Second sports offering proves a heavy-hitter | by Andrew Frankel
Drove an LFA the other day. You remember: Lexus’ V10-powered two-seat supercar designed to prove that when it came to such things, it had little left to learn from Ferrari and Lamborghini? And save being able to sell them, Lexus was entirely right. When I first drove one four years ago the LFA instantly became one of my favourite supercars, and there was nothing more recent acquaintance did other than cement the fact in my mind. The car is a miracle.
I should then perhaps not have driven the second-most sporting car in its history – this brand new RC-F coupé – quite so swiftly in succession. To be fair, there’s not much point dwelling on the relative merits of a defunct supercar costing over £300,000 and a £60,000 answer to the BMW M4, but I’d hoped at least some of that character, that sense of specialness, had been handed down.
And, undoubtedly, some of it has. For a start just look at it: I think it’s even more striking in appearance than the LFA and capable of making the attractive M4 look really rather ordinary. It’s special inside, in the way you’d hope an expensive Japanese sports car might be: there’s lots of technologies to play with, an endless supply of interesting shapes to look at and a pervading sense of hefty quality. Hefty: that’s a word we’ll be returning to shortly.
On paper there’s more to suggest this might be the most exciting not-entirely-unaffordable Japanese sports car since the Honda NSX. Here you’d find news of a 5-litre, quad-cam V8 engine and the 470bhp it sends to the rear wheels alone, and without resorting to the sound-sapping, throttle response blunting turbochargers that do so much to lessen the driving experience offered by the M4. There’s even a Torsen differential in here.
What’s not to like? Well there’s no option of a manual gearbox, and while the paddles will shift through eight ratios, they do so not via double-clutch actuation, but a heavy, power-sapping torque converter. And talking of torque, the RC-F offers 391lb ft of it, but only after you’ve spun the engine to 4800rpm to find it.
None of which would matter too much if Lexus had concentrated as hard on keeping weight out of the RC-F as it has on keeping technical content in. But it has failed, or simply didn’t try. The RC-F weighs 1840kg and you can forget comparisons to an M4: a top-of-the-range, long-wheelbase, diesel-powered Jaguar XJ limo weighs less than that. It is, for want of a better word, hefty. And hefty cars with engines limited in low down torque always feel mismatched.
The RC-F is no exception. Apart from the irritatingly fiddly mouse-operated navigation system, there is nothing in the least unpleasant about gently wandering up the road in the RC-F. You attract lots of appreciative looks and the engine sounds excellent even in its gentlest ‘Eco’ setting where it switches from Otto to a quasi-Atkinson cycle to save juice. The ride is firm but pleasantly nuanced, while the steering doesn’t provide much feel but is well weighted and accurate. The dashboard also changes its design depending on which mode you have selected for it, but all the designs are interesting and appropriate to what you are trying to achieve.
And if that is enough to coax £60,000 from your pocket, then be my guest: the RC-F would make a rubbish long-distance cruiser because the fuel consumption is truly terrible even in cod-Atkinson ‘eco’ mode and because the sub-15-gallon fuel tank is simply inadequate. If you really don’t mind stopping frequently, it would provide endlessly easy and often quite engaging company.
But I want more than that from this kind of car. I want a two-plus-two coupé of such power and looks to really invigorate the driver, and to do so at a moment’s notice. At first it seems promising: you call up ‘Sport’ or even ‘Sport Plus’ mode, feel the throttle response sharpen beneath your foot and hear the exhaust note harden and deepen. It’s a unique sound, as if the bottom end had been designed in Detroit and the top somewhere near Maranello, and it’s none the worse for that.
So imagine the promise made by a car to your eyes and ears; and now imagine the disappointment when you discover it offers nothing more than merely a moderately engaging driving experience.
Given it has almost the same amount of power as a Ferrari F40 – and far more than a BMW M4 – it feels surprisingly slow. I don’t doubt the claimed 4.5sec 0-62mph time because the engine is undeniably strong in the upper reaches of its rev range and its lower ratios are short and close, but in the real world? Well, consider this: the M4 has a peak torque to weight ratio of 258lb ft per tonne available at just 1850rpm, the RC-F just 212lb ft per tonne and you’ll need 4800rpm on the clock to feel it. That is the prime differentiator between their respective performances.
It fares better in the corners, but perhaps only because I don’t quite trust the M4 on the limit. It is, shall we say, inclined to nip a bit. The RC-F is the reverse: it is your faithful friend offering just enough stabilising understeer to ensure you remain confident without sending you ploughing across the road. Which is good as far as it goes, but yet again it doesn’t go far enough. Much has been made of the car’s weight elsewhere and rightly so, for the kindest things you can say about its handling require qualification. Its handling is really very good, for a car weighing 1840kg. Really it should be at least a quarter of a tonne lighter.
A 1600kg RC-F would feel so much sharper, place less strain on its merely adequate brakes and, most of all, permit the engine to be retuned to provide torque where it was needed. And you could knock the power output all the way back to 400bhp to do so without affecting the power to weight ratio. Looking the way it does and with a sound to match, that is a car that would shake the M4 to its very core.
But as we know very well, it is far easier (and cheaper) to add power than remove weight, and that seems to be the choice made by its engineers.
The RC-F is not a bad car by any means but, to me at least, it is a slightly disappointing one. Or perhaps it is simply the right car in the wrong place, and that wouldn’t be the first time I’ve thought that about a Lexus. In the US where gas is cheap, boulevards long and corners in limited supply, it is easy to see the attraction of a car of such undeniable qualities. But on our roads its limitations are a little too apparent for it to be more than something to look at if you’ve already decided you don’t want an M4. And a new Mercedes-AMG C63 coupé will be here within a year equipped with the stupendous 503bhp V8 motor already seen in the AMG GT; it would be a brave man who wagered its arrival wouldn’t diminish the case for the RC-F further still.
Engine: 5.0 litres, 8 cylinders, normally aspirated
Power: [email protected]
Torque: 391lb [email protected]
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 168mph