IAIN ROBERTSON 

The luxury arm of Toyota has benefited from the wave of enthusiasm coursing through it of late, reports Iain Robertson, as its latest Lexus models just glow with glamour and capabilities across a modest line-up possessing a high-quality edge.

In the North American car scene, there exists a niche market sector known as ‘personal coupe’. Some wags insist that it ought to be called ‘the selfish sector’, because it lacks the practicality of the family model upon which it is based, yet, you can take it for granted that those people ‘dissing’ the 2+2, which is what most of the class contenders are in seating terms, are usually and understandably green with envy.

Yet, it is a market segment that is not exactly over-run with competitors. In the case of the Lexus RC300h, it is the other premium brands, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, that offer their own alternatives. In some ways, this is an ideal scenario for Lexus, which continues to build a slightly leftfield slot in the broader automotive picture.

It takes bottle to order a new car that places restrictions on its owner. After all, if more than one friend, or associate, wishes to accompany the driver, they are likely to be scuppered, unless alternative transportation arrangements are made. As a result, beyond the ‘Wow!’ factor of kerb appeal, the ‘personal coupe’ can be as useful for most people as a chocolate fireguard, which is a fairly good reason for sales to remain in a far-from-halo-like niche.

The RC300h, in which the lower-case ‘h’ stands for hybrid, is typical of the category, in that its rear seats, while demanding patience to access, as tilting either front seat-back forwards commences a powered but time-consuming memory function to operate, creates very limited space behind two six-feet tall occupants. Even if leg-crushing is a masochistic requirement, believe me, you would not wish to be stashed in the hide-lined rear seats, however beautifully trimmed they might be. It does make me wonder why manufacturers bother to make the rear accommodation look so appealing. They could readily junk the trim, carpet it and increase the boot space to allow the car to satisfy grand touring requirements instead.

Yet, remember, this is a deliciously detailed machine that makes no pretensions about serving the needs of anyone except its driver and front seat passenger; it is a self-serving, sporty two-seater, with just enough space in the 340-litres boot for two sets of golf clubs, extra bags to be placed on the rear seats. However, its sense of purpose, from the instant the driver’s door is opened, is abundantly clear. The broad centre console sweeps rearwards and accentuates the close-coupled appeal that remains central to the laid-back coupe styling.

Oozing high-class quality from every orifice is the RC’s primary intention and the mix of stitched hide and matt black trim is both tasteful and beguiling. Apart from its inevitable hybrid elements, which replace a rev-counter with an efficiency dial and position the PTS (push to start) button to the upper-left of the instrument binnacle, while placing an electronic touch-pad just behind the gear selector, everything else is conventional and as it should be in a car of this class.

The electrically powered front seats adjust in every direction for maximum comfort and support, while both can be heated, or chilled, via three-position controls in the centre console, as part of the top-specification ‘Premium’ trim level (the car is also available in Executive and non-hybrid F forms). The touch-pad controls most of the in-car functions, including the climate control, sat-nav and outstanding Mark Levinson hi-fi system, with matching graphics displayed on the 7.0-inch multimedia screen in the top centre of the dash-panel. However, it can be fiddly and annoying means of removing switchgear from the centre console, as fine control of the device is difficult to achieve on the move and not especially reactive when parked.

While most minor controls can be accessed using the typical switches on the steering wheel cross-spokes, the cruise control being on a separate stalk, a pair of alloy paddles are located behind the tiller for a sportier response from the transmission…more on which in a moment. The lined door pockets, decent glovebox and a deep centre console beneath a leather-wrapped lid between the front seats, within which are both USB and power sockets, provide convenient storage for in-car paraphernalia.

Having mentioned the transmission, it is worth noting that it is an electronically-controlled, constantly-variable type (CVT). In other words, it has no gears but allows seamless and refined power delivery across the hybrid engines’ rev-range. You will note the position of the apostrophe in the previous sentence, which I shall explain momentarily, but the paddles on the steering column introduce electronic up and down-shift points that can be used to enhance the overall performance of the car.

There are two engines driving the RC300h’s rear wheels; a 2.5-litre, 133bhp, four-cylinder petrol unit, which is linked to a 650v, 141bhp electric engine and Nickel Metal-hydride (NiMh) battery pack. They work in unison, the electric version aiding both acceleration and steady speed cruising of the petrol one. Even travelling at constant motorway speeds, you will find the green ‘EV’ light illuminating the left side of the binnacle more often than you might have believed. However, do not expect simple arithmetic to arrive at the car’s total (combined) power output, which is given as 178bhp, largely due to the fact that the power units work together constantly. It can be fascinating to select the appropriate in-dash graphic that illustrates how the power fluctuates, when it is being driven, and not only the frequency of its all-electric mode but also how the power distribution works.

The on-paper figures give a 0-60mph time of 8.3s, allied to a restricted top speed of 118mph. Its Official Combined fuel economy is 57.6mpg (which I struggled to attain, my regular return being around 43.7mpg), with the optimised petrol engine emitting a modest 113g/km of CO2, which places the car in Band C for road tax purposes. However, they do not tell the true story of the RC’s overall effortlessness. This a car that cruises quietly and smoothly, even on its 19-inch diameter alloys, fitted with 35 (f) and 40-profile (r) tyres that can be a source of extraneous road noise on some cars. While satisfyingly brisk, the RC300h is not about delivering blistering performance (the F version will do that), as it is a means to high-luxury, economical and, despite the weight of its technology, finely resolved grand touring.

The weight of the battery pack, which provides a notional EV-only range of little more than a mile, can be felt, should you attempt to hustle the RC through bends with any enthusiasm. However, it does not affect the car’s dynamic balance excessively. Thanks to the standard fitment of a limited-slip rear differential, on the often icy roads of the test period, I was able to flick the tail out on a whim, although the car’s stability and controllability remained excellent.

Delightfully accurate electric power steering and double wishbone front and multilink rear suspension cope superbly with the state of today’s roads, providing first-rate ride quality and responsive, roll-resistant handling. Large diameter front and rear ventilated disc brakes provide assured stopping power and the parking brake is foot-operated. I would prefer a proper handbrake and an electric one would have been advantageous sometimes, although a ‘hill-holder’ device does serve purpose. Although subtle and switchable, the usual suite of driver safety aids supports the customary dynamic stability and traction controls.

Conclusion:    In a range that starts at just over £37,000, the test car is priced fairly at £42,645, which does place it in a higher tax bracket. However, it looks absolutely stunning from every angle, attracting admiring glances and even the occasional, highly positive comments from onlookers. Its eco-credentials are well tried and tested, parent company Toyota being an acknowledged world leader in hybrid technology. Therefore, the Lexus RC300h is a sublimely gorgeous coupe that means the driver can not just acquire his cake but can also consume it readily.