From the cobbles of the Big Apple to a smooth circuit in the countryside, TG tests the 471bhp V8 Lexus to the limit
The pay-to-play binoculars were, as they always are, broken. The mechanism filled with as much chewing gum as change. But it didn’t matter. Standing at the top of the Perkins Memorial Tower at the summit of Bear Mountain, it was still possible to pick out the signature skyline view of Manhattan 40 miles away. The outline was all we needed to see anyway – we knew the place was half-empty.
That’s because it was a Saturday. The first day of the weekend, when the rat-race refugees and weekend warriors quit the Big Apple and head for the hills to sort out their work/life balance. They sit all day in their cubes, so they compensate by running or cycling up a mountain at the weekends. They eat crappy food during the week so they pound the kale on their days off. These people understand that compromises have to be made, but also that they don’t all have to be bad. So the sight of the Lexus RC F in their midst caused a stir. It’s not just the blue paint that attracted them. These people know cars, and they knew this was special – a car that can work quietly all week then play fast and loud at the weekends. “Whoa,” said one guy. “What a weapon!” And he’s right.
Words: Pat Devereux
Pictures: Lee Brimble
This feature was originally published in the October 2014 edition of Top Gear magazine.
The RC F is Japan’s missile aimed at the BMW M4, the Jaguar F-Type R, the Audi RS5 and the (new) Mercedes AMG C-Class. You don’t take on that lot lightly, but Lexus believes the RC F (the RC stands for Radical Coupe; the F for Fuji, as the power curve resembles the slope of the mountain) sits in its own niche within those ranks. Its USP, it reckons, is not vast power or unshakeable handling, it’s… driver friendliness.
The company reasons that while you might need a modicum of talent to extract the most from some of the German coupes, anyone with a driving licence can go fast in the RC F. So, to test this theory, and the ability of the RC F to meet its commitments in the ‘life’ part of the equation, we pointed the Lexus towards the Monticello Motor Club to see what it could really do.
Lexus has none of the stigma in the US that it has in the UK. Here, it’s regarded as a highly desirable luxury brand producing reliable and comfortable cars with great customer service. In the UK, it still has a slightly boring tinge to it. Or, rather, it did until the banzai IS-F arrived in a haze of tyre smoke, followed by the properly extraordinary, shiversome V10-engined LFA.
But as those two cars vanished from the line-up almost as rapidly as they could dispatch a set of tyres, it would be all too easy to suggest the range has gone soft and safe. Well, the RC F is clear evidence it hasn’t. Think of it as the love child of the LFA and IS-F, a two-door coupe that embodies the spirit and soul of the two-seater with the everyday practicality of the four-door IS-F. Or, what every GT86 wants to be when it grows up.
The RC F’s vital statistics make interesting reading. It uses the same block as the IS-F, but then everything else is sparklingly new. There’s more titanium, more efficiency and more power. Quite a lot more. Where the IS-F had 417bhp, the RC F manages to rustle up a very respectable (especially considering it’s still naturally aspirated) 471bhp. That’s more than the Audi and BMW but quite a lot less than the Jag and probably the new AMG. It’s quite a clever lump, too. When it’s cruising, it switches to an Atkinson cycle – as used in the Prius – that saves fuel. Then, when you stamp on it, everything switches back to the normal Otto sequence. You don’t need to know how that works, just that it does. There might be a slight change in engine pitch but, other than that, nothing.
What we very much could discern instantly was the change in the car’s character when we started playing around with the drive modes. Eco is suitably lazy and understated, the dials a sea of calming blue. But twist the dial to the right, and you enter Sport S mode as a red mist descends on the instruments. Another twist right, and you’re in Sport+. Then another, and you’re in manual control using the paddles.
In these last three settings, the car strains against its leash, waiting for the command from your right foot to go. Nothing pushy, just much more attentive to your needs. And just to make sure it doesn’t all end in a ‘Watch this!’ disaster the moment you unleash all the power, Lexus has snuck in, in a very techno-drenched Lexus way, another couple of electronic systems to help.
The first one is an optional electronic torque-vectoring differential – instead of the standard LSD – that has three modes: Standard, Slalom and Track. The first mode is a good everyday setting, the second is for B-roads and the third, as it suggests, works best on the circuit. This system is conjoined with the second box of tricks known as VDIM, or Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management. Think of this as a Premiership football manager for all the car’s systems.
This all-seeing disciplinarian has the ability to mediate any bust-ups between the RC F’s braking, engine-management and traction/stability players in four degrees of severity: Normal, Sport, Off and Off with Expert. The first three are self-explanatory, but the idea behind the fourth is that you can get a bit tasty and, if you overcook it, the car will help you clean up the mess you’ve got yourself in. That’s the driver friendliness Lexus was talking about.
All of this power and tech is draped over a revised version of the IS-F’s chassis that has been beefed up and braced in all the right places. Most of the changes are in the sheet steel, but the optional Carbon package adds a CFRP bonnet, roof and rear (active) spoiler. This saves around 10kg, which is handy but not enough to hide the fact the RC F is struggling a bit with its weight.
Fully loaded, even the lightest RC F squashes the scales to the tune of 1,765kg, which is a full 150kg more than the M4. And it’s not like the weight is equally distributed. With a 55 per cent front weight bias, you start to wonder if the RC F will have to be backed into corners on the throttle as much as the steering. Then you start to understand why it has all that electrical magic at its disposal. It doesn’t just want it; it needs it.
Or does it? With the gates of Monticello filling the RC F’s heavily raked windscreen, we were about to find out. This private racetrack is another, more extreme, work/life balance adjuster. Instead of £10k mountain bikes and a wardrobe of Lycra, the entry requirements are rather more exclusive. On any given weekend, you can hear the bark of a Radical, a Ferrari GTO, Jags of all shapes and sizes plus a myriad of other gorgeous exotica. If the RC F is serious, it needs to work here.
And to start with, it did. Slotting all the systems to their least effective mode, to find the real car underneath, I set out on a sighting lap of the damp track and was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a decent analogue feel to the steering. Ideally we want our coupes to be a limo during the week and a go-kart at the weekend, and the RC F was doing its best to comply. Pretty much anyone could have a few hero moments in it without getting into too much trouble.
The problems began when we started to do the type of driving most people would call ‘being an idiot’. First thing – it wouldn’t do a burnout. We tried and tried, but the computer, which we thought we’d shut off, just wouldn’t let it happen. So disappointment there. Then we tried to grab some quick cornering shots on an uphill hairpin before we got kicked off the circuit, and had a similarly puzzling managerial intervention again. Despite having everything as near off as possible and approaching the corner at exactly the same speed and angle each time, the RC F did something completely different each time. First time: perfect drift. Second time: perfect drift then chassis control kicked in. Third time: understeer. Fourth time: massive spin. All while trying to second-guess what’d happen despite everything being supposedly shut off. And all very odd.
We asked the engineer about this and the lack of burnout; he said it may have something to do with the yaw sensors. If the track isn’t totally flat, they can panic and set off the alarm bells that shut down or rein in various systems. None of which is a problem if you don’t want to drive like an idiot, but if you do, just make sure that the surface is flat or you could have similarly variable results.
Other than those odd traction issues, the rest of the car felt more than happy to play racers. Once we’d got a move on, the eight-speed ‘box started conducting the gears for us, dropping a couple of cogs before the apex, hanging onto the gear through the middle then firing you out of the corner in a blaze of sound synthesised glory. The brakes held up well and had plenty of strength to nail the turn-in points. And the suspension was unnoticeable, which is the definition of sorted.
So, with the circuit work over, it was time to head into Manhattan to see how the RC F could handle the ‘work’ part of the reckoning. There are few cities in the world that are tougher on cars than New York. The roads are a mix of cobbles and broken tarmac punctuated by wheel-swallowing holes and a web of cracks. There’s very little parking and what there is, is expensive.
Then there’s the sheer volume of traffic. With 1.5 million residents and another 1.5 million commuters fighting on and off the island each day, plus efficient (if smelly) alternatives to driving, you really need to want your car to make it worthwhile here. This is where the Lexus scores big time. The RC F is the first car in the Lexus range to have the full styling that justifies that crazy Predator spindle grille. The rest of the car is so swoopy and slick, the grille is just another feature in a suitably futuristic design that couldn’t be anything other than techno Japanese. It works.
As complex and aggressive as the exterior is, the interior is the opposite, a pool of simple calm and comfort, which soothes and supports as you cruise around the city. The seats are snug, comfortable and supportive, there’s plenty of technology to warn you of incoming danger, when reversing, parking or just inching through traffic, and the chassis does its best to mop up the horrendous road damage. It’s a comfortable place to watch the world go by (other than in the cramped rear seats), make your calls and tune out the outside noise, which is what you need here.
Driver friendly? Yep, pretty much. It might use some fearfully complicated electronic systems to make up for some of its chassis shortcomings, but they work perfectly on the road and almost perfectly on the track. That’s not a bad balance. The RC F also has enough soul to be interesting. It won’t blow an M4 into the weeds and will probably be ultimately outrun by a couple of the other hot coupes, but it’ll beat them all at one thing – being the best midsize Japanese coupe you can buy now.