convincing customers that the RC F – and, by extension, Lexus – now has the reputation worthy of an extremely image-conscious end of the industry.

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Without being mentioned specifically, the now-departed LFA supercar, a calculated machine of startling and intoxicating savagery, is the bedrock upon which a superior stature may yet be established. If the RC F proves capable of generating a modicum of that car’s adulation, Lexus will be on the right track.

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Lexus RC F rear

Lexus insists the guiding principle for its new coupé was “functional beauty”, claiming an aerodynamic or cooling purpose for every stroke of the designer’s pen. The result is elaborate styling, although simpler lines, even at the price of lesser efficiency, might have helped the RC F to better compete with its sleeker European rivals.

Underneath, the RC F’s steel architecture is a fusion of GS, IS and IS convertible platforms. The result is a relatively large coupé, eclipsing an M4 in length and height. Lexus has reinforced the body-in-white in the pursuit of appropriate levels of rigidity.

The adaptive LED headlights have separate daytime running lights underneath. It looks fussy but is better in the metal

The double wishbone suspension at the front features forged aluminium parts, as does the multi-link set-up at the rear. Damping is via passive Sachs monotube performance shocks and braking by Brembo steel discs and aluminium monoblock calipers.

The use of aluminium usually betrays an attempt at weight loss, but here the Toyota marketing machine falls necessarily quiet. That’s because, based on the claimed kerb weight, the RC F weighs almost 200kg more than the M4.

Thankfully, the RC F’s 5.0-litre V8 isn’t short on power; there’s 470bhp of it. Many of the major components – including the cylinder head, injection system, pistons, connecting rods and crankshaft – are new. The resulting 54bhp increase over the IS F comes at increased crank speed, with the engine’s redline having been extended to 7300rpm.

The engine’s latest VVT-iE variable valve timing system remains hard at work at the opposite end of the scale, too. With a new camshaft profile, the inlet valves can be held open longer than usual, allowing the V8 to run on the more thermally efficient Atkinson cycle, a combustion mode made familiar by the more humble petrol engines that Toyota typically twins with electric motors in hybrids.

Power is sent to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission capable of full torque converter lock-up from second gear onwards. Sensibly deploying that power was the original IS F’s failing, and Lexus has sought to avoid that mistake here by fitting a Torsen limited-slip differential as standard and offering an even cleverer torque-vectoring intelligent rear diff as a cost option.

Fitted to our test car, this optional system is capable of sending 100 percent of available torque to either end of the back axle.


Lexus RC-F interior

The RC F’s cabin is a rich, strange, comfortable and deeply impressive yet still often frustrating bubble. It’s no great departure, though – a Lexus interior of the kind we’ve grown used to in recent years.

Which means, for starters, that it’s appointed and finished with superbly consistent quality throughout. It means that the seats are large, soft and smoothly stitched, and the dashboard and other fixtures are rock solid and expensive to the touch. It also means that the fascia, steering wheel and transmission tunnel are about as button-littered and type-festooned as the pilot’s console of a Soyuz space rocket.

You sit higher than we'd prefer, but you do so comfortably and with decent support from the seats

As for the standard equipment, there are two trims - RC F and RC F Carbon. Entry-level models include adaptive suspension, Brembo brakes, a limited slip differential, lane departure warning, electrically adjustable, heated and folding mirrors, automatic lights and wipers, LED headlights, a retractable rear spoiler and 19in alloy wheels on the outside as standard, while inside there is cruise control, keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, semi-aniline leather upholstery, ventilated sports seats and a 7.0in Lexus infotainment system complete with sat nav, DAB radio, Bluetooth and two USB connectivity.

The range-topping Carbon model gets lashings of carbonfibre, a torque vectoring differential, an Alcantara upholstery, heated front sports seats and a 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system.

This is another Lexus to junk the mouse-like controller the firm used previously and adopt a tunnel-mounted touch-sensitive pad via which you move the cursor on the 7.0in multimedia display. This 'Remote Touch interface' works fairly well, but not well enough, evidently, for Lexus to avoid the need to draft in some back-up. 

Part of the problem is that UK drivers sit on the right, obliging you to use your left fingertip to do the pointing — and for right-handed people, that’s a bit tricky. An Audi MMI-style rotary dial is much easier. But there’s haptic feedback to help — in this case, dialled up to a sensible level — and Lexus makes the icons and buttons you’re aiming for on the 7.0in multimedia screen usefully large.

The screen itself could also be larger. As we’ve said before, 7.0in isn’t generous by premium-brand standards, and it seems meaner still when blank space is left between the edge of the display and the frame of the setting.

There are, therefore, at least three ways to skip a track on your iPod and four ways to tune the radio. You can change climate control preferences using the touchpad and multimedia screen, or the more familiar HVAC console.

Counting the drive mode rotary controller as well, there seems barely a square inch of flat, driver-facing real estate that doesn’t have a switch or knob on it. Once you’ve worked out what they’re all for, their presence makes certain processes easier. But Lexus badly needs to bring clearer hierarchy and simplicity to its fascias.

Occupant space is broadly competitive for a 2+2 coupé, though. Some rivals offer more space, but the RC F’s front seats are roomy and the back ones big enough for kids or occasional use. The driving position is sound but not perfect for sports car. It’s higher than some, with slightly offset pedals and a steering column that doesn’t offer the utmost adjustability.

The RC F hits back with excellent power and clarity from the optional Mark Levinson premium audio system and an equally usable and clear Bluetooth phone set-up, but its multimedia system's online and social media functionality could be better.


5.0-litre V8 Lexus RC F engine

Greater complication awaits when you start that V8 and attempt to navigate the RC F’s many drive modes. The shiny drive mode select knob allows you to cycle through Eco, Normal, Sport S and Sport S+ presets, which apply control regimes to the engine, transmission and power steering and different display modes for the LCD instruments.

There are another four modes to the VDIM stability control and three modes for the optional active diff. Setting the car up to match the prevailing conditions can feel more like flapping away vainly at a Rubik’s Cube than refining an increasingly capable dynamic recipe.

The RC F can be lurid, but it's also easy prey at lower revs for a fast hatch

Experience teaches you simply to find a setting you like and stick with it. Moreover, in actuality the RC F has only two operating routines, because the way the V8 combines with the automatic transmission tends to polarise the car’s driving experience.

The powertrain is pleasingly suave and docile at unstressed pace, then sharp and energetic at maximum attack. Anywhere in between, it doesn’t work nearly so well. That’s a problem for a coupé like this whose richness and performance should arguably be most distinguished at medium-high, brisk but unhurried cross-country pace.

Using the manual mode on the gearbox feels like an imposition for a fast GT like this, but it does allow you to avoid the auto mode’s often hesitant and ill-judged changes and better explore the RC F’s main attraction. In the lower half of the rev range, throttle response is gentle and available acceleration is surprisingly limited. It feels less urgent than in plenty of normally aspirated six-cylinder sports cars, and much less so than in any turbocharged rival.

Then, as the revs nudge up to 4000rpm, it’s as if the V8’s second bank of cylinders suddenly growls into life. The engine’s voice doubles its volume and its potency grows gradually from toy breed through angry terrier levels and then on to the temperament of an excited sled dog as the 7300rpm redline approaches.

Work the motor hard and the RC F is just about a sub-5.0sec 0-60mph prospect, as our figures prove. Below 5500rpm, it’s a sitting duck for a fast hatchback or a cheaper sports car, and the ill manners of the gearbox and peakiness of the power curve are frustrating barriers to both responsiveness and day-to-day enjoyment.

So although it’s lurid at times, the RC F delivers conspicuously less real-world performance than it ought to.


Lexus RC F cornering

Although the RC F’s bulk gives the Sachs dampers plenty to do, they provide the car with just enough sporting poise and purpose to make it feel coherent when driven fast. A firecracker of an engine with a soft, vacillating chassis would have been a regrettable combination for this car. Thankfully, unlike its forebears, that’s not what the RC F has.

The car’s ride is firm – more uncompromising than the IS F’s was and much more jostling than Lexus brand devotees will expect. But the harder you’re prepared to examine it on the road, the better the chassis works.

The trick diff is more helpful on corner entry than exit; it's good for engine braking vectoring but doesn't add much on-throttle adjustability

The aggressiveness of its short-travel rebound control smooths out as your speed increases, and although the car’s gait never feels fluent, body control, directional stability, grip and traction are good enough to survive whatever you’re prepared to throw at them.

And yet in spite of its apparent grip and purpose and that trick diff, the incisive handling balance and bite of the M4 and Mercedes-AMG C63 aren’t quite present here. The RC F’s steering communicates fairly well, but it doesn’t command a front axle that rings with compelling directional precision and doesn’t make the car feel naturally agile. It’s as if Lexus tuned the chassis for stability and then attempted to dial some nimbleness back into the handling with its active differential.

There’s reasonable cornering balance here, but the approach doesn’t really work. Select Slalom mode on the Torque Vectoring Differential (TVD) and, sure enough, the RC F’s turn-in is noticeably crisper – to the point where it can even unsettle the rear end slightly on descending revs as you enter sharper bends, activating the stability control system.

But picking up the throttle later in the same corner, in an attempt to delicately adjust the car’s attitude, doesn’t elicit the hoped-for response. The car’s mass and its blanket of stability is just a little overbearing. Too often they produce understeer whose onset isn’t clearly enough telegraphed to your fingertips.

And when they produce oversteer, the RC F’s limit handling isn’t quite as controllable as we’d like.


Lexus RC F

For a relative newcomer to performance circles, Lexus certainly isn’t tearing in with a bargain price, but it has made the RC F quietly good value.

Priced within a few hundred quid of the M4 and Audi RS5, it looks like a relatively smart buy for private buyers when you take into account its stronger residual value and extensive list of standard kit, which includes the adaptive LED headlights, auto ’box and reversing camera that BMW expects you to pay extra for.

Our RC F averaged 23.8mpg during True MPG testing

That V8 makes it a heinously expensive company car, but most of its rivals would be, too.

The bigger inconvenience here is that it’s a £485-a-year prospect on road tax, whereas the M4 would be £220 cheaper. The BMW is also six groups cheaper to insure and a shade under 4mpg more economical in real-world use, as proved by our True MPG tests.

Forget the Carbon edition and the Torque Vectoring differential, though; the £3500 you'd otherwise spend on the TVD will buy you active cruise, premium audio and a sunroof.

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Lexus RC F rear quarter

The Lexus RC F is a liberating influence in enthusiasts’ motordom that deserves a warmer welcome than the Autocar road test can give.

It’s an important step along the road for a young performance brand and adds much-needed variety to a part of the market crying out for it. It has been created with no shortage of budget, effort and commitment. It’s fresh, bold and different, and it’s pleasingly unreserved and true to its purpose – an easy car to like.

Big on charm, but lacking in real-world pace and well-rounded cruising manners

The RC F isn’t quite so easy to justify, though. As effusive as the car’s V8 powertrain can be, it can also be underwhelming and even frustrating at times. The chassis spec makes dynamic promises that the handling fails to fully deliver on.

Meanwhile, the sophisticated drivetrain and chassis technology aren’t as discreetly integrated or expertly tuned as they would have been by a more experienced hand. As a result, we can only really recommend the car as a talented also-ran.

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Lexus RC F First drives