MONTICELLO, N.Y. -- Lexus is counting on its new 2015 RC 350 sports coupe to take on BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz in a segment dominated by the German luxury brands.
And that may be the easy part of the car’s mission.
The automaker is also looking for the RC and its track-worthy variant, the RC F, to redefine what Lexus stands for. “We want to make a bold statement,” said Brian Smith, vice president of Lexus marketing. The RC is intended to “change the face of Lexus.”
Since its U.S. launch a quarter century ago, Lexus has stood for quality, refined engineering and an outstanding customer experience. That combination has had a powerful appeal to baby boomers, but as that generation ages, Lexus must find a way to reach buyers who are now entering their 40s and peak earning years.
And Lexus understands that pleasing these consumers requires a little excitement to go with sterling build quality and quiet cabins. “We want a more emotional connection with our cars,” Smith said. “If you want people to fall in love with your cars, it has to be about more than quality. That didn’t happen with a lot of Lexus products in the past.”
The basics: The RC isn’t simply a coupe version of the IS sport sedan, but a unique platform based on the front structure and suspension of the Lexus GS and the center and rear underbody of the IS. The result is a platform that’s significantly stiffer than that of the IS.
The RC 350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, is available in rear- or all-wheel drive, and comes with the same eight-speed, direct-shift transmission used in the IS F performance sedan (the awd RC 350 has a six-speed transmission).
The higher-performance RC 350 F Sport features variable suspension that adapts to road and driving conditions, variable-gear-ratio steering for quick handling and a sport-plus mode for especially spirited driving. Its signature technology is a rear-wheel steering system: At speeds up to 50 mph, the rear wheels turn slightly in the opposite direction of the front wheels, for tighter turns. Above 50 mph, they turn with the front wheels for agile changes of direction.
The RC F is a step up from there, a sports coupe built for the track, with a 5.0-liter V-8 that puts out 467 hp and 389 pounds-feet of torque (0-to-60 time is 4.4 seconds). For dynamic handling, the RC F has a Torsen rear differential that directs torque to the outside wheel in cornering. An even more aggressive torque-vectoring differential powered by a pair of electric motors is optional.
The RC F will compete with the BMW M4, Audi RS5 and Mercedes C63 AMG, and Lexus sees it as a critical element of its strategy. Although these high-performance models make up only about 6 percent of total sports coupe volume, they define what their brands stand for.
Notable features: It takes only a glance to see this is a different kind of Lexus. A low and wide design, long nose and short deck give the car an athletic stance. Narrow, angled headlights and a spindle grille create an aggressive face. For those accustomed to the vanilla Lexuses of the past, the RC is a head-turner.
The rear-steer feature on the F Sport takes some getting used to. At first it feels like the car is sliding when it’s not supposed to. But once the driver gets the hang of it, cornering becomes pleasingly crisp.
What Lexus says: Lexus officials aren’t pushing the idea that the RC 350 or RC F will outperform their German competitors. Instead, they are counting on luring customers by offering a car with a dual personality. “You get a very livable performance car that you can drive every day, and it’s also really capable on the track,” Smith said.
Shortcomings and compromises: While the direct-shift transmission is quick and responsive, Lexus could have made a bolder statement for driving enthusiasts by debuting the car with a dual-clutch gearbox. But stay tuned.
In manual mode, the driver pushes the RC’s shift lever forward to upshift and pulls back to downshift -- the opposite of what is intuitive for many. A final nit to pick: The RC has a foot-operated parking brake. For a car of this stature, an electric parking brake seems more appropriate.
The market: Lexus is targeting buyers in their 40s earning more than $120,000 a year and said it expects to sell about 15,000 RC 350s a year, with F Sport versions making up as much as half of the total. It’s an ambitious target. Through July, BMW has sold 12,789 4-series coupes, Autodata says, and its volume is helped by some four-cylinder variants in addition to the V-6s.
Lexus aims to sell about 2,500 RC Fs annually. The target demographic is slightly older and wealthier.
The skinny: The RC is a blast to drive. The car more than impressed in a day of driving around the twists and turns at the Monticello Motor Club during a media event here. But Lexus hasn’t traditionally appealed to performance-driven customers, and the idea that the RC models can turn ordinary drivers into track enthusiasts may be a stretch. Plus, going up against the likes of the BMW 435i, Mercedes C350 and Audi S5 is a tall order.