The top spot on the luxury sports coupe podium has always belonged to the BMW 4 Series. For decades, Munich’s best-selling coupe has been the segment benchmark for style, performance and dynamics.
While BMW is trying hard to defend its place from rivals Mercedes-Benz and Audi, another contender has risen to the challenge. This time, from the far East.
The Lexus RC is the latest model to herald the reinvention of Lexus, ahead of the brand’s 25th anniversary. After years of watching the 4 Series and its German rivals monopolising the segment, Lexus has finally decided that it’s time to have a slice of the cake. And from the looks of things, it’s not going to settle for second place.
So, here we have the entry point to the premium sports coupe ownership from both marques – the BMW 420i Sport Line and Lexus RC 350 Luxury. And here is the question: which one is better? Let’s find out.
Style is everything in this segment. When we first set eyes on the BMW 4 Series, we thought its design would be hard to top. The 4 Series’ perfectly proportioned exterior boasts a sleek and athletic stance, accentuated by a low nose, flared rear wheel arches, swooping roof line and elegant lines.
Then the Lexus RC arrives and takes styling a whole new level. It features the most aggressive interpretation yet of the brand’s trademark spindle grille, flanked by curvy headlights and striking LED daytime running lights. The rear is equally dramatic, with L-shaped taillights complemented by a deep rear diffuser and racy side air extractors (non-functional).
Side on, the Lexus’ sensuous roofline, beefy side skirts and shallow glasshouse make its German rival look dull in comparison.
While the BMW threads on mature elegance, the Lexus embraces new age gracefulness. Driving both cars down a busy street, it’s the RC that draws more attention than the 4 Series.
Moving on to interior, the 4 Series’ cabin is largely carried over from the 3 Series. You get BMW’s familiar layered dashboard design which gives the cabin in the 4 Series a spacious and modern feel, with excellent ergonomics and clear instrumentation.
The driving position is spot on and the front row seats are comfortable. Front occupants will appreciate the excellent legroom and two average-sized adults would fit in the back, although they might find the headroom a little tight due to the car’s sloping roofline.
The 445-litre boot is decent size for a coupe. With the rear seats tumbled, the space expands to 1,300 litres.
Like the 4 Series, the RC gets the IS’ dashboard, albeit with more cowhide covering the dash top, door trims and kneepads. In contrast with the exterior, the Lexus’ cabin looks more grown-up than the BMW’s, but just as inviting. The front row seats are incredibly comfortable, more so than the BMW’s, and the ergonomics are good. There are also the typical Lexus clarify and attention to detail around the interior.
Given the option, we would prefer to ride in the back of the BMW than the Lexus, as the latter’s rear bench is not as wide and the legroom is not as big.
The RC’s 423 litres of boot space is down on the 4 Series, but stretches out as much with the rear seats folded.
BMW 420i Sport Line – 8.5 | Lexus RC 350 Luxury – 9.0
Turbo four or atmospheric V6?
The 420i’s 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder develops 135kW of power and 270Nm of torque. Against the RC 350’s 3.5-litre V6 with 233kW and 378Nm, the 420i has 98 less kilowatts and 108 fewer newton metres.
So, it’s no surprise the Lexus is 1.2 seconds quicker than the BMW in the sprint from rest to 100km/h, with a time of 6.1 seconds against the 420i’s 7.3 seconds.
The RC 350 also wins in the noise department. Plant your right foot and a snarling growl rushes in from under the bonnet, thanks to something called the Lexus Active Generator. It uses the intake air pulse to raise the sound-pressure level at specific frequencies that are perceived to be favourable, such as at mid to high revs.
The 420i, on the other hand, can do with a sharper sounding engine and sportier exhaust note.
Both cars drive the rear wheels through impressive 8-speed automatic transmission, though the ratios in the Lexus is more evenly spaced out, giving smoother acceleration, while the BMW has slightly longer ratios in the lower gears for a sportier feel.
Putting everything in perspective, the RC 350 edges the 420i in terms of drivetrain refinement, but trails behind in real world fuel economy, averaging 11.7L/100km against the 420i’s 8.3L/100km over our week-long test.
It seems Lexus wasn’t interested to quell the RC’s thirst for fuel, as it lacks idle stop/start and regenerative braking, both of which are standard in the 4 Series.
BMW 420i Sport Line – 7.5 | Lexus RC 350 Luxury – 8.0
Ride and Handling
The 4 Series is based on the 3 Series sedan platform, albeit with two fewer doors, a wider rear track and different springs and dampers. It boasts the lowest centre of gravity in the current BMW range.
On the contrary, the RC uses a very different approach. It’s built from the ground up as a coupe. And by that, we mean mashed up from existing platforms. The front is from the GS, the middle section is scavenged from the previous-gen IS Convertible and the rear is inherited from the new IS.
The result is one of the most rigid chassis in the Lexus line-up, but also one of the heaviest (for a coupe).
While the BMW tips the scale at just under 1,500kg, the Lexus weighs around 1,700kg, that’s a hefty 200kg more than the BMW.
Like all the generations before it, the 4 Series’ chassis is wonderfully balanced, offering precise and neutral handling. The athletic dynamics are matched by the accurate and sublimely weighted steering, and the sharp throttle response in Sport mode. The brakes are good, too, with a progressive feel through the pedal.
Despite the weight penalty, the RC is still impressively sharp around the bends (to our surprise). It grips harder than the BMW, with a tighter front end, in spite of skinnier tyres. Its steering is quick and responsive, more so than the BMW.
It’s only at the absolute limits that the 4 Series felt shaper and more agile than the RC.
Never mind if that’s a compromise, because the RC hits the sweet spot between hard-edge sportiness and all-round comfort. It’s no doubt a better cruiser than the 4 Series, with a smoother ride around town and a quieter cabin at three digit speeds.
BMW 420i Sport Line – 8.0 | Lexus RC 350 Luxury – 8.0
The entry-level 420i is equipped with leather seats, reverse camera, Keyless Entry and push-button start, Bluetooth connectivity, alloy wheels, Bi-Xenon headlights, reverse camera and a much improved iDrive system with navigation.
Essential premium features such as seat heaters and digital radio tuner however, still come at extra costs. And typical of BMW, options can be very expensive.
Exemplary of Lexus, the RC 350 is brimmed with features, even in the range-opening Luxury variant. Standard equipment include Keyless Entry, Bluetooth connectivity, Bi-Xenon headlights, satellite navigation, 7-inch multimedia screen, reverse camera, Blind Spot Monitoring, third-generation Lexus Remote Touch, electrically adjusted steering column, heated and cooled front row seats, 10-speaker audio and digital radio.
BMW 420i Sport Line – 7.5 | Lexus RC 350 Luxury – 8.5
The value equation is the core reason why this comparison is relevant. At $66,000 plus on roads, the Lexus RC 350 Luxury costs $4,000 less than the BMW 420i, which comes in at $70,000.
The RC has two more cylinders under the bonnet, dashes to 100km/h significantly quicker and is a lot better equipped. Yes, you get a lot of car for the money.
Perhaps, the Lexus is only missing a German badge, which is probably the main reason for some not to buy one, or to buy one.
BMW 420i Sport Line – 8.0 | Lexus RC 350 Luxury – 9.0
The BMW 420i is a solid performer, until the Lexus RC 350 Luxury came along.
To match the RC 350 in performance and features, you have to go for the top-shelf 435i. But that means you also have to dig deeper into your pocket for an extra $40k. That’s a big commitment.
The BMW 4 Series still has that unrivalled desirability to it, but if you want something head turning, up-market and fast in the $65k – $70k price range, the entry-level Lexus RC is the wiser choice.
BMW 420i Sport Line
Lexus RC 350 Luxury