(Pocket-lint) - There's something to be said for rarity. When sighting an unusual car it turns heads because it bucks the familiar trend. Which is exactly what the Lexus RC 300h does.
Drive through town in this sporty-looking coupe and its mammoth front grille will get eyes glancing in its general direction. And not because it's got a rapturous V8 under the hood and makes a big song and dance (there's the RC F for that). Oh no, that "h" stands for hybrid - meaning the RC 300h can, in theory, pull away in total silence on electricity alone.
But there are reasons for rarity, both good and bad. So why is the Lexus so rarely seen meandering down the UK's bumpy B-roads? It could be down to a number of things: a hybrid sport coupe feels like a contradiction in terms; the on-board tech is a long way behind the competition in terms of usability; and the price point can't outsmart its obvious Audi A5, BMW 4 Series and Mercedes C-Class rivals.
We spent a week with the RC 300h to see whether its aesthetic allure and eco-conscious hybrid setup is enough to make it excel as the sport coupe to go for.
We think the RC 300h's face is a striking example of design difference in a typically modest category. That grille looks like it could eat up the road for breakfast without a care. Those Nike-esque "tick" headlights echo both front and rear to add some sharpness to the smoother lines. Optional mud flaps to the rear add even more streamlining to the look.
If you were to line-up the Lexus side-by-side against the Audi A5 Coupe and Mercedes-Benz C220D - arguably its most comparable competitors - then we think it looks the most unusual. It's not quite as futuristic as the LC 500, mind, but that's something to keep in mind for 2018 and beyond.
Thing is, the Lexus starts from around £37K, making it about £2K more than the Audi A5 and around £5K more than the Merc. Our review RC 300h is the F Sport model - that's middle of the pack, which runs from Luxury to F Sport to Premier models - which starts at approaching £40K. Point being: you need to really want the Lexus' looks and really want a hybrid to warrant spending that extra cash.
Interior and comfort
A week with the RC 300h gave us plenty of opportunity to test the car out on a variety of roads - a long drive from London to the Peak District and back; stop-start traffic driving through busy south London; a few trips around the A406, M25 and down the M20 - to give us a broad sense of how it feels to live with this car.
The conclusion is simple enough: it's a comfortable to be for many hours. The F Sport interior, here shown in dark rose leather (it's kinda cherry red, really) with aluminium inlays, doesn't add to the price tag at this trim level. There's also the option of clove, black or grey leather - whatever takes your fancy. All include both heated and vented seats (you can even switch both on at the same time, which is unusual), plus electrically adjustable driver and passenger seats. At least Lexus doesn't charge for every addition under the sun like Audi, BMW and Merc do - which helps to equalise the price and value proposition.
Comfortable though it may be, there's a certain disconnect with the interior; it's a bit of a time-warp. For a start there's a CD player slot, which feels like it's been drawn out of the 90s. Maybe CDs are still big business in Japan, but we're sorely surprised not to see more ports, the option for Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and generally more future-facing-ness in this regard. The sound system is pretty reasonable given the space available to implement (or you can plump for the Mark Levinson system at £1,000 extra). That Lexus clock, front and centre, is iconic, but it just looks kind of gaudy in this setup.
Infotainment and complications
Tucked above that clock is the infotainment screen, buried into the dash. It's easy to glance at, bright enough to see while out on the road, and delivers premium navigation for an extra £1,995. That's about the biggest extra box you're likely to tick on this car.
Problem in, "premium" is more than a misnomer. Lexus is behind in this department: the accuracy of the navigation was vague, giving up in the vicinity of our destination address in the Peak District, for example, because it didn't have the roads available on its system to map them. Typing in a destination feels about a decade out of date, too, given the process of typing in a very specific address only - something Android Auto could address with Google Maps, were it available.
Furthermore the whole system is really hard to use. We're not labouring this point unnecessarily: we've already seen a similar (actually even harder-to-use) system in the RX 450h, and it's just not indicative of being made by people who ever use tech. The little pad to the centre tunnel offers haptic feedback to assist your sliding finger when jostling between on-screen letters and options, but it's hyper-sensitive and all too easy to (infuriatingly) miss what you want, select the wrong option or type in the wrong letter.
Ultimately Lexus has a massive opportunity here. A huge company - Toyota owns the brand, along with Scion, Daihatsu and more - there's no reason for it to lag behind in this department. Especially when quirky cars like the Toyota Prius are so much more standout in their ways. Simplify, modernise and the brand will sit at a level that can compete with Audi's top-drawer offerings.
That's not to say it's behind everywhere: the driver's cluster beyond the wheel is a mixture of digital and mechanical. By default the circular display will provide digital rev and speed readings. However, the whole circular component can mechanically move to the side at the press of a button, revealing a quick-glance double-up of the infotainment within eye shot. It's a lot of fun. Impractical, perhaps, but who cares? It's a great way to keep navigation on the main dash screen, while, say, you select through your tunes using the steering wheel controls.
How does it drive?
Sat behind the wheel of the RC 300h and there's something of a paradigm shift: this is a sporty coupe, complete with manual paddles on the wheel to shift those gears if the auto box doesn't suit your taste, but it's also a hybrid. Hit the start button and it's possible to pull away in total silence, which is totally brilliant on the one hand, but at odds with the car's overall look and feel on the other. No noise, no passion, no connect. It's an almost strange sensation, nothing like thrashing around in a Toyota GT86, for example.
The RC 300h uses regenerative breaking to juice-up its on-board battery, so you never need to worry about plugging in or anything like that. The electric motor merely complements the 2.5-litre petrol engine, which ought to make for greater efficiency. But it depends on how you drive and depends on the roads, too. We often found that pulling away at sensible speeds would kick the petrol engine into play to get moving away from traffic lights fast enough. Thus, the hybrid component didn't aid our driving style a great deal and at times feels at odds with the coupe image.
That engine isn't exactly a beast either, as it's a CVT much like the Toyota C-HR (you didn't expect that, eh?). The four cylinder construction means it's not especially loud - which does go hand-in-hand with the hybrid appeal - and 0-62mph can be struck in 8.6 seconds. Which is about the same as a 1-litre EcoBoost Ford Fiesta (in 140ps trim).
As the RC 300h is quite a long car, and rear-wheel drive, switch off the traction control, give it a bit of welly and you can get it to do some slightly more silly cornering. There are multiple modes to choose from - Eco, Normal, Sport, Sport+ - that will give added pep to handling as the higher-ranking options are selected, but you can also expect efficiency to go down as a result. If you're ultra conscious then, battery permitting, an EV button will attempt to run the car in electric only - but it's tricky to not over-press the throttle and kick the engine back in, frankly.
So the Lexus RC 300h, despite its sporty looks, isn't really designed to be thrashed about. Its goals as different to many coupes: this is about quietness, getting you around in comfort, knowing you'll arrive with people turning to look at this car's unusual face.
Overall the Lexus RC 300h is a sort-of brilliant contradiction: we love the way it looks, that it's a rare sight on UK roads, and is comfortable to sit behind the wheel for long periods. At the same time, its sporty looks aren't met with much gusto from that 2.5l engine, the on-board tech and infotainment is behind its competition, and it can't outsmart its German competition in terms of price point.
In many ways we've enjoyed the RC 300h - it's a breath of fresh air in terms of visual design and has an eco-conscious stance - but we can see why its a rarity: it lacks any true key lure to get customers on board and away from its notable competition.
Alternatives to consider
Mercedes Benz C220d
If a luxe coupe is a must, but the purse strings are a little tight, then (surprisingly) it's Merc that offers the most affordable way nto the sector. The C-Class coupe isn't the newest of the bunch, but those good looks, obvious Merc-ness and a decent interior setup make it a popular and, daresay, obvious choice.
Read the full article: Mercedes C220d first drive
Audi A5 Coupe
Yes, it's an Audi, so it looks like an Audi. But, well, that's the exact reason to buy an Audi, right? Less thrilling in visual terms than the Lexus, this non-hybrid has a lower asking price and better interior/tech setup. Which goes to explain why it's so popular and not at all a rarity on UK roads.
Read the full article: Audi A5 review
Ok, call us mad, but forego the luxury, save £10-15K and the GT86 is a whole lot more fun. It's smaller, more nimble, and delivers on the thrills like a 2+2 should.
Read the full article: Toyota GT86 review