Lexus and its Coupes – From Sport Coupe to Radical Concept

2015 Lexus RC 350

The all-new RC 350, shown at the NOLA Motorsports Park. Parked.

Alexandra, VA – It’s a fall afternoon, and I’m at a light just north of Alexandria’s Old Town. To my left is an early ‘90s Lexus SC, in what looks to be immaculate condition; behind the wheel is a 20-something that makes him a toddler when the car was first sold. His window is down, and mine can go down, so I ask him: How long has it been in the family? With a smile he says “since new – and just 123,000 miles.” That, in a nutshell, is a short history of the Lexus coupe…built to dazzle, but not burn so brightly that it eventually burns out.

1992 Lexus SC 400

SC 400 design defies time…

In the beginning (or, more accurately, around 1989) there was BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jag-u-ar, although Jag is included only because we work at being polite – and we fought (you’ll remember) with the Brits in the War. The sale of import luxury then (as now) was dominated by the Germans, while Jaguar sold a reasonable number of XJ sedans, and little else. Audi, after the fiasco that was sudden acceleration, was still in sales purgatory, and Porsche  sold  a few air-cooled 911s, along with a smattering of 944s and 928s. It was a world composed largely of BMW and Benz, into which Toyota and Nissan would engage in the fall of ’89 with Lexus and Infiniti, respectfully. And following those brand and product introductions it was, for all intended purposes, a luxury world turned upside down.

As a BMW sales rep for the first part of that decade I was keenly interested in what the Japanese had to offer. And viewing it with my BMW bias, Infiniti’s Q45, with its big V8, athletic platform and truly different approach to marketing whetted my curiosity far more than the Lexus intro. Lexus had a big sedan mimicking Mercedes’ S-Class, a more traditional take on marketing, and an entry-level ES that didn’t simply resemble a Camry; it was – BYGOD – a Camry! And a thinly disguised Camry, to this BMW-immersed eye, was not a luxury import.

But what did I know? The upmarket demographic flocked to Lexus showrooms as if they were giving the stuff away, while Infiniti languished in a product-starved stupor ‘til the (much later) advent of its G35 sedan and coupe. At Lexus it was Katy-bar-the-door for its LS, which begat the question: What do you do for an encore? The encore was the introduction of Lexus’ first luxury coupe, the SC 400, for the ’92 model year.

On top of the major mojo that was the Lexus franchise in the early ‘90s, the intro of their first coupe was – at the time – a very big deal. And it might have remained a big deal if their inaugural effort had looked like Infiniti’s first coupe, the M30. Thankfully, it didn’t look at all like the M30 – or anything else on the market at that time. Overtly organic, and designed for the American market by the team at Toyota’s Calty Design Studio, the new-for-‘92 SC 400 couldn’t be compared directly to anything on the market at the time. And if you were looking for design comparisons and/or inspirations, I always thought you’d have to go back three decades to the Jaguar E-Type where, again, you’d find no evidence of a straight edge, and no stylistic addendums marring an otherwise perfect shape. It was, in a word, compelling. And as evidenced by my brief conversation in Alexandria, it remains compelling a generation later.

The restraint evident at its introduction is still in place today; but then, so are the longish overhangs and relatively narrow track. The interior remains  tasteful, and while I haven’t driven one in roughly fifteen years, you can assume the platform is new enough, and either the 3.0 six or 4.0 V8 substantial enough, that there remains a modicum of amusement. But this is a car to be seen – and seen in. And while I don’t think prices will ever rise to the level of E-Types or air-chilled 911s, Lexus’ first coupe represents a marker in both time and Japan’s automotive history.

Lexus SC 430

THe SC 430: A little of this, a little of that

Notably, Lexus got about as much out of its original tooling as any product exec might hope, keeping it on the sales floor through the 2000 model year. Present at the U.S. launch of the 2nd gen SC, known as the SC 430, I couldn’t help but wonder what the product execs and design team had wrought. In place of the organic, unified design of the first generation coupe was a little of this, a little of that in the all-new hardtop convertible. Whereas the first coupe provided a pivotal moment in Japanese design, and became the subject of a number of design critiques, the SC 430 generated the first recorded use – prior to texting – of WTF?. And while we’ll grudgingly admit the end result was more attractive than Ford’s contemporary T-Bird, and the design has worn surprisingly well since its ’01 intro, it’s not unlike the misstep Jaguar made when replacing the E-Type with the XJ-S. That Jag, in all of its alphanumeric simplicity, supplies the perfect explanation for why the Brits won the war – and subsequently lost it.

That was of course, then; this is now. The ‘now’ is an all-new RC 350 and its hyperformance derivative, the RC F. And while you might think this new coupe architecture is a takeoff of an existing sedan, know that the platform is a result of three distinct parts shelves; the front comes from the Lexus GS, the rear from the IS sedan, and the midsection from the IS convertible, whose bones were presumably the strongest of the three. Think Franken-san…

2015 Lexus RC F

Foreplay: Lexus RC F in pit lane

As you can see from the photos, this is an overtly aggressive design in either of its two guises. Lexus’ now-signature spindle grille is front and center, and slightly more exaggerated (if possible) than the schnoz fronting the IS sedan. Flared wheelwells barely contain the RC rubber, and the coupe’s windscreen reclines at an aggressively aero angle. The greenhouse itself is vaguely BMW-esque, while a character line running the length of the coupe’s rocker panel supplies a certain amount of panache; or will until the dregs of winter attach themselves semi-permanently to it.

Inside, it’s as all-business as Lexus’ business-oriented buyer would want. Or, at least we thought so until we read the press blurb, where we discovered the interior to be “infused with a strong sports car aesthetic and pure Lexus luxury…the RC cabin also reflects a strong influence from the Lexus LFA supercar.” Having spent all of five minutes in an LFA I missed that connection completely, and will simply have to take them at their word on “sports car aesthetic.” I just thought it was purty…

Seats in either the RC 350 F SPORT or RC F are appropriately supportive, without posing a trip hazard while entering or exiting. And the gauge package and electronic interface provide sufficient info and entertainment to preclude actuallydrivingthe car to get back your investment. We didn’t try the backseat, but can vouch for its existence.

After roughly a decade spent – with its SC 430 – in the design wilderness, it’s gratifying to see Lexus’ product team once again swing for the fences. Although the end result may not have hit it out of the park, those of us tiring of so many BMW 2-doors out and about can find solace in this Lexus alternative. And at $45K to $50K for a nicely-spec’d RC 350, most white collar criminals will be able to afford one.