Driven: 2011 Lexus LFA
Gone are the stickers and the camouflage, the wild spoilers and the additional XXL high-beam lights, the roll cage and the stripped-out interior. The gleaming white wonder posing in pit lane at the Nürburgring Formula 1 circuit looks like a distant relative of the race car that competed in the twenty-four-hour endurance run earlier this year. What we see here - four weeks prior to the official launch at the Tokyo Motor Show - is the first undisguised production car, one of only 500 LFAs to be made, estimated to cost a breathtaking $350,000 to $400,000. This dramatically different Japanese sports car combines high technology with maximum user-friendliness. It is a blend of extreme engineering and exquisite craftsmanship, top-notch performance and easy accessibility, uncompromising driver involvement and total control. There are more powerful and faster sports cars out there, but very few deliver their talents in a more focused and more emotional manner than the new Lexus flagship.
When development of the LFA started in the Toyota skunk works some nine years ago, the idea was to create a new high-end aluminum-spaceframe sports car that would feature a V-8 or a V-10 and, most likely, a dual-clutch transmission. But the brief kept changing as the project was transferred from Toyota to Lexus, where light weight became a higher priority. Chief engineer Haruhiko Tanahashi remembers why: "We knew we had to challenge the best in terms of performance, handling, and roadholding. But under the Lexus brand, we also needed to emphasize refinement, comfort, and style. Since these elements are not exactly weight-neutral, the whole approach had to be reconsidered at a point in time when the project was already two-thirds down the road." At that late stage, the LFA team switched to a molded-carbon-fiber unibody structure, an automated-manual gearbox, and an innovative ten-cylinder engine intended to be as light as an eight and as compact as a six. Despite these efforts, the 3263-pound Lexus doesn't quite match such lightweight rivals as the 2975-pound Ferrari 430 Scuderia or the 3175-pound Porsche 911 GT2.
The carbon-fiber center tub did save 220 pounds and is four times as rigid as the previous spaceframe design, and it also taught Lexus some valuable lessons with regard to future higher-volume production concepts. Using heavily modified, laser-equipped Toyota looms to weave the fibers in new high-strength patterns, the Japanese created a very stiff passenger cell composed of three moldings. For maximum strength and rigidity, embedded aluminum collars were developed to attach the front and rear subframes. To achieve the desired 48/52 percent front/rear weight distribution, the engineers opted for rear-mounted radiators and a transaxle, and they set the front-mounted engine back in the chassis. A torque tube connects the V-10 engine to the automated six-speed transaxle. In the front, the LFA relies on an aluminum-intensive control-arm suspension and compact springs; low-friction dampers with remote fluid reservoirs; and a tubular antiroll bar. In the rear, we find a multilink arrangement consisting of four transverse arms, a compact upright, and a pair of angled springs and dampers. The tires are asymmetrical-tread twenty- inchers by Bridgestone, 265/35 in the front and 305/30 in the rear.
As one would expect in a car that'll cost about as much as twenty-five Corollas, the LFA boasts carbon-ceramic brakes for stupendous deceleration and consistent pedal action. The monoblock calipers accommodate different-diameter pistons to push the pads against the rotors in a more even and progressive manner. That this high-tech coupe is all about sweating the details also becomes obvious when one examines the steering. The fixed-rate, electrically assisted device combines light weight with a lot more feel than is typically relayed by nonhydraulic systems. Even the flat-bottom steering wheel is quite special, in that it blends a carbon-fiber upper and a heavier aluminum lower to enhance the self-centering effect. Although the shift paddles are symmetrical, they're calibrated such that downshifts require more effort than upshifts. The exhaust, too, is anything but conventional. It's not so much the equal-length dual-pipe system with the two integrated mufflers and the three tailpipes that sets the tone but the different sound channels that run through the cabin. Channel one penetrates the firewall below the dashboard, channel two aims at your ears via the upper cowl opening, and channel three takes shape as a lower reflector behind the seats.
Unlike the race car that we previously sampled [October 2009], the production LFA's cabin is as lavishly equipped and as beautifully executed as any other Lexus. The seats are comfortable and supportive, and the materials - mainly leather, aluminum, and carbon fiber - are first-class. The sculptured instrument panel is dominated by a single round display that incorporates the full-size tachometer, the small digital speedometer, the shift indicator, and about two dozen secondary functions that can be summoned via a control on the steering wheel, opposite the starter button. So whenever you're tired of looking at the classic mix of water and oil temperature, oil pressure, and fuel level, don't hesitate to call up the lap timer, the tire-pressure monitor, or the trip computer. Although at a glance the displays look as analog as in a British roadster from the 1930s, what you see is actually digital - even the needle of the rev counter, which had to be computerized to match the eagerness of that musical V-10.
We drove the LFA on secondary roads, on the autobahn, and on the Nürburgring grand prix circuit. Are we impressed? Yes and no. There are only two areas - engine characteristics as well as clutch and gearbox action - where the ultimate Japanese sports car fell somewhat short of our expectations. Codeveloped with Yamaha, the 552-hp, 4.8-liter V-10 is without a doubt a mechanical masterpiece. It has been skillfully engineered, with almost telepathic throttle responses that underline the car's strong motorsport connection, acoustic performance that is positively addictive, and a willingness to rev that is refreshingly uninhibited. In addition, this engine is commendably smooth-running, remarkably powerful, and reasonably torquey. It will thrust the LFA from 0 to 62 mph in 3.7 seconds and on to a top speed of 202 mph (according to Lexus). Impressive enough - but by no means in an orbit of its own. A Nissan GT-R, which is a fraction of the price, shaves at least one-tenth off the LFA's acceleration time. A Corvette ZR1 is a few clicks faster overall. And both cars produce significantly more torque at lower rpm. That's where the real dilemma of the Lexus lies: too many revs for not quite enough grunt, 6800 rpm for 354 lb-ft of torque. On the racetrack, the LFA formula works very well. On the road, however, you often find yourself with 4000 or 5000 rpm to play with when what you really need is an instant kick in the butt.
The automated six-speed transmission is the other Jekyll-and-Hyde element that fails to score ten out of ten. Although there are seven different shift velocities to choose from (they range from 0.2 second to a leisurely 1.0 second), the clutch fitted to both test cars would occasionally slip, respond slowly, or even refuse to act. Strangely enough, the system worked better under stress on the circuit than on the road, where second-gear uphill bends and brisk takeoff maneuvers would sometimes confuse the electronics. Although these glitches were in all likelihood related to the cars' early production status and to the extremely hard use, it deserves a quick fix - after all, just about the last thing Lexus can afford is a quality problem associated with its halo model.
As it is, the crowd-stopping coupe from Toyota City excels in other, rather more subtle areas. Like overall balance, the ability to communicate, and the transparency of the controls. While it may not look particularly light, the Lexus feels like a superfit athlete - from the free-revving engine to the responsive handling, the intuitive steering to the riveting brakes. This perception of lightness adds a new dimension of agility that only true supercars can match. Take the suspension, which offers the best of both worlds: a little understeer to warn the timid, a little oversteer to reward the brave. Take the steering, which is as genuine as your best friend's handshake. Take the reassuring brakes, which are perfectly easy to modulate.
Out of the four available drive modes that can be selected via a knob on the dashboard, we didn't try Wet for obvious reasons, and we disliked Auto for its slow and jerky action. Normal is fine for two-lane roads, but Sport adds quite a bit more spice to the drivetrain and stability control menu. It permits higher revs (the gauge starts flashing whenever the 9000-rpm redline approaches), more ambitious shift points, and a more entertaining handling balance. For a seriously aggressive cornering attitude, stability control can be switched off. But in reality, you don't want to play hooligan, because this car is more about clarity and purity than about showmanship. Gifted with a drag coefficient of 0.31 and equipped with an active tail wing, the LFA retains this dynamic unambiguity on the autobahn, where it tracks with precision; soaks up low-frequency, big-effect pavement imperfections with aplomb; and closes the challenging 150-to-200-mph gap with surprising vigor. This is a seasoned, high-speed tool that copes competently with 125-mph lane changes, 150-mph blind crests, 175-mph bends, and 200-mph stops.
Built on a dedicated line in the Motomachi plant at a rate of no more than twenty units a month by a crew of 140 engineers and specialists, the LFA is as much one man's dream as it is a team effort. "During the presentation at the 'Ring, the 'I want one' factor has indeed grown considerably," admits Tanahashi-san. "What remains a dream for me will hopefully turn out to be a thrilling drive for our customers. Is there going to be a follow-up project? Well, I think this car deserves a second chapter. Whatever the next iteration of such a brand-shaper may be, it definitely needs to be right for its time." Want to know more on how to actually buy one of the 500 LFAs? Click here for an informative blog by our own Joe DeMatio.
2011 Lexus LFA
Base price $350,000-$400,000 (est.)
PowertrainEngine: 40-valve DOHC V-10Displacement: 4.8 liters (293 cu in)Horsepower : 552 hp @ 8700 rpmTorque: 354 lb-ft @ 6800 rpmTransmission: 6-speed automated manualDrive: Rear-wheel
ChassisSteering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinionsuspension, Front: Control arms, coil springssuspension, Rear: Multilink, coil springsbrakes: Carbon-ceramic vented discs, ABStires: Bridgestone Potenza RE050Atire size f, R: 265/35YR-20,305/30YR-20
MeasurementsL x W x H: 177.4 x 74.6 x 48.0 inwheelbase: 102.6 intrack f/r: 62.2/61.8 inweight: 3263 lb