Lexus’s RC F Cranks Up the Naughty to Challenge BMW M4

Lexus engineers have a sports car to be proud of. It’s called the RC F, and it’s 467 horsepower of rubber-searing fun.

Lexus is not typically the brand you’d turn to when shopping for a rip-roaring, petrol-snorting street raptor. The Toyota Motor Corp. luxury brand has been known for smooth-jazz sedans like the LS or easygoing crossovers such as the RX.

But even the LS executive sedan is now available in an F Sport version, clad in an eye-catching design and a punchy powertrain, part of a recharged and rejuvenated lineup.

Nice is nice, one supposes, but Lexus is ready to get a bit naughty. Akio Toyoda, president and chief executive officer of the Toyota City, Japan-based parent company, loves fast, passionate cars and his goal is to make Lexus fun.

Operation achieved when it comes to the RC F coupe, a completely new model. One can’t help but feel that Lexus engineers were sick of everyone panting over sports cars such as Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW M4 and Nissan Motor Co.’s GT-R, while its own 416-horsepower IS F sedan was treated like a wallflower. So when it came to creating a hot new coupe, they used every trick that they’d learned from the (now defunct) LFA supercar.

They began with the naughty and then added the Lexus nice at the end. What a difference that makes.

Bending Corners

I am at a private racetrack in New York’s Catskills, Monticello Motor Club, doing things in the RC F that few Lexuses have done before. The stability and traction controls are switched off, and all that horsepower is furiously spinning the rear wheels as I drift through corners.

I’m purposely wrenching the car around the bends in a manner where I can get the tires to break away. When they do, I add in more gas. Too often a car gives up right at that moment, as electronic sensors pull the plug. Not the Lexus. Not this time.

It delivers more power to the rear rubber and the slide increases. I’m working the wheel, counter-steering but also coaxing out an ever-greater slip angle. There’s noise and tires bleating and maybe some smoke, but I’m not feeling overwhelmed. The car is deft and the balance sharp. The RC F is the kind of instrument that channels chaos and keeps it just this side of disaster.

These maneuvers are not for beginners. But the car is actually set up to do this, particularly if you get the secret sauce just right.

Torque Vectoring

First, you might consider ordering the optional sports package with an electronically controlled torque vectoring differential. This adds about $8,000 to the $62,400 base price (and also nets you a carbon-fiber roof instead of a steel one).

Torque vectoring is a next-level technology found in cars from Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Subaru STI to Fiat SpA’s Ferrari 458 Speciale. Its aim is to make the car turns more readily and effectively than normal, keeping the trajectory from steering wide. Various systems work either by braking an inside wheel to help pull the car into a bend, or alternately by adding extra torque to an outside wheel, effectively aiming it into the corner.

Braking-based methods put extra strain and heat on those systems. Lexus chose to utilize torque instead, and took the extra steps of using tiny electric motors and multi-plate clutches to distribute force between the rear wheels.

The drawback is added weight. But the killer advantage is the way it turns in the real world. Send the RC F through a set of S curves and it will nimbly dance through abrupt directional changes. This is smart engineering that makes you feel like a better driver. (If you don’t opt to spend the extra dollars, you’ll still get a very excellent Torsen limited-slip rear differential, of which there is nothing to complain about.)

Inevitable Comparison

It’s inevitable that the RC F will be compared to the BMW M4 coupe, which has a twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter inline-six with 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. The M4, only recently released, is one bad machine.

Rather than bolting on a turbocharger, Lexus decided to go the more traditional route, using a naturally breathing 5.0-liter V-8 up front. It has 467 horsepower, 389 pound-feet of torque, and reaches 7,100 revolutions per minute. It’s mated to an eight-speed transmission.

The happy upside, particularly when driving on the edge, is the power band is very linear and predictable. Unlike a turbocharged system, there’s no sudden surge in torque as you apply the gas pedal. You get what you ask for. Just don’t expect that addictive, explosive power right off the line like a turbo.

Racetrack Gateway

For all-out insanity, the BMW is hard to beat. The M4 is the heavy-duty monster on back roads or on a club day at a racetrack. But it can feel manic on real roads, too often beating up driver and passenger. The RC F is supple and an easier gateway to performance driving. It will lure many a driver to their first time on a racetrack.

The interior meets Lexus standards, but in a snazzy, sport-inspired way. The stacked console looks cool and the nicely bolstered seats on my test model are clad in racer red.

Which brings us to the exterior. Other than the LFA supercar, no other Lexus has looked so exotic.

The grille is big enough to take out an entire flock of birds. Angles are numerous and complex, with folds and air ducts throughout the bodywork. The deep crease just behind the front wheels adds a striking visual element, and also aids in cooling. (Lexus says all of the vents and air ducts are functional, helping to cool brakes and engine.)

The trunk lid is crisp and there’s actually a hidden wing that deploys at higher speeds. Four stacked tailpipes finish off things with an aggressive flourish.

Lexus was bold and took chances here. I think you’ll like it. I did.

In fact, given the chance, this is a Lexus that may change the way that you perceive the brand. As the management would probably point out, that’s exactly the point.

The 2015 Lexus RC F at a Glance

Engine: 5-liter V-8 with 467 horsepower and 389 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 16 city, 23 highway (estimated).

Price as tested: $70,000 (estimated).

Best feature: Smart engineering lurking under an attractive skin.

Worst feature: Forget about using those back seats for actual humans.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)