To showcase its engineering in a 1989 ad, Lexus stacked a pyramid of champagne glasses on the hood of its first car, the LS 400 sedan. As the vehicle accelerated to 140 miles per hour on stationary rollers, the champagne went unspilled, launching Toyota’s luxury brand as eminently smooth and serene — the automotive equivalent of a Sade box set. But even Sade gets stale after a while: Fast-forward a quarter-century, when brands like Kia can turn out reasonable facsimiles of the unflappable luxury sedan and the median age of Lexus buyers creeps toward 60, and the company finds itself on a quest for young blood. A velvety ride and precise design are no longer enough.
So Lexus hopes to lure them with muscle. The RC F is a $62,400 sports coupe with all the brand’s hallmarks: liquid-smooth shifts, a whisper-quiet cabin, a suspension that won’t spray your Starbucks all over its perforated leather trim. But this Lexus can make you sweat, as I found out at the Monticello Motor Club’s 22-turn racetrack in upstate New York. Though there’s no disguising its heft (3,968 pounds), its high-revving, 467-horsepower V-8 engine helps the RC F find 130 on straightaways with relative ease. As you approach a corner in “track” mode and feel the bite of its 14-inch brakes, the car doesn’t go overboard trying to correct you: Instead, the dynamic control systems allow a slight bit of thrilling drift, just enough to give you a feel for the tarmac underneath, but not so much that you worry about wrapping it around a fence.
To be fair, this isn’t the first Lexus with cojones: The company put out a short run of a planet-scorching supercar called the LFA back in 2009, a crazy carbon-fiber confection. But at $375,000, it was stratospherically expensive, and its throaty growl went almost unheard under the simultaneous news of a 9-million-vehicle Toyota recall. The RC F is Lexus’ real-world follow-up, designed to do battle with BMW’s M line and Mercedes-Benz’s AMG-tuned screamers. (The F stands for the Fuji Speedway, where its vehicles are tested; Lexus will also build the RC, a V-6 model, for $42,000.) And while BMW’s performance arm has turned toward smaller engines (its M4 coupe is powered by a twin-turbocharged 6) and aluminum subframes, the RC F almost defiantly carries a big, naturally aspirated V-8 and is built on a heavier, steel chassis. At its core, the RC F is a highly evolved muscle car — and one that has trunk space for two sets of golf clubs.
During laid-back city driving, the RC F reverts to smooth cruising without the herks and jerks of performance cars that don’t adapt well to daily driving. Get out to the twisty roads, and the RC F knows you want to let it rip: During spirited driving, its eight-speed automatic transmission works with a G-force sensor to recognize when you’re braking for a turn and downshifts automatically, holding a low gear at high revs so you can hightail out of it. The V-8 responds with a roaring mechanical howl, amplified through the cabin by an actuator under the dash. It’s the sound of Lexus spinning the radio dial. We’ll pop a cork for that.