There are Ford people and Holden people. You’re either a BMW man or a Mercedes man. Lambo or Ferrari. Mazda or Honda. Open-wheeler or sedan. Atmo or turbo. We all have our preferences and often we wear them as proudly as colours on a uniform.
Frankly I’ve never bought into the whole tribal loyalty thing, possibly because it’s an indulgence you can’t afford as a journalist – something I have been since I was a teenager, when such bonds are usually formed. I simultaneously fell in love with Holden Monaros and GT-HOs, with Beechey and Moffat, with Geoghegan and Matich, with Sandown and Bathurst.
I’ve always loved diversity in cars, and motor racing and music styles, so the luxury of being one-eyed has largely been restricted to footy and a lifelong addiction to the usually less than mighty Dees.
Having said that, I confess to having indulged a guilty preference over the years for BMW and Ferrari, though the latter has been more than tested since Enzo’s passing. And my family has shopped with essentially two marques – both Japanese – so I do understand brand loyalty.
But who exactly buys a Lexus? For many years I worked in a Jewish neighbourhood and they were plentiful, taking over as the brand of choice from Jaguar for wealthy businessmen and little old ladies who could barely see over the wheel. At least before the so-called chosen people decided that status was more important than shunning the shiny German badges adorning BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Next you’ll tell me that Americans are buying Japanese cars!
Conventional thinking among motoring enthusiasts, unimaginative and bigoted layabouts that they are, is that Lexi are bought only by fat nouveau riche businessmen. People who would watch The Real Housewives like it was a documentary if they weren’t so busy ripping off us overworked salary slaves so they could afford the bling that adorns their cosmetically enhanced trophy wives.
Surely that can’t be right, though. I recall being in awe of the original LS400, tempted by the ES300, excited by the IS200 and simply captivated by the towering ambition of the Lexus LFA and its howling V10. These were cars built with conviction. Surely there is a loyal following for such a passionate brand? Surely people don’t just buy them because the service guys come around with a replacement car, or you get to drink free coffee at the dealership while tapping into free wifi?
Yet people still don’t seem to know what to make of Lexus. So in starting out on this long-term test, I’m interested in learning more about what Lexus stands for as much as the merits of this particular car.
From the outset, other people are clearly attracted by the brand and the RC200t’s sharp looks. The car feels very solid (as it should given its heft), but that feeling is undermined by the sound of the engine – a new turbocharged 2.0-litre four rather than the 3.5-litre V6 in the similarly priced RC350. It goes well enough, but you have to be in Sport for an, err, sporty experience.
Solid doors reveal a classy interior that’s well-appointed, with plenty of functions to explore and adjust, largely via the now infamous Lexus touchpad controller, which has a huge task to win me over. But it hasn’t taken long to get comfortable in the well-shaped seats, which I reckon will be just as impressive on a long drive.
Ride quality is similarly impressive while the grip levels are so high that it might take some time to find the right environment and confidence to explore the RC’s limits and discover if it understeers or oversteers; at the moment it just feels like the electronics are humouring me into thinking I’m in control while they actually drive the car. Time soon to delve into the menus.
So lots to look forward to. I might even discover the key to the Lexus aura.
What the F-Sport
Our blue Lexus RC200t arrives in F-Sport spec, which adds $9000 to the $64K Luxury base model. The extra outlay brings 19-inch alloys, adaptive suspension, a 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, different steering wheel, sports seats with memory, LED headlights, blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, limited slip diff and Acceleration Sound Control (artificial engine noise). Our car also gets a $3500 enhancement pack that adds a moonroof, lane-departure warning, auto high-beam and a smart key.
About a decade ago I worked for five years for the public relations company that handles Toyota, and therefore Lexus. So I wrote plenty of press releases about the brand – though not of the gushing variety you might associate with the term PR. Does that colour my view of the brand and this car? Of course not. But I’d hate to think that anyone might consider that once earning a wage from an affiliated company might buy loyalty or colour my judgment.
Weekend getaway turns into a staunch test for car and driver alike.
I really should have known better. Having decided it was time to give the Lexus a gallop out into the country, my timing couldn’t have been worse. Friday evening before a long weekend is hardly the best time to be escaping the rat-race, especially when the weather has been ordered by Noah.
We’re going to the opening of an art show – I’m supporting an artist friend and trying to appear more sophisticated than I really am – but the traffic betrays my uncouth side. Why the hell are people heading for beaches in the middle of winter? Too late, my daughter advises that the traffic is so bad she’s bailed on a cross-town commitment. Smart girl.
Almost two hours inching along a so-called ‘freeway’ – for which we pay a princely sum, begrudgingly – is a test too far for my notorious lack of commuting patience. They’ve blocked a lane to ease the congestion, which simply extends the mayhem further back towards the office.
I invent a few new cusses.
Still, I’m determined to keep calm. We’ve allowed three hours to complete a one-hour drive, so the better half and I kick back to discuss the meaning of life over a packet of snakes in the vain hope I will calmly sit in just one lane. Of course I don’t, but each time I change lane the one I’ve just vacated suddenly gains pace and I’m left steaming inside while trying to maintain some level of dignity in front of the missus. How do people put up with this every day?
However much Lexus spent developing those seats was money well spent.
But it proves two things: firstly that the Lexus seats are wonderfully comfortable (and the heating function is greatly appreciated in weather like this, as would the cooling in summer); and secondly that you wouldn’t be without a modern automatic transmission. Manual gearboxes are for dopes. Yes, I’m talking to you Alex, and now that you’ll be travelling daily over the Westgate Bridge, only your Gen Y pride will stop you from agreeing within six months.
Once we clear the Geelong Rd and its salt-water junkies, we point towards Bacchus Marsh and clear the plugs. It’s clear sailing at last and we cover four times the distance in a quarter of the time. The Lexus RC200t is in its element now, cruising quietly, squat on the road, lapping up the miles. We step out after two and a half gruelling hours (at the end of a working week) feeling delightfully fresh and ache-free.
We park conspicuously outside the gallery and those sharp lines and front-end bling turn plenty of heads, but there will be no blue ribbons tonight. The Lexus is certainly eye-catching, but it’s no work of art.
Back seat blues
Twice now I’ve had call to use the rear seat for carrying people as opposed to stuff. The first time, I shoved my step-daughter and her lanky fiance through the tiny opening, where he in particular risked permanent neck damage from being jammed under that sloping roofline. The next opportunity was when we took the poor boy’s parents to dinner, but thought better of it and left the $75K Lexus parked forlornly at home while we schlepped it in their homely Korean SUV.
Automatic braking is a step forward... and back.
The problem these days with automotive engineers, of the electrical variety at any rate, is that they seem to think they’re so much smarter than the rest of us. And that they need to save us from ourselves.
They seemingly won’t be happy until cars are completely autonomous, removing the one variable – the mug driver – from their otherwise perfectly organised world. And, as we all know, they are close to their automotive nirvana, though quite how that will actually work is another matter.
Now call me old-fashioned – you wouldn’t be the first – but I quite like driving a car. I enjoy being in control of it, going as fast as I choose, as close to other cars and the scenery as I feel appropriate, choosing how much throttle, brake and steering is required to get from point to point in the smoothest, fastest and most efficient way possible within the constrictions of the real world with all its unpredictable variables, like those other mugs on the road.
But auto engineers don’t seem to share my view. And I reckon they (and the legislators who seem determined to remove all variables from life) are simply dumbing-down motoring. Driving is no longer regarded as a skill you need to learn and hone, but an activity that requires us to switch off our brains and blindly follow the pack. No wonder standards have plummeted.
I’m not picking on Lexus alone here, but the Lexus RC200t seemingly thinks it should be in control of everything, and that the driver just gets in the way. The steering, brakes and throttle seem only vaguely concerned with what your hands and feet are doing.
Most disconcerting is the autonomous auto braking, which Lexus embraces under the term Pre-Crash Safety System – and that’s important to know to find it in the 620-page owner’s manual (plus another 500-page volume just for the sat-nav!). I needed to find out how to turn it off, but the PCS button clearly illustrated on page 292 is somewhat hard to find in reality, being hidden under the steering column near your ankles.
Why would I want to turn off such a valuable safety device? Because it’s trying to cause an accident, that’s why. It simply doesn’t trust me. I know I drive to tighter margins than the average punter, but when I get a perfect run to overtake the car in front going up a hill, indicate and pull out, the last thing I need is for my car to have a hissy fit, shout at me and brake heavily while I’m out on the wrong side of the road.
Thankfully the kind man at Lexus told me how to find that elusive PCS button so it’s now turned off for good. But I’m sure they still think I’m a mug.
Response begins with a naughty word
The most annoying nanny in the Lexus on a regular basis concerns the throttle, which goes to sleep when you stop at the lights. Even with idle-stop turned off, it has no respect for your reaction time; predict the light sequence, gun it as soon as they go green and then… well, bugger-all for a second. As even little buzzboxes alongside surge ahead, you sit waiting for all that torque to kick in before suddenly whooshing away as if you’d been daydreaming. Seriously, what’s the point of developing all that turbo tech for instant throttle response only for the electronics to kill it completely?
Downsizing not so tantalising, but DAB’s an evolutionary revelation
Human beings depend on five senses that prevent us falling out of the evolution tree, but the rockstar senses are sight and sound. They’re the lead singer and guitarist, and so score the hot groupies. Smell, taste and touch can make their own arrangements.
It’s the same with cars. What I really focus on are their looks and the noise they make. I’m not excited about a big-nosed SUV with a piddly exhaust, and I bet you’re not either. I want curves and presence, and a noise that makes me tingle and drives me. I want to hear a wailing V12, a snarling V10, a burbling V8.
But modern cars are increasingly powered by turbo four-cylinder engines, as in the Lexus RC200t. Powertrain engineers may prefer a big atmo engine, but the demands of economy and emissions requires downsizing. So, to appease us sporty types with the old-fashioned expectation of aural satisfaction from burning fuel, we get artificial ‘sound enhancers’.
Put the RC’s equally digital drive selector into Sport mode, or the even more promising Sport+, and the sound is amplified, but not from the mechanical bits under the bonnet. No, it’s coming from speakers inside the car.
Without going to the extreme of those aftermarket gadgets that can make a Fiesta sound like a Ferrari inside, Lexus can’t allow the turbo four to sound as satisfying as a V8 or even a V6.
It’s like scoring the groupie’s mother.
At least the Lexus rewards the sonic sense in another way, courtesy of digital radio and a mighty 825w Mark Levinson surround-sound system with 17 speakers.
I’d always thought DAB was a con, but now I’m hooked. Digital radio is literally music to my ears, at least until they stuff it up by packing the dedicated channels with more ads. Not only do I get more music and less of those loathsome ‘zany’ morning crews, I get to drive home with Alice Cooper.
Just as I now wouldn’t want to live without cruise control, auto climate control and heated seats, I’m won over by DAB’s fabulously crisp sound and largely ad-free programming.
Beyond the mundane five senses, there’s an important sixth, and it has nothing to do with seeing dead people. I’m talking about common sense, which to me suggests that what I feel and hear should be authentic, not replicated. Otherwise I’m not really feeling it or hearing it at all.
Then again, what would common sense know? It’s not that common anyway.
Playing with our sense of touch
One of the downsides of digital radio (and the sat-nav) in the RC is the need to navigate all those stations via Lexus’s dreaded touchpad. I’m talking about the sense of feel, of which the pad pretty much has none. So I fumble about clicking all sorts of things by mistake. It’s worse for us right-hand-drive markets, because we sit on the ‘wrong’ side, for right handed people at least. Imagine using your left hand on a computer mouse with its sensitivity set on the fastest speed. That’s how the Lexus touchpad feels.
Extra kilos blunt sporty aspirations.
Imagine having a sexy performance coupe that impresses your friends, but having to drive it around with three of them in the car. All the time.
That’s what the Lexus RC200t feels like, because it’s some 230kg heavier than the rival BMW 430i that also has a 2.0-litre turbo four and develops a similar 185kW and 350Nm. That’s a lot of extra weight to cart around, and it feels it. Even the equivalent Audi A5 has a 150kg advantage, and it has the added complication of all-wheel drive.
On the plus side, all that extra weight makes the RC feel really solid, as if the car has been machined from a billet of steel. Maybe it has. It certainly doesn’t feel like a glorified Toyota, no matter what the knockers say. Lexus has always prided itself on build quality and clearly doesn’t mind beefing up to achieve that aim.
Those extra kilos make the car sit well on the road, and it rides nicely around town. If you’re not in a hurry and unconcerned about winning the Traffic Light Grand Prix, it’s a comfortable and solid drive.
Against the stopwatch and zipping around the suburbs, though, there’s no escaping that burden. Sprinting from 0-100km/h, the RC200t is an astonishing 1.7sec slower than the BMW 430i (7.5sec versus 5.8sec) despite being virtually line-ball in terms of outputs and ratios. Then the brakes have to work hard to bring it to rest again. It’s all down to those three porky virtual mates it has to haul around all the time.
Opting for the same package in the four-door IS200t saves about 45kg, which slashes half a second from the sprint time, as well as $7500 from the price. The sedan brings the convenience of smaller doors (with proper window frames so there’s no door-shut rattle that comes with the coupe electrically snapping tight the side glass), better rear-seat access and improved vision, though with a slightly less rorty exhaust, higher seating and less jetfighter-like cockpit. And, of course, less presence. The coupe really does catch the eye.
If Lexus could somehow remove two hundred kilos, then recalibrate the throttle for a much sharper response, the company may just have the sports coupe the RC clearly aspires to be.
Seatbelt holder a simple joy
A nice touch is the design of the seatbelt holders located on each front seat. An annoyance with coupes for generations was having to stretch back to reach the belt, but this solution is both simple and practical. It’s just a leather strap, sewn in at the top and located at the bottom by strong magnets, so it holds the belt close to hand yet is easily moved out of the way when you need to flip the seat to access the rear seat. Not as flashy as Mercedes’ automatic stretching arm, but just as effective.
Getting closer to the RC, but not much closer to clarity.
One of the best things about parting company with a long-term test car is the final tub. I like to do it by hand with a thin cleaning cloth, so you feel every sinew, curve and edge. It’s really quite intimate, and you get to appreciate things that might have escaped you in the hurly burly of daily life.
For example, I haven’t often stopped to appreciate the Lexus RC200t’s butt. Usually I only ponder the edgy front end, which never really won me over, but those sleek tail-lights, square exhausts and straked vents behind the rear wheels are the business.
Another thing that struck me as I worked my way down its flanks and over the bonnet is how small this coupe is. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise really because it’s low and short – shorter than the IS even – but as I discussed last month, the RC carries a couple of hundred kilos more than its major rival and therefore tends to feel big and heavy. Solid certainly, but hardly lithe.
I also reflected on six months of trouble-free motoring and how well it coped with some hard driving, mainly in the urban jungle. The slow throttle response remained a constant annoyance, and it took the edge off the undoubted performance potential of the 2.0-litre turbo four, but the car felt secure on the road. The handling was predictable (always tending to safe understeer) and the brakes were utterly dependable, though as I worked my fingers over the multitude of front wheel spokes with their different surfaces, I realised how much pad dust they produced, so I’m guessing they’re on the soft side.
Moving into the cabin with a damp sponge, I was also reminded that I’d never opt for light-coloured leather upholstery. Just as the editor found with his Mazda MX-5, my Lexus seats were looking decidedly grubby after only six months as they accumulated dye residue from my black jeans. At least I hope that’s what it was.
To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of leather seats – they feel cold in winter and burn in summer after you’ve been parked in the sun, then continue to be sweaty – but the RC’s heating function through the cold months on our fleet were certainly appreciated by driver and passengers alike. Leather looks great, especially in a darker colour, but I’d still elect for cloth trim from a purely practical perspective.
At the wheel, I’m also reminded of how snug the cockpit feels. It really does feel like a fighter jet with its low seating position, high armrest and equally high centre console decked out in thoroughly modern switchgear (aside from the ‘analogue’ clock, which is a classy touch and not just retro).
But now it’s time to part ways and I’m no closer to resolving what Lexus stands for, as I’d hoped when we started six months ago. I even sought guidance from my friend Simon Hammond, a former motoring writer and now a world authority on brands (whose book BE Brands is a must-read for anyone involved in business). “Lexus stands for nothing,” he said firmly. “It has no real brand position and merely relies on its styling, which is not enough when every manufacturer ends up copying styles.” Wise words.
Maybe in hindsight I needed to experience Lexus’s renowned servicing and customer relations to fully appreciate the brand. Or do people just buy a Lexus to be different, to avoid the predictable European brands, or because they like some flashy bling?
I’d be more inclined to the RC200t if it was a lot lighter, lost the foot parking brake and infuriating touchpad, and became authentic instead of having the electronics influence everything you do, feel and hear.
Maybe a lack of authenticity has been Lexus’s problem all along and it’s yet to find its true passion. A sports coupe this heavy, which doesn’t allow you to drive it properly, is not an authentic sports coupe at all.
Turbo four versus atmo six
Wheels readers will be more aware than anyone of the trend away from big naturally aspirated engines to smaller, turbocharged fours. Lexus is impacted by world environmental pressures like all other carmakers and consequently introduced across its range this 2.0-litre turbo four, which produces a healthy 180kW and 350Nm.
But Lexus still offers a 3.5-litre atmo V6 in the RC and I reckon it would be worth the extra $3000. It only adds about 15kg to the nose of the car, which is not a lot when the RC is already way over the odds, and you get an extra 53kW and 28Nm, slashing the 0-100km/h sprint time from 7.5sec to just 6.1. On paper, the RC350 uses an extra 2.1 litres for every 100 kays, but looking at our long-termer’s six-month average of 11.2L/100km, I’d bet the difference would be less than that in the real world.