MIRABEL, QC – In this car-writing business, “deep dive” is a metaphor sometimes used to describe the seminars that automakers stage for the purpose of educating auto writers about new products or technologies. Well, that term seems doubly appropriate to describe the program Lexus Canada put us through last week.
As if two hours of push-as-hard-as-you-dare track time in five different Lexus F cars wasn’t deep enough, there were also the pools of standing water waiting in ambush on sections of the rain-drenched iCar circuit that hosted the event.
The program’s purpose was for Lexus to expose us to its F performance brand. The letter is Lexus’s equivalent of M for BMW or AMG for Mercedes-Benz.
You’re probably aware of the RC F – the bad-ass V-8-engined version of the Lexus compact coupe that goes head to head with BMW’s M4, the Audi RS5 and the Mercedes C63. The RC F was certainly part of the program, but the Lexus Track Event also showcased the F Sport versions of several other Lexus models.
Somewhat confusingly, F Sport is less than pure F. It’s a range of option packages that variously (and somewhat confusingly) combine cosmetic, luxury and safety features as well as performance-oriented chassis upgrades.
For our amusement and education at iCar, Lexus laid on F Sport versions of assorted IS 350 sedans and RC 350 coupes, a trio of Performance Packaged RC Fs, and a solitary GS 350.
Given the steady rain that began just about the time we arrived at the track, I was secretly relieved to learn that many of the test samples had all-wheel drive.
Same names, multiple personalities
Let me say right away that I didn’t manage to snare the GS 350, so all my lapping was in IS sedans or RC coupes. Since these cars share much of the same architecture, it came as a shock to discover how widely their capabilities varied on the track. And not in the ways I expected.
It turns out that the RC is much more than just a two-door version of the IS; and the differences between their respective rear- and all-wheel-drive versions go much deeper than just the number of driven wheels.
To begin, the RC 350 F Sports have 19-inch wheels vs 18-inchers on the IS 350 AWD. And while the RWD versions of both sedan and coupe roll on summer performance rubber (Bridgestone RE050As), the spec tire on the AWD F Sports is the Turanza EL400-02, an all-season touring tire that, according to Bridgestone, prioritizes quietness, comfort and fuel efficiency.
Whether RWD or AWD, the 18-inch tires on the IS 350 F Sports are staggered sizes – wider at the rear than at the front. Conversely, on the RC 350, the AWD F Sport’s EL400 all-seasons are the same size at both ends while the RWD RC350 F Sport’s RE050As are staggered front to rear.
Confused? Me too. And it doesn’t end there. The RC F also has staggered-size 19-inch wheels, but they’re even bigger than those on the RWD RC350 F Sport, and the tire brand is Michelin Pilot Super Sports.
Enough with the tire talk
I head out onto the drenched track expecting AWD will be the big equalizer between the 306-horsepower 350s and the 467-hp RC-F. I also expect the AWD cars’ “softer” Turanza Touring tires will be better suited to the conditions than summer performance rubber.
Wrong on both counts. On the track, at least, the theoretical AWD advantage counts for little when there’s simply less tire adhesion. The RWD RC350 and RC F on their respective summer-performance tires simply grip harder on the soaked concrete than the AWDs’ touring tires.
The RWD cars also graphically illustrate the way sophisticated stability-control systems (Lexus calls its version Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management) can manage traction even when up to 467 horsepower is being channelled through the rear wheels.
Set in Sport mode, the VDIM is largely transparent in its ability to dole out just enough power to maximize thrust without breaking trust. In clumsier moments, when I do provoke the tail out in low-gear corners, the combined efforts of driver and VDIM gather it back up swiftly, if not especially gracefully.
Sometimes less is more
Now I’m not going to pretend that hot-lapping the 467-horsepower RC-F was any kind of hardship, let alone scary. But the Lexus uber-formance flagship turns out not to be my fave among the IS and RC variants available for testing. For my tastes, the sweet spot is the RC 350 RWD.
Confusingly, this particular combo can’t even be ordered with the extra-cost F Sport package that includes all the handling hardware … but that’s because on the RWD version, all that good stuff is standard.
Lexus Canada figures that engaged drivers who appreciate the handling purity of RWD will want everything else that maximizes the same. Hence the RC 350 RWD comes with additional goodies that are not available on the AWD (or even, for that matter on the RC-F). It also explains why the RWD RC 350 has a higher MSRP than the AWD version.
Unique to the RC 350 RWD is Variable Gear-Ratio Steering (not to be confused with variable-effort steering), plus Dynamic Rear Steering and Lexus Dynamic Handling. The latter is basically the computing power that ensures VGRS and DRS play nicely together for maximum agility and stability.
Another reason to favour the RWD model: it has an eight-speed automatic whereas the AWD makes do with a six-speed. And the RC350 RWD has yet another advantage that costs nothing: less weight on the front wheels.
Taking a turn for the better
Bottom line, the 350 RWD turns in more keenly and understeers less than either the AWD or the RC F, while achieving grip levels much closer to those of the full-on F. Of course the 350 isn’t as straight-line swift as the F (Lexus claims 0-60-mph (0-97-km/h) times of 5.8 and 4.4 seconds respectively) but the sixer makes all the right noises with impeccable smoothness.
At the end of the day, our play date with Lexus may have been deep, but it wasn’t very wide. There’s an awful lot about a car that you can’t learn in a couple of hours’ lapping a wet race track. Neither were there any rival vehicles on hand for comparison.
What we did learn is that even if we don’t count the hard-core RC F, the Lexus compact coupe comes in two very distinct flavours. If all you want is luxury and style with four-season all-weather security, the RC 350 AWD supplies all that and more. But even if you were to load up an AWD with all available F Sport options, that still wouldn’t turn it into half the driver’s car that the RWD RC 350 is right out of the box.
If a driver’s car is the kind of coupe you’re shopping for, be sure to take a look at this surprising Lexus before you commit to one of the more obvious choices.