The Lexus LFA and the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG are about as different in approach and ability as a muscular sprinter is from a sinewy long-distance runner. It’s a clash of characters along the lines of a Suzuki Hayabusa sportbike taking on a BMW K1300S, a Moog synthesizer compared with a Steinway piano, or techno music as opposed to Beethoven. This is a little surprising when one compares the almost identical DNA of the two supercoupes. Both cars are front-engined; are powered by high-revving, normally aspirated engines; feature a well-balanced transaxle layout; rely on lightweight body structures; and make do with nonadjustable suspension and steering setups.
Despite these conceptual similarities, the way the two cars look, sound, and drive could hardly be more different. From a performance point of view, they are so close that the virtual stopwatch inside your head struggles to declare a winner, but at the end of a long day and an even longer night in and around Frankfurt, Germany, one supercar turned out to be fractionally more desirable than the other.
Even when these testosterone-laden machines tiptoe through the narrow village streets of the picturesque Odenwald forest region in fourth gear, they come close to doing serious decibel damage. While the high-pitched voice of the Lexus is a constant threat to tired windowpanes, the densely packed roar of the Mercedes puts loose plaster to a real test. Downshift to second gear, and you’ll make cats arch their backs and dogs bark and bristle.
The insane intonations of raw power coming from the LFA are particularly distinct. Redlined at 9000 rpm, where the electronic tachometer changes color from snow white to devil red, the V-10 sounds as shrill as a MotoGP bike or a Formula 1 racer. When the wide white wedge appears on the horizon, bystanders pull out their mobile phones, both to freeze-frame one of Europe’s rarest sports cars and to capture its spine-tingling sound track. In tunnels, other drivers inadvertently step on their brakes when the Lexus pilot floors the loud pedal, because the xenon-eyed noiseball in their rearview mirror sounds and looks like a UFO heralding the end of the world.
The SLS strikes a chord more minor than major, all bass not tenor, roaring tiger rather than howling wolf. While the LFA misses no opportunity to launch its shrieking, high-pitched backup choir, the car from Stuttgart loves to indulge in a simulated part-throttle misfire that blat-blats like a highly tuned American muscle car from the 1960s.
The transmissions fitted to our two warriors are far apart in both concept and personality. Mercedes pairs its V-8 with a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic that reduces power interruption during full-throttle upshifts to virtually zero. There are four shift patterns to choose from: C for controlled efficiency, S for sport, S+ for sport plus, and M for manual. In S+, the black box automatically blips the throttle during downshifts, holds the gear through fast corners, downshifts early, and upshifts late. We tried the manual mode for the first part of the route but found no real need to work the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, because in S and S+, one step on the throttle is all it takes to summon a lower ratio. The interaction is beautifully intuitive and sensationally speedy.
There is no doubt that the single clutch that drives the six-speed automated manual transmission is the Achilles’ heel of the Lexus. Gearchanges are controlled via paddles attached to the steering column, where you can find them even with the wheel at full lock. There are four available shift patterns: Auto, Sport, Norm, and Wet. Auto is slow, jerky, and out of sync with the car’s focused dynamics. Norm is exactly that — normal — so we found ourselves driving in Sport most of the time. To complicate matters, there’s a choice of seven different shift speeds ranging from a whiplash 0.2 second to an almost lethargic full-second gear swap that still can’t match the smoothness of the Mercedes.
Nice touches include a tachometer that changes color from black to white as soon as you activate sport mode and paddles with contrasting shift weights: it’s featherlight for upshifts, but downshifts require a high-effort tug. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the mechanical execution isn’t in line with the brand’s premium-quality, total-functionality image. Off-the-line clutch engagement varies from rough on level surfaces to wah-wah wailing on inclines.
Like the Nissan GT-R, the LFA struggles through tight and slow uphill bends, where torque delivery is anything but smooth. There is a fair bit of clickety-clonk noise involved, too, and the occasional whiff of overheated friction material wafts through the cabin. Maneuvering the Lexus is reminiscent of driving Ferraris with early F1
automated manual gearboxes. To switch from drive to reverse, you must first pull both paddles to engage neutral and then reach for a small toggle to the left of the instrument panel to trigger a change of direction. Don’t rush, or you’ll have to repeat the sequence even if traffic is rapidly approaching.
The SLS boasts a small joystick-type drive-by-wire gear selector with a squared-off T-handle instead of a conventional transmission lever. To engage reverse, push the handle forward, pull it back to engage drive, and hit the button marked P to lock the wheels. Angled to the left is the AMG Drive Unit that is also found in the SL63 and the E63. The keyboard contains five round buttons that control transmission mode, engine start/stop, stability control, the rear wing, and AMG (to store your favorite settings). Last but not least, there’s the familiar Comand system that provides access to communication, navigation, and entertainment functions. A similar setup can be found in the LFA.
As in other AMG cars, the SLS offers performance-oriented in-dash readouts for coolant, engine-oil, and gearbox-oil temperatures; the stability control setting; and the most recent lap and trip times. Above the two large main circular gauges are LED shift lights with one amber warning at 6900 rpm and two red dots that come on at 7100 and 7200 rpm, but only in manual mode.
The LFA cockpit looks and feels even more special than the cabin of the SLS. The starter button is conveniently placed on the carbon-fiber steering wheel, which boasts a squared-off bottom and two broad horizontal spokes with thumb rests. The LCD instrumentation features a large, round rev counter, a relatively small digital speedometer, and your choice of secondary readouts. You can summon the fuel, oil, and water gauges as well as a trip computer, a lap timer, a tire-pressure monitor, and more. The seats are comfortable, supportive, and generously adjustable.
Subjectively at least, the LFA feels a little roomier than the SLS, which combines C-class-style switchgear with instruments that are unique to the model, plenty of leather, and a high level of fit and finish. The gull-wing doors are true attention grabbers, but they’re no more practical than the front-hinged apertures preferred by Lexus. In both cars, a glance in the mirror at autobahn speeds gives you a look at an imposing tail wing that extends automatically to increase downforce and stability. The luggage compartment of the Mercedes holds a fairly useful 6.2 cubic feet, but Lexus doesn’t bother to quote a number for the LFA. The LFA tips the scales at 3460 pounds; the heavier SLS has a curb weight of 3573 pounds.
We aimed for Karlsruhe on the A5 autobahn, which typically is 150-mph-plus terrain-but not today. Road construction, speed limits, and congestion slowed us down to 100 mph most of the way. Only twice was there an opportunity to knock on 150 mph, and we never saw the LFA’s claimed 202-mph top speed, nor the 197 mph the SLS is reportedly capable of reaching. But having driven both vehicles on prior occasions, I know that the Lexus takes a little longer than the Mercedes to reach its terminal velocity. We can also confirm that the Benz’s displacement advantage — 6.2 liters versus 4.8 liters-and its 479 lb-ft of torque versus the LFA’s 354 lb-ft give the German contender a noticeable edge when it comes to midrange acceleration. This impression is reflected by the torque peaks, which occur at a lofty 6800 rpm in the LFA and 4750 rpm in its rival.
Without question, Lexus’s V-10 needs to be revved much harder than the AMG V-8 to deliver, which takes some getting used to. Even at a yelling 6000 rpm, you’re only two-thirds of the way to the LFA’s rev limiter, and the inferno becomes more intense with every incremental 1000 rpm. The AMG V-8 is redlined at 7200 rpm, but the last few hundred revs seem to do more for your ears than for forward progress.
Although the winding roads through the Odenwald are pure bliss for committed drivers, the speed on the best bits is restricted either by law or by heavy traffic. In this roller-coaster habitat, where tight radii and narrow blacktop prevail, the Lexus benefits from its more compact dimensions and lighter weight. The Mercedes is not only a touch wider and a substantial 5.2 inches longer, it also has a phallic snout that positions the driver farther back in the aluminum spaceframe cradle. In the carbon-fiber Lexus, you sit between the axles and are thus closer to the front wheels, which supports the butt-to-brain interface. The front/rear weight distribution is almost identical: 48/52 percent in the Lexus, 47/53 in the SLS.
In our tests, these two supercars are separated by one-tenth of a second in the 0-to-60-mph sprint, where red eclipses white by completing the task in 3.8 versus 3.9 seconds. In actuality, it’s all down to tire wear, tire temperature, surface quality, and launch success. Both vehicles must shift once before they exceed the 60-mph mark, and even after a dozen or so full-throttle side-by-side sprints, the results were pretty much a dead heat.
The electrically assisted power steering of the Lexus takes 2.4 turns from lock-to-lock, about 0.4 turn less than the hydraulically boosted rack-and-pinion device fitted to the Benz. The helm of the LFA feels light and communicative, quick and responsive. The SLS has meatier steering, with slightly stronger self-centering action, but turn-in is equally attentive and feedback doesn’t deteriorate on poor tarmac or when you wind on more lock. Both stability control systems offer an intermediate sport setting — the Lexus setting deactivates traction control; the Mercedes raises the intervention threshold. On public roads, that’s all it takes for a gentle nudge of power oversteer at the exit of an open bend.
On the track, you can remove the safety net completely, thereby clearing the stage for tail slides lurid enough to qualify for the next national drift challenge. In the LFA, the steering makes the car feel light and nimble and chuckable, but even the heaviest right foot must first get used to the sky-high revs required to smoke the tires. In the SLS, the balance between steering and throttle is more natural and better weighted. At very high velocities, the Gullwing needs fewer corrections to maintain a steady line, but it is more easily irritated by long undulations and sharp expansion joints.
With some 5700 miles on the odometer and a long weekend at the Nürburgring Nordschleife under its belt, our preproduction Lexus felt a little loose and tired. Although fitted with standard carbon-ceramic discs, it could have done with fresh brake pads to smooth the grinding noises and the rather rough response. The SLS was also equipped with carbon-ceramic brake rotors — optional in its case — which decelerate the coupe about as effectively as the thrust reverser of a jet engine. But it’s not only the sheer stopping power that impresses, it’s also how the car copes with split-friction turf, hot brake discs, and wet pavement. Despite its substantial size and weight, the SLS will actually outcorner most other sports cars on the planet. Although the numbers may tell a different story, the commendably progressive SLS feels as though it pulls more lateral g’s than the LFA, which is hindered by a slight front-to-rear grip imbalance and a more brittle suspension. On the racetrack, this is rarely an issue. But through patchwork corners, the Lexus feels busier, more nervous, and less stable. In these conditions, which can also apply on ancient autobahn sections, a little more compliance would probably make a big difference.
The city center of Frankfurt is crammed with towering glass cubes built by the banks before Mr. Lehman fell ill and infected his brothers. In the early hours of the morning, the streets around the main station were still busy with amber taxis chasing late barflies, with blue-over-silver police cars on the prowl, and with two out-of-place supercoupes worth a combined $560,000. We were looking for bright neon lights, colorful cliques, and cheerful admirers for that final bit of metropolitan action. It didn’t take more than a pair of open gull-wing doors and an impromptu V-10 concerto to draw a very mixed crowd of scantily dressed ladies and chain-smoking scarfaces who probably never remove their sunglasses or their shiny jewelry.
There wasn’t an LFA customer in sight-they were presumably in a far less seedy part of town-because Lexus screened all interested parties before allowing them to sign a two-year lease contract. When the lease expires, the lucky 500 will be allowed to purchase the vehicles, a move that might delay gray-market action but won’t prevent it. There might be the odd drug baron or the occasional Lolita merchant among the 500 or so SLS clients Mercedes intends to serve this year, but since the car is sold out globally deep into 2011, getting one quickly will likely cost you dearly.
Before we headed for the hotel at 4:30 in the morning, we took every opportunity to evaluate, test, savor, sample, and then decide. So, what would I buy if I had the means and the choice-the 553-hp Lexus or the 563-hp Mercedes?
The LFA is a limited-edition, high-tech item that is heart-stoppingly pretty and very nicely put together, a street racer for track days and early Sunday mornings. The SLS is a powerboat for the road, a mighty mauler that evokes fond memories of a brand’s glorious past, a surprisingly practical and highly visible tool for the dedicated driver. Both cars are honest and straightforward, classy and competent, intriguing in the way they present themselves and perform, dynamically focused, and deeply rewarding. The final choice could come down to personal preferences, such as the more modern Lexus exterior and interior or the more practical packaging of the Mercedes.
But as should be the case when you compare two such evenly matched machines, the real deciding factor hides beneath the skin. The Lexus LFA is let down by its transmission, and it is, albeit to a lesser extent, handicapped by the need to rev its melodious engine to more attention-getting volumes than the more relaxed, bigger-bore V-8. In all other departments, it’s a very close decision. I could quite easily live with the LFA’s less compliant suspension, and if this was toy number six or seven, even the screaming engine wouldn’t matter that much. But the clutch does, because it’s at odds with what the halo car of the brand should deliver: ultimate quality in every respect. The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, on the other hand, establishes a credible link to its maker’s F1 and DTM racing efforts. And it proves, fifty-six years after the original Gullwing and only weeks after the final production run of the SLR McLaren, that Mercedes still knows how to make a supercar.
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG
Engine: 32-valve DOHC V-8
Displacement: 6.2 liters (379 cu in)
Horsepower: 563 hp @ 6800 rpm
Torque: 479 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Steering: Hydraulically assisted
Suspension, Front: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, Rear: Control arms, coil springs
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
Tires: Continental ContiSportContact 5P
Tire Size F, R: 265/35YR-19, 295/30YR-20
L x W x H: 182.6 x 76.3 x 49.3 in
Wheelbase: 105.5 in
Track F/R: 66.2/65.0 in
Weight: 3573 lb
EPA Mileage: 14/20 mpg
0-60 mph: 3.8 sec
0-100 : 7.7
0-120 : 10.6
0-130 : 12.4
0-140 : 14.5
1/4-mile: 11.7 sec @ 127 mph
70-0 mph: 152 ft
L: 0.98 g
Speed In Gears
1: 47 mph
Engine: 40-valve DOHC V-10
Displacement: 4.8 liters (293 cu in)
Horsepower: 553 hp @ 8700 rpm
Torque: 354 lb-ft @ 6800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automated manual
Steering: Electrically assisted
Suspension, Front: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, Rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes: Carbon-ceramic vented discs, ABS
Tires: Bridgestone Potenza RE050A
Tire Size F, R: 265/35YR-20, 305/30YR-20
L x W x H: 177.0 x 74.6 x 48.0 in
Wheelbase: 102.6 in
Track F/R: 62.2/61.8 in
Weight: 3460 lb
Fuel Mileage: 13/19 mpg (est.
0-60 mph: 3.9 sec
1/4-mile: 11.8 sec @ 126 mph
70-0 mph: 154 ft
L: 1.04 g
Speed In Gears
1: 51 mph