Lexus is dreaming big again, and the 450-hp 2015 Lexus RC F shows that it means business. Audi RS5, BMW M4, and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, let’s see what you’ve got.
It seems like a dream as you’re blasting up the 412 highway from the Frankfurt -- Cologne autobahn. Actually, you know it is only a dream, but even so you’re thinking about filling up with high-test at the famous gas station across the road from the entrance to the track and then pulling up to the little tollbooth that will admit you onto the Nürburgring Nordschleife. You can almost feel this radical coupe under you, and it’s got a 450-hp V-8, a track-ready chassis, and big tires. And then it comes to you that you’re in a Lexus.
Whoa, you awake with a start. Is this a dream, or is it some kind of twisted nightmare? Really, a Lexus?
As we’re looking at the 2015 Lexus RC F in this photo studio in Los Angeles just a few weeks before the car’s unveiling at the 2014 Detroit auto show, we’re convinced that as dreams go, this is likely to be a good one. And it’s all the better because it will become reality in the fall when this high-performance evolution of the newly introduced 2015 Lexus RC350 goes on sale across the United States (and Europe, too).
The Lexus people are a little tired of being overlooked, as if they were some flyover state in the land of prestige brands. Back in 1989, their LS400 stomped the German prestige brands flat with new standards of comfort, drivability, and reliability, and yet Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz still dismiss Lexus with a casual wave of the hand, just as they did twenty-five years ago.
Instead of just sitting on its success in the American market, Lexus decided to make an international statement. The RC F is part of that statement, and it’s a message that has been on the way to us for a while. It wasn’t a coincidence when Toyota created its own Formula 1 racing team from scratch and hit the track in 2002, even before BMW and Mercedes-Benz bought pre-existing F1 teams. The Lexus LFA wasn’t just a high-tech toy when it debuted as a show car in 2005. The Lexus IS-F sedan wasn’t simply an imitation BMW M3 when it came on the market in 2008. By the time the LF-LC concept arrived at the 2012 Detroit show, it was clear that Lexus was serious about building sporty cars.
Now the production-ready RC F finally lies before us, although it’s wearing show-car colors and the specifications aren’t quite finalized. (RC stands for “radical coupe,” and F is a traditional Toyota code for special projects, notably the F1 that became the LS400.) We embrace the classicism of the rear-wheel-drive coupe’s proportions, the long, dramatic sweep of the hood matched with an upright cabin at the rear. The RC also has real style. The shape seems as if it’s interacting with the flow of air around it instead of simply pushing it aside, and you can almost see the vortices swirling off the sheetmetal.
While some dismiss this look as “origami styling,” we like its futuristic newness. In comparison, cars from the European nameplates often look as if they are simply different lengths of each brand’s corporate sausage. The upcoming Lexus RC350 has much the same look as this, yet the RC F is notably unique for its carbon-fiber roof and optional carbon-fiber rear wing. This is the largest version yet of the spindle grille that has become the signature of Lexus, and we can now see it and no longer hear Darth Vader saying, “Luke, I am your father.”
Within the RC F’s cabin, you find the same architecture as the RC350 in the sweep of the dash and the swoop of the center console. The F is set apart by the TFT display for the instruments, which allows you to change the array in a way that suits the moment, whether it’s street or speed.
Beneath the styling, the RC F gets tough. It’s built on a version of the Lexus IS platform, and the wheelbase has been made 2.8 inches shorter to match the 107.5-inch wheelbase of the outgoing IS-F sedan. The RC structure mixes high-strength steel, laser screw welding, and structural adhesives for optimum rigidity, while the F gets further structural braces for even more strength. Overall weight distribution is balanced toward the front, and it is not a bad strategy because it gives the car a surer sense of direction when the speedometer numbers start to get scary. The weight target is a rather husky 3970 pounds.
As with the IS, the RC has a control-arm suspension in front and a multilink setup in the rear, and the F iteration gets aluminum suspension arms and firmer bushings. Up front, you’ll find the six-piston brake calipers familiar from the old IS-F sedan, but you’ll also find thicker, larger 15.0-inch rotors. At the rear, new four-piston calipers are matched with thicker, larger 11.4-inch rotors. Forged-aluminum wheels with nine-inch rims carry high-performance 255/35YR-19 front and 275/35YR-19 rear Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires.
Of course, everyone really wants to know what’s under the hood. You’ll find the same cast-aluminum block that’s now doing business in the IS-F, but everything else about this DOHC 5.0-liter V-8 engine has been revised. Lightweight titanium valves are again matched with strong, forged connecting rods, but there are new cylinder heads that still incorporate variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams. The polished crankshaft is smaller in diameter to reduce friction, while the pistons reduce friction as well. Naturally the intake manifold and exhaust headers are new, and the exhaust barks with a sharper, louder note. The dynamometer numbers aren’t yet final, but we’re told that this engine spins faster than before to deliver at least 450 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque.
We shouldn’t be surprised that an eight-speed automatic transmission is part of the high-performance program, as it delivers the drivability Lexus wants as well as the necessary durability. It’s calibrated to lock up in second gear and above for crisper response, it delivers gearchanges from the shift paddles in less than 0.2 second, and it blips the throttle automatically for quicker downshifts. Just as important, the electronic programming for the transmission, chassis, and stability control includes no fewer than three modes suitable for track driving, plus there’s an optional torque-vectoring rear differential. The array of sensors that operates stability control even includes a rear-ride-height function for those times when, you know, the car is airborne after crossing a crest at the Nordschleife.
The benchmark for the RC F has been the Lexus IS-F CCS-R, the winged specialty car that Lexus raced at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 2012. RC F chief engineer Yukiko Yaguchi smiles conspiratorially at us during our video conference call with Toyota’s engineering center in Nagoya, Japan, as he notes that the RC F has been tested at Autopolis Circuit, Fuji International Raceway (which is owned by Toyota), the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and Willow Springs International Raceway in California. Even so, Yaguchi still says emphatically, “Our competitors tune their cars for track driving, and only expert drivers are comfortable. With RC F, the car shows outstanding performance on the circuit, but it is drivable for anyone, and you don’t need special skill to enjoy this car. It is about the human experience of the driving, not just the performance of the machine.”
The RC F fits into the ongoing transition of Lexus into a brand with more aspirational overtones. As Brian Smith, the brand’s marketing VP, tells us, the RC F supports the new Lexus F Sport models that have been rolling out, giving the brand a pyramid of premium cars for customers to climb. The RC F sits near the top of the pyramid, and we hear that a version of the supersporty LF-CC concept car is also on the way.
All this has much to do with Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota Motor Corporation since 2009 and a member of the board of directors since 2000. He embraced the LFA when it first appeared as a concept car, and he has been around the Nordschleife a few times himself. Toyoda has driven in endurance races staged at the Nürburgring several times since 2007, and he has become friends with Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin’s president, who also regularly races the Nordschleife. In fact, they swapped cars with one another in the last driving stint of a 2011 event, so Bez crossed the finish line in an LFA and Toyoda drove across in a V12 Zagato.
You might say that the dream of driving to the Nürburgring in a Lexus is Akio Toyoda’s own, and now, with the 2015 Lexus RC F, he wants to share it with us.
Evolution of the species
The changing shape of the Lexus coupe reveals a growing seriousness about performance.
1991 SC400: U.S.-designed coupe reinforces success of LS400 sedan.
2001 SC430: Hardtop convertible is great for golf, not for driving.
2005 LFA: Sports car concept introduces new look.
2012 IS-F CCS-R: Pikes Peak racer is benchmark for RC F tuning.
2012 LF-LC: LC concept displayed at Detroit and Sydney shows.
2013 RC350: New coupe with 314-hp V-6 appears at Tokyo show.