Editor's note: This review was written in August 2015 about the 2015 Lexus RC 350. Two additional engines have been introduced in the 2016 RC 200t and RC 300, but little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2016, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Lexus' first coupe since 2000, the 2015 RC 350 is an alluring new addition to the luxury coupe class. The best version is undoubtedly the base RC 350 with the F Sport option package.
The RC 350 reviewed here is the foundation for all RC variants; the top of the line is the RC F, which is reviewed separately. Don't confuse the RC F with the F Sport Package, the latter of which can be added to the RC 350 to form something of a middle trim level. It has performance upgrades of its own, but shares the base 350's V-6 engine. The RC F has a V-8.
At the base price, the RC 350 competes with the likes of the Audi A5, BMW 428i and Cadillac ATS 2.0T, but its standard 306-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 is more aligned with the Audi S5 (333 hp), BMW 435i (300 hp) and ATS 3.6L (321 hp). Add the F Sport Package, and the RC 350's price rivals that of the base 435i and ATS 3.6L. See the base models side by side here and the uplevel versions here.
Like BMW and Cadillac, Lexus offers its coupe with rear- or all-wheel drive. The Audi A5 and S5 are all-wheel-drive only. I drove a few different 350s, with both drivelines and a variety of options that change the car's performance flavor.
Exterior & Styling
Lexus' new styling direction is polarizing, but that's not a bad thing. So long as there are two poles — people who like as well as dislike a design — the car can sometimes sell better than one that evokes no strong reaction in either direction. Those who are opposed to Lexus' bold hourglass grille might be relieved to see the base RC 350's nose is considerably more understated. The F Sport Package blows it out with an aggressive front end that's almost indistinguishable from the RC F model. (Larger brake-cooling ducts in the front bumper are an RC F exclusive.)
Nineteen-inch wheels are also included, replacing the standard 18-inchers.
How It Drives
Right away, astute drivers will recognize the RC's rigid structure, which characteristically lends a feeling of quality and improved handling. Sometimes automakers call existing platforms new or decline to disclose their origin, especially for new models, but Lexus kindly explains that it borrowed architecture for the RC from the larger GS sedan, the compact IS sedan and also the IS C, the convertible version that characteristically has additional reinforcement.
The 3.5-liter V-6 is a high point, providing stout acceleration, and the standard eight-speed automatic transmission makes the torque peak of 277 pounds-feet more effective than I expected at its relatively high 4,800 rpm. The car hits 60 mph in less than 6 seconds with rear-wheel drive and sounds mighty good in the process.
Though the rear- and all-wheel-drive versions both offer F Sport, I drove an all-wheel-drive 350 without the package. It definitely rode the most comfortably of the three cars, even though it was equipped with the optional 19-inch wheels. It did exhibit more body roll than the other versions, and the all-wheel drive pairs only with a six-speed automatic; having two fewer gears and more than 140 additional pounds, this is the least quick version, sacrificing a couple tenths of a second in the sprint to 60 mph.
It also loses an EPA-estimated 2 mpg on the highway and 1 mpg combined versus the rear-drive car's 19/28/22 mpg city/highway/ combined estimate. The Lexus' standard V-6 puts it behind automatic versions of the A5 (25 mpg combined), 428i (27 mpg) and base ATS (24 mpg).
With their upgraded engines, the competitors compare to the RC 350 in mileage. The S5 gets 21 mpg combined and the ATS 3.6L gets 22 mpg, but the 435i beats them all with an estimated 25 mpg combined. All the cars call for premium gas except the ATS 3.6L, which uses regular.
The all-wheel-drive RC felt reasonably sporty, due in part to the driveline's 30/70 front/rear torque bias, which retains the balanced feel of rear-wheel drive. The six-speed behaved better than the eight, with minimal hesitation when jabbing the pedal to kick down to a lower gear.
Lexus cites shift times for the RC's eight-speed that are admirably fast for a conventional torque-converter automatic (rather than a dual-clutch automatic like Audi and BMW use). It shifts quickly from one gear to the next — when it shifts — but occasionally hesitates too long before doing so when you jab the pedal in an automatic mode.
For this reason I thought the eight-speed was at its best during manual shifting and in its more aggressive automatic Drive Mode Select modes, like Sport S and (with F Sport) Sport S+. Decent automatic modes are a necessity with an eight-speed automatic, as having eight gears proves tedious when shifting manually. Sadly, a true, three-pedal manual transmission isn't offered, as it is on some versions of the Audi, BMW and Cadillac.
The RC 350's driving modes, which also include Eco and Normal, do a decent job of varying the throttle response, transmission shift points, power steering assist and — when fitted with the F Sport Package — ride firmness, courtesy of an adaptive suspension system that combines with the lower-profile tires for a considerably firmer ride than the base RC 350's, even in the softer setting. All the same, it's still reasonably comfortable for a car of this type. (Ostensibly the top performer, the RC F sacrifices this feature, resulting in a ride we found unduly firm. It's not just about firmness; adaptive suspensions read conditions and adjust automatically. Strange that it vanishes in the performance model.)
On the street, the RC 350 F Sport has a sporty feel even in normal driving — something many Lexuses have lacked. Where the RC F has a squirrely rear end, the 350 F Sport's chassis is up to the task of keeping the less-powerful car from sliding around too much. Note that the F Sport treatment changes the tires from all-seasons to summer tires. The latter are hazardous in winter driving, so even if you're getting all-wheel drive with F Sport, plan to swap out for winter tires then switch back again to suit the season — or see if the dealer will work with you to buy all-seasons up front (they're technically not a factory option with F Sport).
In addition to suspension changes, the F Sport version is eligible for an optional $1,900 steering upgrade in the form of Variable Gear Ratio Steering plus four-wheel steering. Available only with rear-wheel drive, this system adds both a few degrees of rear-wheel steering and variable front steering ratio. This isn't a change in off-center steering responsiveness that comes from the way the teeth are laid out on the steering rack; that's pretty common. With VGRS, turning the steering wheel the same amount can result in greater or lesser steering angle, depending on speed and the driving mode.
For a car with all this steering trickery, it got around a racetrack nicely. The ratio seemed appropriate at different speeds, and the rear-wheel steering seemed to let the car turn a sharper corner. I'd need more time in the car to be sure, but the steering feel with VGRS wasn't bad. BMW had a similar system years ago and it proved terribly unpopular, mainly because it deadened steering feedback (at a time when the regular steering had better feedback than BMWs have now … ).
For handling, I still give the edge to the 4 Series and ATS. The A5 is less impressive in this regard, with numb steering.
My impression is mixed about the RC's brakes because my experience varied, especially from my first drives (positive) to the cars we tested extensively later on (less so). I credit Lexus for legitimate upgrades, though: The front brake rotor diameters increase from 13.15 inches to 14.06 inches in the F Sport to 14.96 inches in the RC F. The RC F also has larger calipers. Initially, they all provided excellent linearity on both application and release and had good pedal feel. Later versions, though, were less linear and had a spongier pedal.
The RC 350's comfortable base seats are upholstered in imitation leather. This is the norm, but the Audi and Infiniti are notable exceptions. Real leather sometimes comes on higher trim levels, like the ATS 3.6L, but usually it's optional, as it is in the RC 350's Luxury Package — which costs almost $3,000. The F Sport Package brings sport seats (leather still optional) that are uncommonly comfortable for their type.
F Sport also adds a powered tilt/telescoping perforated steering wheel, aluminum pedals and a nifty instrument panel with a single multifunction gauge that motors to the side to present a larger display when you press a button. Do you need this gimmick? No, but as motorized doohickies go, it seems to satisfy people.
The RC 350 has a luxury interior, complete with some interesting trim options — including one that looks like marble — and some bold interior color options, like Rioja Red. But we found fault, too, partly due to inconsistency among the materials. The upholstered gauge hood is nice, but there's a lot of rubbery stuff on the dash, as well as on the window sills, where you'd prefer padding on which to rest your arm. To me, the gray plastic of the center console seemed like it belonged on a cheaper car.
Quality is about feel, sound and interaction, too, and there's no separating the car's interior quality from the experience of its touchpad-based control system, which seems to be universally loathed (more details in the next section).
Despite being an inch or so longer than the others externally, some of the RC 350's interior dimensions are smaller. Most important, rear legroom is from 4.4 to 6.4 inches shy of the other cars. The Infiniti Q60 is closest, and it has 2.5 inches more. That car is also the only car with less backseat headroom than the RC 350, by fractions of an inch. The ATS has 0.3 inch more and the other main competitors have roughly an inch more.
Fortunately, coupe buyers are usually less interested in backseat use, and the RC 350's front-seat headroom is on par with the S5's. It trails the 4 Series by 0.8 inches and beats the ATS by 1.4 inches. The Lexus creams the others in front legroom by about 3 to 4 inches.
There's one anomaly to note: In cars with the optional all-wheel drive, the front passenger's footwell is crowded by a hump that's incorporated to accommodate the additional drive hardware.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Lexus will find no greater sympathizer than me for its Remote Touch Interface. Absent my preferred touch-screen, I like the idea of random access — the ability to move a pointer to an onscreen button or keyboard selection rather than scrolling through menus with a rotary knob, like the German brands require. When Lexus introduced its Remote Touch Interface, I was the only Cars.com editor who liked it (see the video tour). Unfortunately, it's been redesigned twice since then and each time it's been degraded. Now, equipped with a touchpad, it's a huge turnoff to me and a confirmed deal-breaker for some shoppers. (The upcoming 2016 Lexus RX has a system that looks a lot like the original version, perhaps acknowledging the problems.)
We've found the touchpad interface even harder to use in a firm-riding car like the RC 350 F Sport (and especially the RC F). Lining up and activating, say, a zoom button on the map without instead clicking on the map itself proved nearly impossible.
If you want to skip RTI, you'll have to live without the navigation system as well, which comes for as little as $1,530 in the optional Navigation System Package and is also included in more extensive packages.
The standard audio system includes an AM/FM/CD player, two USB ports, an analog aux-in jack, and Bluetooth wireless audio streaming and hands-free telephone support. The included satellite radio requires a subscription after 90 days. The optional Mark Levinson multichannel audio system more than triples amplifier power and almost doubles the speaker count.
The optional Enform App Suite adds internet radio stations including iHeartRadio, Pandora and Slacker, plus other apps that seem superfluous if you carry a smartphone: Bing, Yelp, Facebook Places, Movietickets.com, OpenTable, Stocks, Fuel Prices and Sports.
With a subscription for separate Enform functions — Lexus Enform Safety Connect with Enform Remote — owners can remotely start and unlock their RC using a smartphone.
Cargo & Storage
With 10.4 cubic feet of volume, the RC 350's trunk is near the bottom of the pack, along with the ATS. The A5 has 12.2 cubic feet, and the 428 cleans up with 15.7 cubic feet. The Q60 has a surprisingly snug 7.4 cubic feet.
Just as important, the RC 350 has folding rear seats — a feature sacrificed in the RC F. The Audi, BMW and Caddy all have folding seats standard.
In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash tests, the 2015 Lexus RC coupe is a star, earning the top rating of good in all tests. Its optional collision warning and avoidance system is classified as advanced, one step below the top score of superior.
Where the institute categorizes the RC as a large luxury car, it classifies the BMW 3 Series as midsize. The 4 Series coupe shares frontal results with the sedan, which earned a disappointing rating of marginal (out of a possible poor, marginal, acceptable or good) in the small overlap front crash test. The coupe hasn't been tested separately for side and other crashes. Its optional forward collision warning and avoidance system is rated advanced.
The new ATS hasn't been tested yet, but IIHS rates its optional collision warning and avoidance system superior.
The RC 350 offers a backup camera only in navigation packages, but front and rear parking sensors come as a stand-alone option. Optional blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert comes alone or in packages.
See all the RC 350's safety features listed here.
Value in Its Class
In its base form, the RC 350 is reasonably well equipped, with standard features such as LED headlights, keyless access with push-button start, heated side mirrors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and HomeLink universal remote control. All-wheel-drive versions add heated front seats standard.
Its V-6 power is what helps justify a starting price roughly $2,000 to $5,000 above the base versions of the A5, 428i and ATS 2.0T. If you value that power, the RC 350 undercuts the S5, 438i and ATS 3.6L by comparable amounts. The F Sport Package version puts the RC 350 on the most equal ground with the latter group. If there's a downside to the RC's big base engine, it's that buyers who care less about power don't have a lower-cost option.
Considering the whole lineup, including the RC F, the RC 350 F Sport seems the best version, for its balance of performance, features and price.
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