Lexus is in a state of change. A big and rapid state of change. Chained to a reputation of making bland, sedate, albeit reliable luxury sedans and SUVs, the company put its entire brand image into upheaval in 2013. The first culprit was the new-for-2014 RC Coupe, which with its sprawling grille and colliding design philosophies (angular and aggressive versus flowing and smooth) thrust Lexus into a new chapter of its life. Regardless of what one thought of the car at the time, it worked; people were talking about Lexus in a way they never really had before.
Since then, the RC has changed little, with its most substantive changes happening under the hood. Originally available in hybrid form, that model was quickly phased out and the snarling V8-powered RC F took its place at the head of the table. Despite the small market size for luxury coupes, the RC competes in a stocked pond: Among its rivals are the BMW 4-Series, Mercedes C-Class Coupe, Cadillac ATS Coupe, Porsche 718 Boxster and Cayman, the Audi A5, a fully-loaded Honda Accord EX-L, and even the base model Jaguar F-Type. It’s important to be distinctive among that company, and fortunately, the Lexus is.
If it were as simple as a beauty pageant, the Lexus would certainly stand out at the very least. However, there’s so much more that’s required in order to be truly competitive in the RC’s segment. We took Lexus’ mid-level model to what could essentially be its home turf — Chicago’s North Shore — to find out, and after a few days with one, we’re convinced that it is.
When it debuted in 2013, the RC brought with it the new face of Lexus design. It … uh, didn’t go over very well in every camp, and the brand was lambasted for its gaping grille and over-styled features that bordered on being cartoonish. Lexus meant for the RC to generate emotion, and it certainly did that. The new styling language immediately split its fans into camps, but regardless of what they thought of it, one thing was clear: Lexus was done playing it safe. Three years after that reveal, Lexus has doubled down on its design language, which to its credit, is starting to mature incredibly well.
The Lexus RC 350 is the ambassador of this new design language, and as such, contains every new trope in the Lexus playbook. It has the over-emphasized grille, its large, protruding side skirts, the black whisker accenting, and sharp, angular lines that weave in and out of soft, flowing ones. On paper it shouldn’t work, and even in photos, the Lexus looks like a mishmash of design strategies that were were assembled by an algorithm.
In person, however, that all changes completely. Those themes give the RC immense presence, whether on the road or sitting still. The angular lines work well in harmony with the flowing curves, and despite the contrast of design cues — sharp corners and round, bubbly edges for instance — the RC has a genuine sense of coherence across its exterior.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Although it’s busy, the exterior design language has a smooth, flowing unanimity to it. Overall, the RC coupe is well-proportioned and wears its styling well.
+ Its bold design will ensure you’ll never lose your RC in a parking lot — something that would have been impossible to say about the Lexuses of old.
+ Silver might be one of the most anonymous colors you can get on a car, but the Atomic Silver on the RC 350 has some gorgeous depth to it and a nice off-silver hue that sets it far apart from rental-spec specials.
– The Lexus design language has its passionate fans — but also some ardent haters. Such is the price of being bold.
– The hooked LED running lights up front is a brave design strategy, but they look detached from the smooth, flowing form of the rest of the car.
– It’s easy to argue that the RC is over-styled, but based on what we’ve seen with the LC500, the language should mature well over time.
In the RC 350 trim, the 3.5 liter V6 produces a stout 306 horsepower thanks to help from both port- and direct-injection. That’s channeled through an eight-speed automatic to the rear wheels, and all-wheel drive is optional (though our tester wasn’t equipped). Because there’s no turbo, throttle response is crisp and snappy, and the engine loves to rev. At the top end, there’s plenty of pull for the occasional freeway pass, and that eight-speed transmission is a gem — it always seemed to know exactly what gear to call on next, with little or no hesitation, which kept acceleration smooth and linear.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ The 3.5 liter V6 is smooth, responsive, and works harmoniously with the excellent eight-speed automatic.
+ At higher revs, the V6 seemed happy to reciprocate and never once felt burdened when the pedal was down.
+ Because it’s naturally aspirated, throttle response is crisp and linear, engine architecture is simpler and more reliable, and the transmission never once felt as though it had to search for a gear.
– Although higher MPGs are certainly possible, we observed figures in the low-20s ballpark. Not unexpected, but not fantastic.
– The 2GR-FSE V6 is a fantastic engine, but it’s getting old and could benefit from some updated engine architecture.
There’s an unusual charm in Lexus’ new interiors. Though they are thoroughly modern, there’s an indescribable old-world feel that exudes from the leather-swathed cabin. It’s not the analog clock, or any physical thing at all, really — just a sort of sensation that the format is a culmination of years of automotive design history. It’s very pleasant. It almost feels like the cabin was designed in a “when,” not a “where.”
That the analog clock is a strange addition that feels out of place then speaks to how fine the dichotomy is between the classic feel and actual, modern physicality of the cockpit. I’m generally a fan of analog clocks, and some cars (Bentley Bentayga, any Rolls-Royce made ever) just don’t feel right without it. But in the Lexus, it almost feels too Anglophilic. This would be more at home in Lexus’ former sedate design language, but sticks out in its current Anime-esque sheetmetal.
The RC, like the GS, takes immense pride in its interior. The fit-and-finish is precise and locked-in; it would be a task trying to slide a piece of paper between the tolerances of the various materials. The seats are comfortable and supportive, and everything is within easy reach. It’s a car you can spend lots of time in and truly enjoy it before emerging feeling refreshed, not fatigued. Our car came with the optional $220 winter package, which includes a high-intensity cabin heater — that certainly came in handy during our review, when the average temperature in Chicago was struggling to break 30. Lexus has changed immensely in the last few years; the core Lexus tenet of comfort has not.
Interior pros and cons
+ Supple leather, tasteful wood and aluminum accents, sturdy plastics, and a near-complete absence of piano-black glossy plastics make the cabin a fine place to spend some time.
+ The steering wheel is meaty and burly, giving the driver more of an impression that you’re in something special.
+ There are two USB outlets, a deep center console, and all the buttons are within easy reach of the driver.
– Many of the smaller buttons feel cheaper and don’t have that satisfying “click” when pushed like the larger buttons on the center console do.
– Almost everything on our tester was an honest-to-god physical switch or button, except for the haptic-feedback temperature controls, which can be fussy — and we don’t think they’ll age particularly well.
Tech and safety
The Lexus RC is at least available with all the accoutrements and tchotchkes that luxury buyers have come to expect from a luxury car. Our tester was loaded with blind-spot monitoring and alerts, pre-collision avoidance, the Lexus Enform system and all of its additions (the app suite, safety connect, theft locator, etc.). Our experience with Enform was consistent with what we’ve had in the past (most recently on the Lexus GS) — namely that it’s cumbersome and not very intuitive, with weird requirements like needing the Lexus Enform mobile app to activate the car’s GPS system. We figure this is the direction that vehicles are heading in, but what was wrong with sliding in behind the wheel and having the navi boot up with the rest of the car?
The 2016 model year RC (ours is a ’17) did exceptionally well in safety testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, scoring “Good” in every major category including the notoriously difficult small frontal overlap collision test. Its headlights, a more recent addition to the safety testing process, were rated as “Acceptable,” and if you have small kids, be ready to struggle with the car seat tie-downs — they only achieved a “Marginal” rating from the IIHS.
Tech pros and cons
+ Though it’s loaded down with tech and all manner of driving nannies, we never felt as though they inhibited or somehow cheapened the driving experience.
+ Lexus’ blind-spot monitoring system is useful and very helpful without being one of those alarmist systems that goes off as if the end of the world is occurring.
+ The adaptive cruise control on our tester worked smoothly and flawlessly. No jerky slowing/accelerating to keep the car in line.
– Lexus offers connected navigation, but you need to download the Lexus Enform app and open an account in order to use it.
– The MID offers immense amounts of information, but to the point that it’s almost too much. For the space between the gauges, less can sometimes be more.
In the corners, the RC is planted and firm no matter the driving mode. There’s enough immediate throttle response and torque to get the tires chirping on the exit as well, and the factory traction control settings are effective but let the driver have some fun before bringing the hammer down. Forget Lexus’ reputation of being sedate and numb; especially forget Top Gear’s shellacking of Lexus’ last sports-car-for-the-common-man SC430. The Lexus RC 350 is genuinely fun to drive.
There’s no getting around that the V6 isn’t the most powerful engine, and it’s a poor substitute for someone looking for a cheaper way to get around buying the full-blown F. Though it has significant pull during highway passing and is perfectly happy at the higher end of the RPM spectrum, it seems more lethargic off the line as it tries to move the RC’s nearly 4,000-pound bulk. That’s less of a fault of the powertrain and more attributed to the coupe’s heavy-set nature; it’s a similar story with the more-powerful F.
However, the RC 350 strikes an almost perfect balance between letting your cravings for immature driving moments fly and the actual, real-life needs of a daily driver. The cabin is smooth and serene at virtually any speed, and the RC can sit comfortably at 65 to 70 miles an hour and return decent fuel economy in the high 20s. It stays composed through twisting turns, and the firm brake feel is consistent whether you’re slowing in stop-and-go traffic or coming in hot off a freeway off-ramp.
It might not have a burbling V8 or torquey V12 à la Aston Martin or Bentley, but don’t let that — or the price — fool you: The RC is as much a grand touring car as they are and for about 20% of the price.
Wrap up and review
The RC 350 plays an important mid-level role in its family: Because it’s bookended by the entry-level 200t and M- and AMG-fighting RC F, it is statistically likely to become the most popular. Fortunately, it’s up to the task. The 350 is a compromise between the two, but it doesn’t feel that way. Buyers can opt for better performance than the 200t, but without sacrificing as much fuel economy — or money — as they would if they went to the top of the food chain. On paper it’s the compromising model slipped between the two as a placater for mainstream America, but in reality it’s the OG: Drivers will have to actually compromise more by not taking the middle road.
I really enjoyed my time with the RC 350. It boasts more character than a single Lexus model has ever had (save maybe for the LFA), and at $48,000 for our tester (base price is $43,010), it falls in a reasonable price bracket that’s both competitive with its rivals and not high enough that it will turn buyers away in disgust. The Lexus Enform system needs work, but not so much that it should dissuade you from at least checking one out. Provided you’re one of the few drivers who doesn’t require a Swiss Army car and can manage to daily a coupe, the Lexus is well worth a look. Buyers will be rewarded with one of the most reliable cars in its segment, and we’re happy to report that that’s no longer one of Lexus’ top-selling points. The RC 350 offers so much more.