Stonehouse: Performance falls short on the hot-looking Lexus RC350 (column) |

Stonehouse: Performance falls short on the hot-looking Lexus RC350 (column)

There’s something curious going on with one particular strain of Lexus’s new sports-oriented automobiles, the one that is, and is not at the same time, a sports-oriented automobile.

I seem to remember lots of moaning when the new RC350 appeared that, while it was essentially an upscaled and expanded version of the company’s smaller IS sports-ish car, it failed to deliver the true sports experience DNA they’d promised would drip down from the LFA supercar.

So it was odd to get such strong and positive reactions from the general public — plenty of actual thumbs-ups from kids at the final Red Rocks show of the season and even folks in picky Boulder, too — to the RC350’s sporty looks.

It sure appears to be a hot machine: svelte and aggressively styled, with a well-executed and leathery, sport-oriented cabin to match. They’ve categorized it as a luxury sport sedan, and that creates some pretty high hopes, especially with all that German competition.

The reality, however, is that the RC350 does not exactly fly, roll or turn like a true sports car. In fact, that old, familiar 306-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 even feels a little light here, especially in a well-broken-in vehicle whose previous test drivers surely tried to drag race everyone they could at every opportunity.

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An eight-speed automatic transmission also tended to defer way, way too often to about eighth gear, especially at low speeds, which sucked even more of the punch.

Overall, I got considerably less-than-explosive power, and the general motoring experience was pleasant but somewhat imprecise. And that’s a shame considering the car had variable gear ratio steering, a $1,900 option, plus almost $4,000 in mostly aesthetic F Sport upgrades (special grille and bumper, 19-inch wheels, body-hugging seats, a race wheel, aluminum pedals) plus the adaptive variable suspension and a multi-stage sport mode. For all that, I thought some smoking of the tires would be a natural by-product.

It’s about then that you bemoan the fact that there is indeed a real sports version of the car, the RC F, with a 5.0-liter V8, 467 horsepower and much of the same looks. The RC350 and a few other lower-output variations not blessed by that V8 have got the appearance and much of the interior grace, but they’re not out-of-control sports machines. So it goes.

A total disappointment? Far from it. It’s a Lexus, and that’s still a big, aspirational choice for most motorists; despite the somewhat underwhelming performance, the overall rendering, the level of cabin design and comfort and the raw beauty of the design certainly do help make up for any shortcomings.

The long, smooth body has got all the presence of some very expensive grand-touring machine, even those unbelievably uncouth Maseratis, and the ultra-focused spindle grille (even sportier in the F Sport package, as mentioned) is the most spindle-shaped grille of the entire Lexus family, with zig-zaggy plastic surrounded by a chrome edged boomerang and seriously tiny fog lamps.

Super-swept headlamps and LED parking lights shaped like Nike logos sit just ahead of pretty functional-looking brake ventilation ducts, something much more important on the tire-blazing RC F.

The wheels are huge and beautiful, and the rocker panels flare out for a sportier stance; even the tail strikes a futuristic and macho pose for the car, with a tall, slanted aerodynamic trunk lid, brutal wedges of brake lamps, oversized exhaust ports in an aero rear fascia assembly. They’ve added some impressive black character/speed lines to the bottom outside corners of the bumpers, looking it like it’s going like hell, when it is not. Sigh.

The cabin also very much makes you feel like the RC350 is going to be way over the top on the sports angle. That includes the gimmicky but kind of cool sliding instrument cluster, modified from the LFA (switch between display modes and it literally slides across the face of the instrument panel) plus some remarkably butt-clenching race seats and ample, high-quality leather throughout. A tall center channel with simple but effective audio and A/C controls, touch-sensitive temperature sliders and even a marginally successful new touchpad system all round out the niceties.

Let us cross our fingers for a sure-to-be-hilarious mid-winter date with the RC F as a comparison, hopefully outfitted with high-performance summer tires. I’ll let you know how that goes.

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