The Lexus RC is a lot more than just an IS with two doors lopped off. Ever since it was launched in 2014, the RC has blazed its own visual trail, leaving the IS' lamentable looks behind, but holding onto its plush driving manners, respectable interior quality and comfort.
What the RC adds to the package is better tech -- some of which you can't even get in the IS. And for 2019, the RC gets a significant exterior design update, putting even more distance between itself and its oddly-styled sedan sibling.
Not that sporty
It's dawn on Angeles Crest Highway, the new day's light shining on the seemingly endless ribbons of asphalt that beckon me deeper into the San Gabriel Mountains. These legendary roads make my right foot grow heavier, but as soon as I hit a brisk pace, the Lexus' suspension says, "Nah, man. We don't need to go any faster."
My RC 350 F Sport tester comes with a model-specific, adaptive, sport-tuned suspension, but on the Crest, it doesn't feel up to the task of tackling turns. The suspension is great at keeping harsh jolts out of the cabin, but once I begin to dial up the pace, the RC's chops start to soften. Even in the sharpest "Sport S+" mode, the RC seems to prioritize ride comfort over agility. The car will absorb a mid-corner impact, but then the rear suspension bounces, upsetting the car's balance as you're gradually applying throttle out of a turn.
My tester is also equipped with the $1,900 variable-ratio rack and rear-wheel steering. In theory, it's impressive technology that's supposed to aid low-speed maneuverability and high-speed agility, but in practice, doesn't seem to make the RC feel special. Thankfully, there's a decent level of road feel that flows through the variable front steering rack, but you'd get that same degree of feedback with the standard setup, too.
Slowing back toward a Sunday-drive pace, the RC 350 F Sport feels at ease once again. Where it lacks enthusiasm for athleticism, it makes up for it with its overall plush demeanor. In the event that you need to go back to a hurried pace, though, the eight-speed automatic transmission will get in your way.
When you put your foot down to extract the 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque from the RC 350's 3.5-liter V6 engine, the transmission never seems to know what gear will put you in the heart of the powerband. Perhaps the reluctance to downshift is a product of Lexus engineers placing priority on efficiency, but the RC 350 wasn't that fuel-thrifty during my test week. After 443 miles of mixed driving, I averaged just 21.9 miles per gallon, which is low for a car that's EPA-rated for 20/28 city/highway mpg.
Opting for the turbocharged, four-cylinder-powered RC 300 will fail to net you much more efficiency with just 21/30 city/highway mpg. Also, if the V6 is sluggish, the four-cylinder's 241 horsepower and 258 pound feet of torque make the RC unquestionably slow -- its 7.3-second 0-60 time is 1.5 seconds slower than the RC 350. The RC 300 almost redeems itself with its reasonable $41,145 (plus $1,025 for destination) starting price, which is $2,930 less than the V6 350, but do whatever you can to get the V6, even if you must resort to foraging your friends' couch cushions for quarters.
Fetching outside, comfy inside
The RC matches is comely exterior with a cozy, enveloping interior that's trimmed in generally high-quality materials. There's plenty of room for front occupants to stretch out, though back-seat passengers will need to be average-sized or smaller to remain comfortable during extended drives.
The optional 835-watt Mark Levinsonis a good road-trip companion. With 17 speakers and 7.1 channels of surround-sound encoding, you can fill your RC with the lion's share of good tunes. That said, this system could stand to feel a little more full-bodied with the way it reproduces low frequencies. In its current form, the subwoofer can sometimes muddy things up, but overall, this is one of the better stereos on the market today.
And then there's the Lexus Remote Touch infotainment interface. Its trackpad-based controller is not as awful as the mouse-based controller in the IS, but the RC's system requires you to divert your attention from the road in order to ensure you're selecting your intended point on the trackpad as it corresponds to the available 10.3-inch center screen. It's maddening, but at least the RC offers standard Apple CarPlay, which helps ease the anger with access to superior phone-based navigation. Still, there's no escaping Remote Touch. It's just as hard using it to navigate through Apple CarPlay as it is to maneuver through the built-in Lexus Enform infotainment menus.
It may be a handful to control all of the RC's gadgets, but at least the coupe comes with a wealth of them standard. The base RC features a 7-inch display, Amazon Alexa integration, a 10-speaker stereo, HD and satellite radio plus a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. That standard tech is complemented with a segment-beating suite of driver-assistance features which includes collision-mitigation braking, adaptive cruise control (although it only works above about 30 miles per hour), lane-keep assist and automatic high-beams.
How I'd spec it
As equipped, my tester is priced at $59,685 including destination, but you shouldn't be paying that much for an RC 350. First, you can save $1,900 by ignoring the steering package. Next, you can forget the $390 limited-slip differential. These go-fast goodies are really just gimmicks on the RC, which is much better at cruising and turning heads than setting them on fire.
Most importantly, save $6,715 by turning the other cheek to the F Sport trim level, which in addition to the aforementioned dynamic tweaks (I won't call them "improvements"), adds unique 19-inch wheels wrapped in summer rubber, heated and auto-dimming outside mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, a power tilt and telescoping steering column, special gauges, aluminum pedals, heated and ventilated front seats, embedded navigation on a 10.3-inch display and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert.
That's a lot of good stuff, but you can select many of these features à la carte. My perfect RC 350, for example, comes in at $53,420, including full LED headlights, the heated steering wheel, a sunroof and the Mark Levinson sound system.
There are two schools of thought among consumers interested in the luxury coupe segment. The hair-on-fire lot will happily fork over huge sums of cash for BMW M4s and Mercedes-AMG C63s -- even Lexus' own RC F. On the other side of campus, you've got the folks who are more laid-back when it comes to performance, but still crave two-door panache. The RC 350 is the car for those people.
In addition to a profusion of attention-grabbing flair, the RC 350 backs up its "notice me" disposition with a bevy of standard safety tech and noteworthy ride comfort. If you look at it as a sports car, you're missing the point. It's simply a coupe that's easy to enjoy, and that's just fine.
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Originally published Nov. 7.
Update, July 26: Adds video.