The recently updated 2019 Lexus RC F might seem old fashioned, but its recipe still holds lots of appeal

In objective terms, the Lexus RC F is not a class-leading sports coupe. It’s not as crisp as a BMW M4, as rounded as an Audi RS5, nor as brutally fast as a Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe. Its price-point isn’t far from its more able rivals either, so there’s not even a serious value-for-money benefit to consider.

And yet, the Lexus RC F occupies a high place in our affections because the thrill of driving is not always about outright ability or figures on a spec sheet. The RC F is about more than that. Its desirability is derived from an increasingly rare combination of elements that really do make it a unique entity in the new car marketplace, for now.

The wild styling helps, so too its rarity, but the Lexus RC F’s biggest asset is the jewel under its bonnet. The 4969 cubic centimetres of naturally aspirated Japanese V8 that not only dominates the RC F, but in 2019 defines it in a way that appeals to us more than acceleration times or, heaven forbid, mpg figures. It’s not perfect, but it remains the centrepoint of a package that pulls on the heartstrings like few others.

Performance and 0-100 time

Have you driven a brisk hot hatch recently? Something like a Golf R or a Mercedes-AMG A35? Because if you have, the RC F might initially feel somewhat disappointing. Instant gratification is not the game here, as when mooching around at low revs that naturally aspirated V8 doesn’t really have much in the way of performance. It’s not unresponsive, as throttle response is very crisp, it just doesn’t pack much instant punch.

Commit to the throttle, though, and the urge is there, as once the 5-litre engine has filled its lungs, the numbers start to pile on. Keep the throttle pinned and the RC F will top out at a limited 270kmh. The claimed 0-100kmh acceleration time is 4.3sec, an impressive number in isolation, and on a par with the BMW M4 (4.3sec), but quite a bit behind the Audi RS5 and Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe (both 3.9sec)

> Read our review of the BMW M4

Around one of Bedford Autodrome’s smaller loops the RC F trailed a regular M4, without the Competition upgrades, by 0.35sec and the old, heavier, less powerful, naturally aspirated Audi RS5 by 3.35sec.

Engine and gearbox

Given that the engine is the bit makes the RC F so special, it’s worth going into a bit more detail about why it’s so wonderful. At 4969cc, by modern standards it’s a big-capacity unit, and unusual in being naturally aspirated. It’s built by Toyota and used in a variety of different models across mostly American markets, but in Lexus-specific ‘2UR-GSE’ form this V8 has a substantial amount of bespoke engineering applied to it. The main differentiator from lesser Toyota V8s is the Yamaha-designed head, titanium valves, high-lift cams and a dual-length intake.

Although it lacks a screaming red line (7100rpm is all the engine has to give) it’s the lightweight internals and induction switch that makes the 2UR feel like more than just a luxury-car engine. It feels honed and crafted, and is clearly from a company that knows a thing or two about acoustics – Yamaha. Put your foot down with Sport S, or even better Sport S+ mode activated, and the background burble is replaced with a fantastic bark – one unique to the 2UR and which seems to amalgamate the bassy, off-beat thrum of a traditional V8 with a polished yet still motorsport-like howl.

Little of the volume actually emanates from the exhausts – the supposedly more cultured LC 500 that features the same unit is more muscle car-like in its voice – but it’s still a highly satisfying noise that can’t help but elicit a smile. It doesn’t rev to the heights of a BMW S62 V8 perhaps, nor does it have quite the tingly response of a Volkswagen Group V10, but in this class, at this price point, its a far more exciting and satisfying powertrain than the turbocharged motors of its rivals.

The eight-speed automatic transmission is less of a highlight, and although it doesn’t subtract from the powertrain’s brilliance, neither does it accentuate it like a good dual-clutch unit might. While mooching about, the auto slips in and out of ratios with noticeably less decisiveness than you get from the best modern torque converters. Increase the pace and it does sharpen up, and with a sportier mode selected it’ll feel more alert still, with sharp, blipping downshifts, although it still lacks the final layer of crispness found in rival transmissions.

Ride and handling

Slide into the cabin and the driving position takes a little getting used to. It’s not particularly low, but the view out feels slightly obstructed, as if the scuttle is too high. It’s somewhat reminiscent of being in a TVR or Aston Martin, and exaggerated by the strip of bonnet visible from the front seats. Drive away and the stiff accelerator pedal motion, relatively heavy steering and lumpen low-speed ride only add to the cumbersome feeling.

However, as speed rises, over 70-80kmh, the suspension seems to find its range and begins to flow in a more dignified manner than your first impressions suggest it might. The new adaptive dampers have usefully increased the amount of body support over larger undulations: where before the body would have begun to lose some of its composure, it now hunkers down and better utilises the suspension travel. The lowered unsprung weight afforded by the Track Pack’s forged wheels and carbon-ceramic brakes helps here too, giving you extra confidence that the car will not be knocked off-line when things get rough.

That same fluidity is maintained through longer, wider corners, and regardless of damper mode the RC F settles onto a well-supported outer-rear corner, the throttle allowing just a slight influence over the car’s attitude. If this all sounds a little flat, there is a remedy: drive through the heavy control weights, become more liberal with your inputs, and the RC F responds accordingly, switching from chunky GT to something more sports car-like.

If you want more freedom to exploit the engine’s top-end power and the super-accurate control it grants you in slower corners, you can switch the stability control (or VDIM – Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management – in Lexus-speak) fully off, or there’s also an ‘Expert’ mode in which the electronics take a back seat and only intervene to prevent a spin.

We’ve only driven RC Fs with the optional TVD differential. In its Standard and Slalom modes it can be frustrating at higher speeds, taking its time to engage and allows the inside rear wheel to spin and saps away at your momentum. On the occasions it does lock, it then tries to quell any slide before you’ve had chance to enjoy it or react to it. It’s the final, most focused Track setting that provides the most natural responses, the diff engaging as soon as you touch the throttle and staying locked as you dictate your angle of slide with the throttle. It can easily be kept small and tidy or pushed large and boisterous depending on how much throttle you choose to use.

The RC F is not as talented dynamically as an M4, as capable as an RS5, or as boisterous and lairy as a Mercedes-AMG C63 S, but it is certainly gratifying, and because you’re never quite carrying the sheer speed of those German rivals, it feels more exploitative on the road. Jordan Katsianis