Super coupe showdown: BMW M4 vs. Lexus RC-F

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(September 28, 2015) BMW and Toyota have a number of agreements, including one to co-develop a sports car in the next couple of years. It can’t come too early. Though Toyota — with the able help of Roger Becker of Lotus — produced some stellar vehicles, including the first generation MR2 and A60 P-Type Supra. Plus, I am a firm believer — based on the basic handling characteristics of the car and Toyota’s closeness to Lotus at the time — that the Scion FR-S received early input from the sports car maker before finishing the job itself. It has some distinct Lotus handling characteristics, but falls down hard in terms of ride comfort and finesse. Since that vehicle, Toyota’s efforts have swung between lackluster and harsh.

Nothing shows the stark differences between BMW and Toyota better than the M4 and RC-F. The former is a focused — almost too focused — high-output coupe with stunning reflexes, while the latter is a porky, dull and more suited to posing than performing. Neither is perfect. However, the BMW makes a better case for its shortcomings than does the RC-F.

The BMW arrived just in time to make the 132-mile trek to Grand Rapids, Mich., for the launch of the Scion iA and iM. Given the chance, it would not have been my first choice for the trip. Mile after mile of travel on concrete with sharp transverse seams filled the cabin with a loud “thump, thump, thump” that bordered on the annoying.

The large Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires magnifying the sound but not the harshness as it crossed each one. I was certain the M4 had a substandard audio system until I turned on to asphalt-covered secondary roads, and realized that the sound system was not at fault. (It’s the optional — $875 — Harman Kardon surround sound unit.) Dipping into the setup menu made it possible to adjust the unit for the conditions, but the M4’s interior was never going to be mistaken for a concert hall.

On the plus side — and a big plus it is — sits the six-speed manual transmission. No automatic with flappy paddles here, just a satisfyingly thick leather-covered shift knob and extended H-gate to row up, down and across. Despite the twin-turbo inline six’s power, the movement has heft without bulk, and slots into gear with a satisfyingly mechanical feel. This feeling is heightened by a beautifully weighted and linear clutch with a perfect take-up point. Drivers designed and developed this car, of that there is no doubt.

Despite my abhorrence of electronic adjustability, the M4’s system for adjusting the steering, dampers (a $1,000 option) and throttle mapping work very well, and you can mix and match them as you see fit. Most of the time, I kept the steering in Sport, the dampers in Comfort or Normal, and the throttle mapping in Normal.

On the street, the sharper response of the throttle and firmer dampers in the Sport setting are not what you need for smooth transit from Point A to Point B. On the track, they make the M4’s responses more acute, and trade ride for cornering force, two things you want under those conditions.

The turbocharged six is a jewel; smooth, responsive, powerful and surprisingly frugal. It averaged 25 mpg on the highway at speeds that… were just keeping up with the heavy-footed western Michigan traffic. With 425 hp and 406 lb.-ft. of torque, it combines grunt with turbine-like smoothness and a soundtrack that gets better the higher you rev the engine.

It’s helped by a one-piece carbon fiber driveshaft that transmits less driveline “shunt” to the cabin, and reduces rotational inertia. And the weight reduction continues with a carbon fiber rear spoiler, diffuser, and a carbon fiber roof panel. There are even carbon fiber brake discs — available as an option — but more on those later.

BMW claims the M4 is capable of a Nurburgring lap of just over seven minutes and 50 seconds, and does 0-60 mph in 4.1 seconds. This performance is helped by the Active M differential and solid mount rear subframe. They get the power down, and help aim the car into the turns. It can pre-lock the diff before the boost spools up under acceleration, and unlocks under braking — especially when braking into a corner — all while using information from the stability control system’s computer to give you the best setting for the conditions.

On the downside are things like the color — Austin Yellow — a shade that is more green than yellow, and is what you would expect if Kermit the Frog worked changing the rods in a nuclear power plant. Then there’s the $8,150 M carbon ceramic brake package. You would have to be a dedicated track day participant to have need of the incredible high-speed/high-temperature stopping power of these pie plate-size brake discs, or of the 42 lb. in unsprung weight they shed. Then again, they make for great cocktail party chatter.

Cocktail party chatter is the raison d’être of the Lexus RC-F. It is not the focused weapon the BMW can be, but it is a vehicle about which its owner can brag. First and foremost, it is a Lexus, which means the build quality is impeccable. Then there’s the Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint. It is deep, lustrous and highlights the body’s many character lines. The Nu Luxe-covered F Sport seats are not only quite handsome, they’re very comfortable.

Their only failing being the leather strap through which the seatbelt runs in order to keep it near at hand. It slows the belt’s progress, but is no harder to deal with than many similar devices in many other coupes. Speaking of the interior, it is crisply styled and finished in leather, suede and carbon fiber. The reconfigurable instrument cluster is entertaining as well as informative, the steering wheel is satisfyingly thick, but the track pad-like device for infotainment system is nearly impossible to use in a stiffly sprung sports coupe.

Under the hood is a 5.0-liter V8 with 467 horsepower and 389 lb.-ft. of torque. This is more horsepower but less torque than the BMW’s turbocharged inline six, but not enough to make a significant difference. For that, you need look nor further than the RC-F’s greater weight, eight-speed automatic transmission, and the lack of low-end torque compared to the BMW. The weight difference is 428 lb. That’s like having two linebackers stuffed in the back.

You feel the fat every time you accelerate or turn the wheel. Where the M4 fairly leaps ahead (especially when in Sport mode), the RC-F accelerates quickly and cleanly with a delicious exhaust note, but a decided lack of urgency. Ask the M4 to dance around the corners and over hills and swales, and it responds with enthusiasm. You enjoy seeing what it will do. Not so with the RC-F. Though quick, it does not communicate as clearly as the BMW, and takes more work to get it to do the same things.

No matter whether you dial up Sport S or Sport S+, the RC-F does not exhibit the athleticism of the M4. Then again, the BMW doesn’t let you chart your cornering, acceleration and deceleration g levels on a screen next to the tachometer. Given the speeds the RC-F can reach, this probably isn’t the best use of your time.

Looking down the window sticker of the RC-F you won’t find carbon ceramic disc brakes, and you might consider doing without the $1,100 moonroof. It adds weight the RC-F doesn’t need. You also won’t find a $83,325 suggested retail price. As tested, the RC-F is “just” $73,760. Most of that difference can be saved by eliminating the BMW’s trick brake discs and, if you don’t take the car to the track regularly, you’ll never miss them.

With each car, however, you might want to order the Executive (BMW) or Premium (Lexus) packages to make them more livable day-to-day. And, to make them more equal, pop for the $1,900 LED light package on the BMW.

Which brings us to which is the better choice. If your performance coupe absolutely must have a V8 under the hood, or if posing is more important that performing, the RC-F is the car for you. However, if you enjoy driving, appreciate cars with quick reflexes and blinding performance, and want the option to choose gears for yourself, the only choice is the M4.