Lexus RC 350 — Luxury and excitement

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Over the years Lexus has built handsome, but conservatively styled vehicles. Styling took a back seat to the brand's solid build quality and impeccable reliability, its strongest suits since its inception in 1989. But times have changed and the current styling direction has taken a decided turn for the dramatic. The personification of this is the new RC coupe, a head turner with rakish good looks.

The dynamic-looking RC 350 is unlike anything in the Lexus lineup with a an aggressive wedge-like stance featuring a dramatic character line running upward from the front door and ending over top of the wrap-around taillight, an imposing version of the new in-your-face Lexus spindle grille, and boomerang taillights neatly wrapped around backup lights. The sweep of the fastback roof comes to rest over the muscular bulging rear fender flares that include Porsche-like slatted vents.

The interior likewise features a forward-looking design that is modernistic with touches of tradition such as the center-mounted analog clock. Materials are first-class, all surfaces soft to the touch. The new coupe, which is designed to go head-to-head with the 4-Series BMW and the Audi A5, has the kind of instant charisma to compete against the vaunted German nameplates.

According to Lexus officials, the new RC is not simply a coupe version of the IS sports sedan, but a hybrid of sorts — they say the nose section comes from the GS series, the center section from the IS convertible and the tail end from the IS sedan. The GS has the width Toyota engineers wanted, the IS C has the underbody stiffening, and the IS has the multi-link independent rear suspension necessary to make it all work.

The key ingredient for the RC is the F Sport package ($3,985) with an advanced version of the Adaptive Variable Suspension that can be dialed up by a center controller. The system with its S+ designation reduces damping at low speeds over bumpy roads to maintain comfort, while stiffening the shocks at higher speeds and during fast cornering to enhance control. Variable Gear Ratio Steering ($1,900) delivers outstanding feedback that is so often hard to come by with electrically boosted power-steering systems. With these add-ons the RC 350 is smooth and incredibly well balanced and delivers road-carving excitement.

We also spent time in the base RC 350 devoid of all the F Sport technology and found it a rewarding experience. There is a purity and clarity of communication that can only be found in the base version of any vehicle. As the foundation on which all other models are built, a vehicle’s strengths and weaknesses often are laid bare in the most prosaic model, its messages unadulterated by the ladling on of performance parts and technology.

Taking the RC 350 out on to the roads told us more about the car’s inherent positives and negatives than a handful of hot laps in its more performance oriented brothers. We came away impressed by what's available at the most affordable price.

Probably the biggest negative about the RC when compared to its primary German competitors is the engine. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the 3.6-liter V-6 with its silky-smooth power delivery through an eight-speed automatic transmission. It's just that its performance doesn't quite measure up to the BMW 4 Series and the Audi A5. That being said, the RC 350 is not slow, measured at 5.7 seconds from 0-to-60 and 14.2 seconds at 102 mph in the quarter mile.

High-quality materials are used in the attractive multi-tiered cabin that features numerous upscale touches including easy-to-use climate and audio controls. And unlike some of the new luxury products you don't have to delve into the center screen to get to the heated and cooled seat controls.

But when you do have to access information in navigation-equipped cars, it must be done through an incredibly distracting touchpad controller. We call it forced distracted driving.

The base RC 350 starts at a well-equipped $43,715 including destination charge. Standard equipment includes 18-inch wheels with all-season tires, selectable drive modes, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, 10-way power driver's seat, leatherette premium vinyl upholstery, dual-zone climate control, real wood and aluminum trim, rearview camera, a 7-inch display screen, and a10-speaker sound system with satellite and HD radio. All-wheel drive is available for $2,235. (Note: It comes with a six-speed automatic transmission).

Here's the thing — Numerous desirable options are available including the aforementioned F Sport package, navigation and the variable ratio steering that can send the price rocketing into 50-grand-plus territory. Our test car with several options including F Sport carried a bottom line of $53,880.

Base price: $43,715; as driven, $53,880
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 306 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 277 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Drive: rear wheel
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 107.5 inches
Length: 184.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,748 pounds
Turning circle: 34.2 feet
Luggage capacity: 10.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.4 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 28 highway, 19 city, 22 combined
0-60: 5.7 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Cadillac ATS Coupe, BMW 4-Series, Audi A5

The Good
• Smooth V-6 performance
• Precise steering, excellent handling
• Top-quality interior materials

The Bad
• Lexus needs to rethink touchpad controller

The Ugly
• Lackluster performance for segment