2015 Lexus RC F

I didn't get a chance to drive the Lexus IS F until 2009, two years after the car had gone on sale, but I still vividly remember the day it happened. Having piloted almost every other vehicle in the Lexus lineup at that point, I was stoked to finally get some wheel time in the V8-powered, flared-fender muscle sedan, but fully expected the car to offer a quick, sanitized and ultimately un-driverly experience. Lexus built well-screwed-together, comfortable, quiet, reliable luxury cars for the timid, right?

As it turned out, I was 100-percent incorrect. When the premium brand's lauded "skunkworks team" crammed that massive V8 into the innocent IS, and then tuned the thing for competent hot laps at Fuji Speedway (F = Fuji, if you haven't heard), they seemingly forgot every brand value that Lexus had curated over the previous 20 years. It was raw and loud, had fast-twitch reflexes and a penchant for power slides, and it went unyieldingly across the road surface like a racecar cut loose from the paddock.

As far as Ur- models and origin stories go, the IS F and Lexus F has a pretty compelling, if new, set. A backdrop against which the sequel, this 2015 RC F, must inevitably be viewed. Sure, the otherworldly LFA may have intervened as the second F model, but the RC carries forward an evolution of the 5.0-liter V8 thumper, some shared body and chassis constructions, similar in-your-face design and a ticket price that's squarely in the mix for premium buyers with a hankering to smoke tires.

My question, to be answered on the roads around New York's Hudson River Valley and on the slithering Monticello Motor Club road course: Does this latest evolution of the Lexus F car still carry the Badass Gene?

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From the outside looking in, at least, the RC F can hardly be charged with lacking attitude. It's hard to find an angle on this big coupe that looks conventional or derivative of anything else on the market; complex, rounded surfaces abutted frequently with hard cut lines or jagged detail shapes. I found the rear-three-quarter view to be of particular interest, where light clusters stand proud of the bodywork and are fringed by a Z-shaped edge unlike anything I've ever seen.

The RC F can hardly be charged with lacking attitude.

As with every Lexus design of the past half-decade, though – with a special place reserved for the current IS – most of the criticism and critique of the RC shape will rest on its prominent prow. The boldest iteration yet of the Lexus spindle grille gapes at the front of the RC F, a chrome frame outlining the tremendous height and width of the maw. With its black, diamond-grate finish, and flanked by two huge vents, virtually the whole nose appears to be forever poised to gulp down fresh air.

Topped off with a hood that's basically one huge, vented power bulge, there's no question that the RC F looks pretty front-heavy. I would argue that this is most aggressive and confident penmanship of the Lexus Spindle Era to date, though I'd be shocked if the form didn't net out as one of the more polarizing in recent memory, too. Risk taking results in lovers and haters, after all.

Before judging the visual weight of the RC F front end though, remember that designers were looking to emphasize the humdinger of a V8 engine that lives under its arches. There is unquestionably IS F heritage in the 5.0-liter mill that powers the coupe, though engineers have really wrought a new motor on the basic block of the outgoing one.

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The V8 block now wears new cylinder heads and lighter internal components like a revised crank, forged connecting rods and titanium valves. Combined with a higher compression ratio (12.3:1 against the outgoing engine's 11.8:1), and a loftier redline (7,100 rpm vs. 6,800) the V8 produces 467 horsepower and 389 pound-feet of torque.

As the day wore on, the sweetness of the naturally aspirated engine became clearer.

The increase of 51 hp from the IS F's 416 is the headliner here, but don't dismiss the 18-lb-ft jump in torque, either. In addition to the higher output, the RC F develops max twist at 4,800 to 5,600 rpm, where the older engine needed 5,200 for full effect. In concert with a bigger throttle body and that faster-spinning engine, the lower torque peak means that the RC F pulled harder out of slow corners in my time at the track, and felt more than a beat quicker to shove me back in my seat than the IS F ever did.

No one should be shocked to hear me say it, but I really dig this 5.0-liter burner. During my first stint behind the wheel of the F – having recently driven a spate of high-output, turbocharged engines, mind you – I was a little nonplussed by the lack of instant torque response when compared with modern forced-induction powerplants. Yet as the day wore on, the sweetness of the naturally aspirated engine became clearer, and the rising, linear power curve, well matched with the close-ratio eight-speed transmission and the booming exhaust, wooed me.

That automatic transmission is a carryover from the IS F, with the same plusses and minuses as far as I'm concerned. A manual mode combines with three automatic programs – Normal (with its own Eco sub-mode), Sport and Sport+ – to accommodate a pretty wide variety of driving styles. Normal and Sport are both suitable for driving on public roads, with the occasional downshift via the steering wheel-mounted paddle for a quick passing maneuver or just to hear the exhaust open up and shred the atmosphere.

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The smallish Lexus shift paddles aren't ideal.

It might not be a common sight to see Lexus-badged cars on tracks outside of Japan, but I'm happy to say that the 8AT acquitted itself quite well around the nearly four miles and eighteen corners of Monticello. The Sport+ programming aggressively held gears or kicked down through them as needed based on my throttle inputs and speed in a lot of those corners, though it wasn't quite in sync with what I chose on my own when lapping in manual mode. Shifting for myself, I really appreciated that the RC F's instrument display boldly called out approach to the redline, as well as the tactical beep it offered a split second before that line was reached. That kind of audible reminder is a little annoying for street driving, but it's invaluable when learning a new track with a new car, and trying to optimize your lap.

Of course, in the heat of trying to shave time from one's personal record, shift paddles, if they're really meant to be used, should be easy to locate and get purchase on. The smallish Lexus shifters aren't ideal in this cause; more than once I found them a bit slippery when reaching for a quick downshift into a corner.

Better design in terms of sporting application can be found in the two front chairs of the RC F, which are unique to this F model, extremely soft and gripping, and in my eyes pretty spectacular to behold. Deeply sculpted bolsters are present to keep ones legs, hips, torso and even shoulders firmly ensconced. There's a tremendous range of adjustment available, too, including provision for my near six-and-a-half feet to sit comfortably close to the wheel while wearing a helmet.

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I found the RC interior, like the IS, to be modern and sleek.

There are rear seats, of course – two of them – but I didn't find a situation desperate enough to put them to use. With some six inches of legroom less than competitors like the BMW M4 and Mercedes-Benz C63 offer (27.3 inches total for the Lexus), these are some cramped confines, make no mistake.

As for the styling and substance of the rest of the interior, I'm still on board with what is essentially carryover interior design from the 2014 IS, with added swaths of leather and padding thrown in for luxuriant measure. I found the RC interior, like the IS, to be modern and sleek with matte and brushed finishes, a unique horizontally oriented dash, and controls that were easy to parse. Two small caveats here: the infotainment display is smaller than the screen that houses it, which is both odd and infuriating. Second is that, though the new touchpad interface is an improvement from the Lexus mouse controller, it still suffers from lag and latency issues that would doom even a bottom-feeder smartphone.

Thankfully, I had a lot more fun controlling the RC F with its steering wheel than I did its infotainment system. This is a responsive, nimble, sharp-handling coupe that really does complement its driver when pushed. A lot of this is down to a sophisticated adaptive suspension and some new trickery with an electric-motor-enhanced, torque-vectoring rear differential.

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Even beyond the effects of the new diff, the RC F is a very effective tool for moving quickly.

The RC F suspension consists of a double-wishbone front and multi-link rear setup, with quite a lot done to stiffen and lighten components relative to the standard RC. Springs, dampers, bushings, steering knuckle, control arms and more are either new or redesigned for the more powerful, better handling F car.

The torque vectoring differential (TVD) will be optional as part of the RC F performance package, and was clearly the piece of tech that the Lexus folks were most excited to show off. TVD makes use of two small electric motors, two multi-plate clutches and a set of planetary gears for each driveshaft. The diff can make adjustments every thousandth of a second, distributing engine torque intelligently to each rear wheel – even if the driver is off the accelerator – creating a rather seamless delivery of power to the outside wheel when cornering. If that's not fancy enough, TVD has three modes to choose from – Normal, Slalom and Track – with Slalom optimized for quick steering response and Track for "high-speed circuit driving."

How does all of it work? On the track, I first switched the RC F into Sport+ mode (which, in addition to changing the transmission and throttle mapping, loosens up traction control, stability control and ABS intervention), and then experimented by lapping in various TVD modes. After I had half-a-dozen laps under my belt and was lapping with reasonable consistency, it became very clear that the trick differential was offering tangible benefits in longer, high-speed corners, and in allowing me to push quickly and smoothly out of tight bends. The application of power never felt like 'intervention' on that part of the car, so much as it complimented me as a driver. By way of increments, I was smoother through and around each part of the track, and probably a bit quicker from point to point.

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It's less of a glorious bastard and more of a grownup.

Even beyond the effects of the new diff, the RC F is a very effective tool for moving quickly. Steering offers some light levels of communication, but with excellent stability and more rapid response than you might anticipate from a two-ton coupe. The car transitioned from corner to corner with a lot of grace and grip, allowing me to really deploy all that power in a confident manner.

Lexus made a big deal of the fact that performance from the RC F is truly accessible, and I think the automaker really nailed that. Unlike the rather barbaric IS F, the new coupe really will allow a driver to learn how to go fast, without much fear of being bitten by a sudden, overwhelming shot of power and loss of grip from the rear tires.

With that said, those looking for a two-door successor to the gnarly IS F experience should probably look elsewhere. In addition to being far more compliant and mellow over bad roads and broken surfaces, the RC F simply doesn't want to play as aggressively as did its older sibling. Even when I turned all of the electronic controls off, the coupe remained pretty neutral and planted in corners, unless I deliberately worked to make the rear end step out. Where the IS F was not only happy to drift through hard corners, but prone to it, the RC offers a much more balanced setup. To me, that's a huge win for the development team, even if it results in a car that's slightly more mainstream, less idiosyncratic. Less of a glorious bastard and more of a grownup – I trust that a lot of you will understand why that makes me both happy and sad.

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With cars like this RC F lighting the way for future fast Lexuses, I'm encouraged to believe that company has a profitable, sustainable road ahead.

One unequivocal positive for the RC F is the way Lexus has priced it relative to its main competition from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi (the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe deserves a mention here, too, even though it's on its way out the door). With a starting price of $62,400, the RC F undercuts the C63 AMG Coupe by $1,200, the M4 by $1,800 and the RS5 by a huge $8,500. Now, just exactly how that group would fare in a head-to-head performance comparison is open for interpretation – all are exceptional vehicles, to be sure – but I can say that the RC F belongs in the conversation, especially with that compelling sticker.

When you look back at the history of other performance divisions from premium brands, it's very often the case that the earliest cars are the ones we remember most fondly. That's both human nature, to love that which is in our past, and because the genesis of new sporting vehicles is always exciting for enthusiasts. As the archetype and progenitor of the F program, I will always have a flame burning for the slightly ludicrous IS F that launched it.

But, with cars like this RC F lighting the way for future fast Lexus products, I'm encouraged to believe that company has a profitable, sustainable road ahead. That means more great drives for all of us, and, critically, the promise of continued excitement from a traditionally staid company. Edgy, fun, fast... Lexus. I'll just let that sink in for a moment.