There was once an unspoken covenant that guided the auto biz: Americans would build muscle cars, Europeans would stick to sports cars, and everybody would get along just fine. Then along came the Japanese, who insisted on muddying the waters by assembling turbocharged rockets that could also handle a corner, crashing the world into darkness and despair as the once-clear line that divided Cars That Turn from Cars That Don’t Turn dissolved in a cloud of tire smoke.
We’ve had twenty years, roughly, to recover from the destabilizing mid-90s tuner car craze, which lead to the subsequent blossoming of big-bore Euro power and surprisingly-nimble Detroit designs. It feels right, then, that we’ve finally advanced to the point where the land of the rising sun is comfortable throwing convention to the wind and building the kind of throwback muscle car that it never had the chance to get out of its system in the late-1960s: the 2017 Lexus RC F.
It’s easy enough to point at the spec sheet of any bruisingly mighty modern machine and apply the ‘muscle’ label, but it goes far deeper than a dyno pull when considering what the RC F brings to the table. This is a coupe that, rather than chase the on-track accomplishments of its BMW and Audi rivals, has instead elected to embrace the full personality makeover required to travel back in time to an era where cubic inches and an outsized personality mattered more than lateral g’s.
It starts on the outside, where the Lexus RC F features the same obstreperous ‘are you looking at me?’ maw that once graced similarly quarrelsome, in-your-face designs as the Dodge Super Bee. It’s the kind of mug that can start a bar fight, and the one whose fists you desperately hope will be on your side once the fur begins to fly. Lexus has amplified the chip on the RC F’s shoulder by making it available in High-Impactish colors like “Molten Pearl” orange and deep “we can’t legally call it Blue By You,” topping it off with a dash of available carbon fiber on the trunk lid that pops up into a spoiler at the touch of a button to fulfill your (Charger) Daytona or (Torino) Talladega fantasies. Ok, not quite, but it is a neat trick.
Then there’s the size of the car, which is larger and needlessly heavier than most of its competitors. You see, about 10 years ago, when the F’s more pedestrian RC was in the gestation phase, the Lexus product planning team responsible for the coupe still clung to the belief that people purchase convertibles – and, more specifically, that some of those men and women would be willing to buy one with a Lexus badge on the front. This led to the RC’s platform being stitched together from three separate chassis designs – the rear end of the IS sedan, the stiff center section of the IS C convertible, and the (why?) mid-size GS four-door’s front clip – in a bid to banish cowl shake. Ultimately, faced with shrinking sales of anything without a roof, but especially anything Lexus-y, the company abandoned the convertible RC F and left the coupe saddled with an immense 4,050 lbs of curb weight that made it portlier than the four-door IS F it replaced in the automaker’s showrooms.
As with many of the then-intermediate-size muscle cars that would dominate Boomer legend, the heft of the RC F disqualifies it from track day duty for all but the most determined Lexus fans. Having beaten the coupe into submission around a road course myself, I can vouch for its unusual ability to make me prefer the less-powerful base model RC when asked to turn a corner, if only to avoid having to deal with the pendulously-slung lump of metal hung behind its murderous nose. Put the car on a skid pad and turn off the nannies, however, and regardless of whether you’re dealing with its trick torque-vectoring rear end (“trick” because it fools you into thinking “slalom mode” actually means anything other than “hooligan time”) or its standard Torsen rear differential, you’ll enjoy billowing clouds of black rubber in quantities sufficient to invite a visit from the ghosts of COPOs past.
That brings me to the heart of the RC F’s muscle car mission: the massive 5.0-liter mill that calls down 467 horsepower and 381 lb-ft of torque with a guttural roar guaranteed to make you many new friends at your next HOA meeting. Flashy though it may be with its 32 titanium valves and 7,300 rpm redline, this Lexus remains the only naturally-aspirated engine in its class, with no supercharger whine or flatulent turbo to obscure the Judas Priest cover band that’s been set on fire inside its exhaust system. True to its straight-line spirit, there’s only an eight-speed automatic to be had with the motor, a traditional torque-converter unit that’s perfectly equipped for a brake-boosted run through the timing lights.
Just be careful who you line up against, because while the car will run a 12.8 ET in the quarter mile, these days that’s barely the price of admission for a luxury company like Lexus’s high-zoot coupe. Sure, the RC F will zoom up to 170-mph at the top end, but honestly, name a V8 car built in 2017 that won’t? Like its progenitors, the Lexus RC F’s Achilles heel is its price, with more affordable options matching it in terms of performance when evaluated with actual numbers and specs instead of by standing on the throttle and yelling ‘WOOO HOOOO!’ at the top of your lungs. The real reason Hemi-powered Mopars are so scarce is because they, too, were prohibitively pricy in their day, and the disconnect between dollars and donuts is even more pronounced for the sneering Lexus.
And here we find the sad, strange fate of the Lexus RC F, a car too expensive for the gearhead masses who can appreciate its eight-cylinder honesty, yet not exotic enough to tickle the fancies of the BMW M4 and Mercedes-Benz C63 shoppers its meant to entice. Caught between two worlds as a result of its Rocky Horror time-warp, at the very least the RC F proves that modern muscle doesn’t need its birthplace called out in a Journey lyric to delivery a satisfying peel out from the parking lot of your local DQ.