When Lexus dropped off an RC 350 F SPORT for me to drive, I had mixed emotions. Now, I’m always excited to drive a car that’s not mine, and driving a Lexus is never a bad experience. But over its lifetime, the RC range has never been a darling of the automotive media, often criticized for its weight (RC F) or described as a parts bin car combining the tub from the previous generation IS C, the front end of a fourth-generation GS and the rear sub-frame of a third generation IS. Was all if that true? The RC also underwent a significant overhaul for the 2020 model year… did it help?
So with all of that swirling in my head, Lexus dropped off an absolutely gorgeous 2021 RC 350 F SPORT AWD dripping in Infrared paint and sporting a white Nuluxe interior. Off to a good start indeed.
For all the comments about the RC’s weight or structure, it’s quickly forgotten when looking at this car in real life. The Infrared paint would look good on a Ford Econoline van, nevermind with the RC’s curves, svelte lines and swept back silhouette. The 2020 refresh has brought the exterior much closer to the LC 500. The triple-beam LED headlights give the front-end extra detail, and the car’s silhouette, split 5-spoke gunmetal wheels, and curves command serious presence on the road.
My impressions certainly seem consistent with the reaction around town. Not even driving the IS 500 did I receive so many thumb ups, smiles and glares. People definitely react to the coupe. My neighbor – a BMW 330i owner – made a point of stopping by to check out the car, complimenting the design and commenting that this is one of the best implementations of the Lexus spindle grille. I agree.
The RC 350 F SPORT is a seriously good looking coupe.
The interior of the RC is certainly more polarizing than the exterior. Opinions have been split even among the Lexus faithful, who describe the design as “Japanese retro,” “outdated,” “unique in the segment,” and just about everything in between.
I have to agree with the opinion that the interior design is aging, especially in contrast to the 2022 NX or newer LS and LC. Of course, these are all-new models, while the RC’s roots still date back to 2014 when it first launched. The cabin is ergonomically friendly and easy to use, while remaining unique in the segment — something that’s hard to say for competitors like the C-Class Coupe or 4 Series. While the rear seats look small, two adults were able to squeeze in comfortably (which I found surprising).
The one thing the RC needs most urgently is a touchscreen. The IS received the upgrade for the 2021 model year, and I wish the RC had as well. Touchscreen or not, there are times where Apple Carplay can be buggy: playlists don’t load or are grayed out, Waze tends to have a mind of its own, and the buttons to pick up or hang up calls can intermittently freeze. Fixing these issues using a touch screen would be much easier than the Remote Touch infotainment system. Still, after a week together, I did get used to Remote Touch and didn’t have too much trouble or frustration.
The RC seats are wonderful. The bolstering and support made my GX 460 feel like I was sitting on the flat, questionable couch in my grandparents basement. The map lights are touch sensitive and don’t actually click or switch — cool touch. The stitching and detail on the interior door panels still looks good, as the mix of textures and colors is both beautiful and interesting. The Mark Levinson sound system, of course, is superb and helps craft that overall Lexus experience.
Gorgeous to look at and comfortable to sit in, but how does it drive? Living in Atlanta, my eyebrows peaked seeing the “AWD” on the back of this RC 350. AWD is pretty rare here in the south, but that very fact made this car more interesting to drive. The all-wheel drive RC models come with just six speeds, compared to the RWD RC 350s with its eight-speed automatic. Unfortunately, four-wheel traction also jacks the ride height up quite a bit.
Speaking of the transmission, the Lexus Electronic Throttle Control System- intelligence (ETCS-i) learns a driver’s input behavior and adjusts the shifting and throttle response to match the vehicle’s behavior with the owner’s driving style. If you are just getting into a car for the first time, this can be frustrating, especially if it was driven by someone who drives very differently from yourself. This made for a difficult initial 24 hours with the RC, as the transmission was slow to change gears and had a bit of throttle delay.
After a day and many “mash the skinny pedal” moments later, the story was drastically different. The RC 350 was much more sensitive to throttle tip-in and responded far more crisply. I started to see the same revvy character and quick reaction that I loved in the IS 350 F SPORT. In comparison to turbocharged engines, the RC’s V6 builds power linearly and hits its sweet spot higher in the rev range, though it still delivers plenty of gusto at lower RPMs. Lexus quotes 0-60 at 6 seconds for the AWD model and that feels about right, if a little conservative. The V6 sounds great while it delivers that power as well.
AWD does change this car in some good and bad ways, depending on your needs. For one, this is a full-time system that defaults to 30:70 front:rear torque distribution, though it can allocate to 50:50 depending on conditions. This gives the car an incredible amount of grip in every situation, and makes a compelling case on a F SPORT car with the 3.5L GR V6. The RC with AWD feels sure-footed, but also doesn’t transmit the same type of feedback or playfulness compared to RWD.
The extra grip was fun, but the AWD system does give you fewer gears and less fuel economy. The gears are understandably longer with the six-speed automatic, but I found that gears 2-3-4 specifically feel downright savage in Sport+ mode. Shifts are quick and crisp, and something about those three gears puts the V6 in a sweet spot with perfect ratios. I enjoy the RWD model’s two extra gears to work with, but the six-speed had a snappy assertiveness that I haven’t experienced with the eight-speed. MPG for a sporty car with full-time all-wheel drive was a little better than expected: 27 MPG on the highway, 18 MPG around the city and 22 MPG combined.
Ride quality in the RC was pleasantly surprising. For an F SPORT vehicle with 19″ low-profile tires and wheels, it was solid, smooth and composed in almost all driving conditions. Again, it drives and feels like a Lexus where it matters most, and is happy to hustle when you want a capable dancing partner. Road noise is well dampened, and if you desire, the Active Sound Control (ASC) can pipe synthetic engine noise into the cabin. I flipped it off as I don’t think the GR V6 needs any autotune above 4K rpms or so, and enjoyed the cabin’s serenity at lower speeds.
Steering was similar to a number of IS models I have driven: there is little feedback on-center, but once you turn the wheel or flip it into Sport or Sport+, there’s an extra weight that builds linearly and gives a sense of control and connection between the car and the road. Feedback is good without impacting ride quality, and the car always feels easy to drive, whether fast or slow.
As passenger car sales fall and crossovers dominate the world, vehicles like the RC are going to become an increasingly rare proposition, and something you might want to keep tucked away in your garage for many years to come. On its own merits, the RC is a hard-to-fault Lexus execution of the midsize coupe: quick and enjoyable to drive, but with road manners that are easy to live with every day. It has a surprisingly usable cabin and a spacious trunk. The exterior design looks wonderful, and will for a long time to come (especially in Infrared!). Last but not least, it stands to reason that the RC is going to be very reliable and easy to own.
The RC doesn’t exist in a vacuum of course, and there are some newer, faster competitors like the Audi A5, Mercedes C coupe and BMW 4 Series. Each of those are worthy machines and more interesting than the Lexus in some areas, but I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed the RC 350 in day-to-day life. If owning a coupe is on your list of things to do, and you want one that will deliver spirited performance, driving enjoyment, well-rounded packaging and Lexus-levels of refinement for years to come, the RC is an impossible combination to beat. At the end of our time together, I kept thinking: As coupes are concerned, the RC is an every day all-star that does everything right, punishes you for nothing, and will be an enjoyable car to own many years into the future — when cars like the RC might not exist at all.
- Smooth ride quality, combined with great handling and prodigious grip
- An incredibly balanced package as a daily driver
- Exterior design is beautiful – and aging well
- 2GR-FKS is a great partner in acoustics and performance
- Gas mileage could be better, most likely due to full-time all-wheel drive and 6AT
- Interior is showing its age and especially would benefit from a touch screen
- Nearly $60k as tested feels a bit rich
- Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio package
- All Weather package
- Premium triple-beam LED headlights
- Intuitive Parking Assist
- F SPORT heated steering wheel
Price as tested including destination and delivery ($1,205): $58,705