Trackside: Radically styled 2015 Lexus RC F is as fast as it looks

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Lexus has pushed its L Finesse design language to some weird, head-scratching extremes over the last few years, but the brand's designers seem to have found their footing with the aggressive 2015 RC F. Styling is subjective, but everyone I've asked seems to agree that this is an amazingly handsome set of wheels.

Yet as new and unfamiliar as the RC F's style may be, its underpinnings are so immediately familiar for anyone who's spent a significant amount of time with the IS. You could almost say that the RC F is a bit of a Lexus Frankenstein creation: mix the powertrain of the IS F with the front suspension of the GS, the rear suspension and chassis of the 2014 IS, and the mid-chassis stiffening of IS C, and you've got a pretty accurate description of what underpins the RC F.

However, loads of small changes and new technologies add up to a noticeable performance boost for this new model. I was handed a helmet and the keys to a silver 2015 Lexus RC F at the NOLA Motorsports Park racetrack to see just how much of a boost.

Familiar bones, V-8 power

The RC F carries over the IS F sedan's 5.0-liter V-8 engine -- internally known as the 2UR-GSE -- and still uses Toyota/Lexus' D-4S direct injection system with secondary port injectors. The V-8 has been massaged and coaxed during the transition and now features higher compression, lighter and stronger internals, and a higher redline.

All of these changes lead to an increased output, now stated at 467 horsepower and 389 pound-feet of torque. That's 51 more ponies and 18 more pound-feet than the sedan it replaces. Max torque comes on at a lower RPM, and the RC F is 178 pounds lighter than the IS F, which should add up to a more responsive drive.

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Love it or not, the IS F's 5.0-liter V-8 and eight-speed automatic transmission make a return appearance in the RC F. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Also persisting between the IS F and RC F is the automaker's eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic transmission; even the gear ratios are unchanged. It's not a bad gearbox -- actually it's quite good for an automatic, with firm shifts when you're hammering it and buttery-smooth shifts when you're cruising -- but enthusiasts will likely lament the lack of a three-pedaled option on Lexus' most hardcore model. The automatic transmission features paddle shifters and sport and manual shifting programs, if that's any consolation.

On the center console, you'll find the knob controller for the Lexus' various Drive modes. The default Normal or ECO programs is what you'll use for grocery-getting, emphasizing smooth shifts, moderate acceleration, and getting as close to the estimated 16 city and 25 highway mpg. Clicking the knob once to the right for the Sport mode sharpens the engine and throttle response. Clicking once more for Sport+ also sharpens the electric power steering and loosens the stability control's hold for more dynamic driving.

Lexus tells me that the RC's chassis is based on a combination of the Lexus GS' front end, the IS C convertible's passenger floor and mid-chassis stiffening, and the IS sedan's rear suspension. Cross chassis braces mean that the RC F loses the 60/40 split folding rear seats that you'll find on the standard RC 350, but also gives the suspension a more solid platform to work from.

The suspension is a fixed, non-adjustable setup that is firm but not punishing. Lexus definitely had daily-drivability in mind when designing this double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension. The coupe exhibited a bit of roll and lean when cornering hard, but nothing too heinous, and its handling was progressive and grip was plentiful. The RC F rolls on staggered 19-inch wheels: 255 width rubber up front and 275 width rubber out back.

Power flows through the rear wheels, and unlike the standard RC 350, no all-wheel-drive or rear-wheel steering options are available on the F. Splitting power port-to-starboard across the rear axle is a standard Torsen limited-slip differential. I was also able to test the RC F with the optional torque-vectoring rear differential (TVD), which proactively shifts power to the outside wheel when cornering for a tighter turn. The TVD system features three presets to optimize performance for the street, slalom, and track.

Sexy red seats

There's not much new to discuss when it comes to the Lexus RC's cabin tech. The dashboard design reminds me of the Lexus IS sedan's style, and the Enform tech is identical to that of the new NX crossover. However, I was enamored with the bright red sport bucket seats. Styled to resemble the musculature of the human back and deeply bolstered, these seats offered an excellent blend of comfort on the street and support on the track. And they look fantastic, like something straight out of a concept car. I don't think I've ever called a seat "sexy" before, but these are some sexy buckets.

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These red sport buckets are some sexy seats. I almost don't want to put my bottom on them. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Though the RC F's digital instrument cluster looks a lot like the same motorized digital gauge that we saw in the IS 350 and RC 350 F-Sport models, this performance halo lacks the motorized gimmick. The digital tachometer still changes its design depending on the settings of the Drive Mode selector, but its brushed metal bezel is locked into place, sharing space with a physical speedometer on the right and multifunction display to the left.

Like the NX, the RC 350 and RC F make use of the automaker's new remote touch controller to navigate the Enform navigation and infotainment system atop the center stack. The touchpad features vibrating haptic feedback that I still find a bit weird, but drivers will find the system familiar to the trackpad that they probably use daily on their laptop.

I should point out that the RC's touchpad is located further back on the center console than is the NX's. Where the NX's fell naturally at my fingertips, I had to crook my arm awkwardly to reach the RC F's touchpad. I think that if Lexux had reversed the positions of the RC's drive mode selector (which I only used one or twice per trip) with the remote touch pad (which get used much more frequently for everything from changing audio source to setting a destination), I'd be a happier camper.

Around the track

After getting the go-ahead from the track workers, I eased the RC F out of the pit lane and onto the track's long front straight where I was able to to sample the coupe's full-throttle acceleration. From a standing start, 0 to 60 mph happens in 4.4 seconds; it's quick.

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The RC F boasts plenty of power and grip for the occasional track day. Lexus

At the end of the straight, it's time to get on the brakes for a hard right and then into the short course's only hairpin. My first few laps were a bit slow, as I was learning this unfamiliar track. The Lexus sticks through the bend with neutral handling that definitely inspires confidence to push harder. Lexus tells me that it designed the RC F to be easy for novice drivers to enjoy at moderate speeds, but to remain challenging as the driver's skill level grows.

Picking up speed through a series of alternating corners, the Lexus does seem to offer plenty of performance overhead for novices and enthusiasts alike. In the sportiest Sport+ mode, the handing becomes more dynamic. A good seat-of-the-pants feel betrays a bit of oversteer if you toss it past an apex just right. It'll drift (just a bit) if you're brave enough to lay on the power after disabling the traction control, but there's still plenty of tire-squealing fun to be had within the generous limits of the Sport+ VDC system.

The eight-speed automatic transmission did pretty good job of keeping up with the demands of the flat, fast track. As I braked for turns, it would automatically downshift with a blip. A G-force meter and clever programming prevented the tranny from upshifting mid-turn and upsetting the vehicle's balance. For most of my laps, I used the transmission's manual shift mode and paddle shifters, which was mostly just more psychologically satisfying. Shifts were sharp and immediate, which is surprising given how smooth the changes are on the street.

After the twisty bits, it's back onto the excellent brakes again for a few tighter, low-speed turns as I head back for the course's long front straight. The RC F has an electronically limited top speed of 170 mph, but the track handlers placed a cone chicane midway up the straight to keep we journalist from getting near that limit on the short, 1.9-mile track.

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Is it sharper than a BMW M car? Perhaps not, but the RC F has a charm of its own. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Later, I was able to take a spin around the track in an example equipped with the torque-vectoring differential. In its track mode, this setup had a higher exit velocity from the course's hairpin and allowed me to carry significantly more speed through the sweeping bends that follow. If you're looking to get around the course as quickly as possible, the TVD is a pretty good investment. Carrying more speed means that the RC F's 15-inch, six-piston front Brembo brakes and 13.6-inch, four-piston rears had to work a little bit harder when it came time to bleed that speed away for the 90-degree right-hander at the end of the sweeper chicane, but the stoppers performed admirably just the same.

With each lap, my confidence in the RC F's performance and my familiarity with the track grew, and I was able to see a bit of what Lexus means when it says that the coupe's performance reveals more of itself as the driver grows. The RC F felt sharper and sharper with every corner, as if honing its edge on each apex...but only to a point. No, the F never really felt as sharp as the equivalent M car, but the more supple Lexus isn't without its own charms.

The RC F is faster and more nimble than its predecessor but doesn't stray far from the formula established by the IS F. It strikes a balance between performance and amenity that's probably best-suited for the street, but also not at all inappropriate for the occasional track day.

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Where to Buy

2015 Lexus RC F

Part Number: 2015RCF

MSRP: $62,400.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

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