Lexus has been working on the Lexus LFA supercar for more than a decade. They even raced it in the Nurburgring 24-hour in 2008 and 2009. In some ways it's brilliant and in other ways curious. For starters, the heart of the matter, the V10 engine that was designed just for the LFA, is incredible.
But who are they trying to kid? The second sentence of its introduction material says the LFA “single-handedly creates new boundaries to redefine the supercar for the 21st century.” New boundaries in hype maybe. Compared to other supercars, stat-by-stat and dollar-for-dollar, the LFA comes up short.
By redefinition Lexus must mean that the LFA is in a world of its own because you can buy matching luggage for it, and you can get it in Passionate Pink with lavender leather seats.
The bespoke engine is a 4.8-liter V10 that's smaller and lighter than the 2.5-liter V6 in the Lexus IS250 sedan. Titanium rods and valves. It makes 552 horsepower and 354 foot-pounds of torque and revs to a screaming 9000 rpm. Its 10 electronic throttle bodies can blip the low-friction engine from idle to 9000 rpm in 0.6 seconds. It sounds sensational from the sidewalk. Lexus calls it a high-octane soprano and we'll go along with that, whatever it means.
For the occupants, intake and exhaust noise is piped through three separate tunnels into the cabin, and the sound sends chills up your spine. A tremendous amount of time and engineering effort went into that feature. We can only wonder how spectacular a V12 mid-engine Lamborghini Aventador must sound.
The compact size of the engine opened the door to chassis opportunities. Carbon fiber is used in the cage around the cabin, contributing to a light weight of 3263 pounds, 209 pounds less than the Mercedes SLS AMG and 463 less than the similar Audi R8, but 221 pounds heavier than the super lightweight Ferrari 458 Italia.
The most innovative thing about the Lexus LFA might be its carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) technology. Many parts and methods of joining metal to carbon fiber were devised and employed, thanks to Toyota's Rumpelstiltskin-like resources, its “legacy of weaving and loom-making experience.” The chassis mixes carbon fiber and aluminum for rigidity, light weight and safety, notably a forward carbon-fiber crash box. Lexus calls it a Fuji Structure, for the similarity of its triangular profile with that of Mount Fuji.
The Lexus V10 uses a dry sump oiling system, allowing the engine to be dropped below the level of the front wheels and pushed back for better balance, and rear-mounted transmission and radiators help to achieve a 48/52 weight distribution, remarkable for a front-engine car, balance that contributes to its stable cornering, which we discovered during hot laps at Infineon Raceway near Sonoma, California.
Carbon ceramic brakes, with six-piston calipers and giant 390mm (15.4 inches) rotors in front, haul the car down from 202 mph, a speed we did not reach. Maybe we'll reach that speed at Monza when we go there to test the Ferrari Enzo, in our dreams.
The interior is as complete and comfortable as a luxury car, and the driver's space is a compartment, not merely a seat. There are four electronic modes for driving: Auto, Sport, Normal, and Wet, and no less than 7 speeds for the transmission shifts.
The LFA's weak link is its electro-hydraulic 6-speed sequential automated transmission, same as the Audi R8. It's not as fast, smooth or technically sophisticated as the 7-speed twin-clutch gearboxes in the Mercedes SLS AMG, Ferrari 458, or Porsche 911. The shifts are slow and harsh, compared to a twin-clutch.
Lexus is a latecomer to the supercar game, and evidently presumptuous about its position. There's no reason the LFA should cost $217,000 more than the V10 all-wheel-drive mid-engine Audi R8, for example; or twice as much as the Mercedes SLS AMG, which has more horsepower and torque; or $135,000 more than the mid-engine Ferrari 458, with more performance all-around; or the same as the Lamborghini Aventador, with a 700-horsepower mid-engine V12 and a full carbon-fiber chassis, not to mention a lightning-fast transmission and top speed of 217 mph, for those track days at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
But the LFA is all about the target buyer. It's the second or third Lexus in the driveway for super-rich guys, as much as it is a purebred uber-high-performance car for super-rich car guys. Lexus plans to build 500 of them in the next two years. Each LFA will be custom-built to the buyer's styling tastes and desires. A selection of 30 paint colors and 12 interior tones is what you might expect in a Lexus supercar; but Lime Green and Passionate Pink, with lavender leather, is not quite what you would expect. This direction takes some of the bloom off its hard-working and mostly brilliant engineering.
The LFA looks like a supercar should. Hundreds of hours in the wind tunnel result in a 0.31 coefficient of drag. Visually, the LFA is not nearly as graceful as the Ferrari 458, but then no one can do styling like the Italians. And it's still prettier than the Audi R8.
Lexus says the LFA is its best example of what it calls the L-Finesse design language. Which, based on the LFA, must mean the use of triangular shapes to the max. Ford tried the triangle design thing in 1994 with its stillborn GT90 supercar, but Lexus goes with the flow and makes it work. (The GT90, by the way, boasted a quad-turbo V12 and was aimed at 235 miles per hour, but fell about 200 mph short.)
But we take it back, what we said about the LFA looking like a supercar should. What we meant is it's shaped like a supercar should be shaped. Now we've got the colors to deal with. No less than 30 of them, 10 standard and 20 extra cost. We're talking Lavender, Lime Green, Passionate Pink, and Lapis Lazuli. Don't ask. They're as bad as they sound.
The two LFAs that we drove, on the track at Infineon Raceway, were Pearl Yellow and Pearl Gray, the yellow too loud and gray too silent. Based on the Build-Your-Own LFA website, we're tempted to suggest that the only color that works is Matte Black (add $20,000). That is, if you want to spend $400,000 for a car that looks like a '50s hot rod painted with primer but not paint. But matte black is trendy. (Silver is okay but that's Mercedes, red is okay but that's Ferrari.)
If you're doing a walkaround of the LFA from nose to tail, the farther you get from the car the more you'll like it. The rear view is its best. From the rear the LFA looks like a real racing car, the big back of a wedge, with huge screened trapezoidal vents filling the corners, drawing air through the radiators. The wide thin LED taillamps over the vents will look great at night. The rear wing with a Gurney flap only rises at 50 mph, so it doesn't stick up there obtrusively when the car is parked, or look stupid when it's going 20 mph.
Of course, there's that Nurburgring package that includes a beautiful bowed carbon-fiber rear wing, and we'd be the first to slap anyone who called it stupid looking, at any speed. In fact, if you need your supercar to shout Supercar! the $70,000 Nurburgring package is a must.
Two wide aerodynamic downforce diffuser tunnels exit under the rear bumper. Between them there are three chrome-rimmed holes in a perfect inverted triangle; they look like the face of a surprised robot, with two wide eyes and an ooh!-shaped mouth. That's the titanium silencer, with a carbon plate. LFA owners might get more comments on their car's cool exhaust pipes than they will about anything else.
Speaking of mechanical details, there are chimneys that release heat from the wrapped titanium silencer, otherwise known as a muffler, but when it's made out of titanium it's no longer a mere muffler. The heat comes out little black vented trapezoids in the huge black vented trapezoids in the corners.
Narrow your eyes to focus on the nose, and it could be a . . . Lexus. It would probably help if there wasn't a huge chrome Lexus emblem on the nose, but maybe that's asking too much. But the Nurburgring package saves the day, with a swoopy carbon-fiber chin spoiler and winglets.
The nose is symmetrical, in the way the corners of the slice-of-pizza-shaped bi-Xenon headlamps, the triangular intakes, and the top corners of the air dam all point toward the emblem on the nose, a rakish chrome vector shaped like an L for Lexus inside a chrome circle 6 inches in diameter. It even sounds out of place.
The big black triangular intake vents in the corners of the front end bring it back into supercar land. There's a long horizontal air dam at the bottom, but it's nothing the nose of the lowly Nissan 370Z doesn't have, or resemble. If you want to see what the nose of a supercar should look like, check out the new Lamborghini Aventador.
The black mesh vents on the carbon-fiber hood bring us back. And the graceful, powerful carbon-colored 20-inch BBS forged aluminum wheels do a supercar justice. You can see the six-piston front calipers and four-piston rears, shouting through the 20 spokes, in your choice of six colors: black, red, blue, yellow, gold, silver.
We've walked around to a three-quarter rear view now. A swoopy gutter runs from the A-pillar rearward, through a pass created by a subtle arc cut out of the rearview mirror, under the window glass and disappearing into a cave with a mouth shaped like a rocketship fender, in the sharp corner of the glass where the roof steeply slopes down. Actually, the shape of the bodywork around this air intake suggests the Lexus emblem, and like the exhaust pipes it's an eye-catching touch. We asked someone from Lexus what keeps water from flowing like a river into the radiators, and he shrugged and said there must be a drain path. So there must be.
The doors and fenders are fiberglass, easier to repair than carbon fiber. There's another big intake opening forward of the rear wheels, the air again directed by a shapely ditch in each door.
The LFA looks like a runner in the starting gate. Great proportion.
Let's start with the essence of the interior, the sound. Despite having the LFA V10 mounted in front of the cabin rather than behind it, the sound it makes surely rivals mid-engine Lamborghini, Ferrari and Audi supercars.
Surely there has never been a car designed with this much attention to engine/eardrum interface. Under the hood, there's a dominant intake surge tank that “borrows from the design of an actual musical instrument,” says Lexus. There are three “acoustically optimized” channels that carry sound into the cabin from strategic intake and exhaust locations. “These sound channels ensure the driver sits at the center of a 3-D surround sound concert performance,” continues the Lexus hype, earmarking the emphasis on that quality.
Meanwhile, if you're just cruising around and not revving the engine, you can listen to the standard high-output 12-speaker sound system, with amplifiers that are 317 percent more powerful than those in the Lexus sedans.
Two big exhaust pipes run through sub-mufflers and into the dual-stage titanium silencer, with a valve that keeps the sound quiet at idle, but at 3000 rpm the valve opens to allow the exhaust note to “enter the world in the form of a high-octane soprano.”
So it's not just from inside that the LFA sounds spectacular. Its exhaust note is actually sharper and sweeter standing still, when its driver gives the throttle a big blip. With 10 electronic throttle bodies, the throttle response is so quick it can blip from 0 to 9000 rpm in 0.6 seconds. Bystanders on the sidewalk watching a showoff driver at a redlight will howl with glee.
Back in the cockpit of the LFA, the driver's space is a compartment, not just a seat. It's totally comfortable and civilized, no surprise there. It's easy to get in and out of, there's plenty of room for the driver, and the visibility, forward and rearward, is good. The center console is thick and wide, tapering as it runs from the dashboard at a slight slope back between the seats to the rear bulkhead; it's lined with 10 matt-black buttons for climate control and other things. It houses the exhaust pipes and torque tube that connects the engine and transaxle at the rear. It definitively separates the driver from the passenger, as well as making the driver feel like he's in control of something special, not merely driving a car.
There are three configurations of LFA, having to do with interior equipment. Configuration 1 is basic, Configuration 2 adds navigation and a Mark Levinson premium sound system, Configuration 3 adds all those electronic communication things such as automatic collision notification, stolen vehicle notification, enhanced roadside assistance, and XM reports on sports, weather and Wall Street.
The information appears on a 7-inch screen located in the center of the dash, and is controlled by the mouse-like Remote Touch located forward on the console. “Using an advanced two-axis haptic joystick mechanism with reaction force feedback to guide the cursor, the Remote Touch system offers intuitive and quick access to the LFA's satellite navigation, configuration and infotainment functions.” There you have it. If anyone asks, just tell them it's a two-axis haptic joystick mechanism, for short. Sorry not to have a report on its operation, but we were kind of busy in the Infineon esses at 8200 rpm.
The options for interior colors and materials are mind-boggling; even the satin metal trim comes in shades of your choice, while the plastic is carbon-fiber reinforced, and looks like carbon fiber. Headliner in 3 colors, carpet 5 colors, steering wheel leather (from 2:00 to 4:00 and 8:00 to 10:00) 12 colors, etc. Since each LFA is custom-ordered, you'll mix and match your own. You could get leather with violet seatbacks, orange seatfronts, and camel yellow stitching, for example; to go with your Passionate Pink exterior. Word has it that Lady Gaga has already ordered hers.
If you plan on going around corners at speeds anywhere near the LFA's capability, don't get the smooth leather for the seats, get the suede. At Infineon, we slid around in the slick leather seats like crazy, but stayed neatly in place with the suede. As for the shape and fit of the orthopedically designed seats: perfect, don't change a thing. Snug but not tight, fully bolstered everywhere, eight-way power adjustable to any size. There's one big round gauge that provides all the mechanical information, and it sure is a missed opportunity to make the supercar feel super. If your eyes went nowhere but there, you could be in a Ford Explorer. A colored band (LCD needle) spins around for the tachometer, and when it hits 9000 it's not redline, it's redface, as the whole gauge turns red, just to remind you it's time to shift, as if that fantastic screaming in your senses weren't enough. Or, if you don't like red, you can set it to turn green or yellow. There must be a rev limiter, maybe at 9100. We weren't exactly watching, in third gear with a turn coming up.
There's a stopwatch system for track days, giving lap time, previous lap time, fastest lap time, and total time.
The steering wheel is flattened at the top and bottom, where it's carbon fiber, which is cool, but otherwise there's nothing about it that says high performance, except of course the paddles. They're rather long, because they have to be, mounted on the steering column instead of the wheel. Lexus says they've done this so a driver doesn't have to search for them when shifting in a corner, but if your hands stay in the same place on the wheel as they do in this quick-steering car, having paddles on the column actually requires what Lexus says it wants to avoid. It happened to us once, late-downshifting going into Infineon's infamous uphill turn 2, the one with the pictures of NASCAR drivers lifting their right front wheel about two feet off the ground. The LFA won't do that. Its suspension is a bit more sophisticated than a stock car's.
If you want to feel racy, look down at the floor, not the steering wheel. The brake and gas pedals are single-piece forged aluminum, and floor hinged. And even the passenger gets a dead pedal. He or she is going to need it, to stay in place.
Let's begin with the heart of the matter. The engine. Lexus has built an incredible engine for the 202-mph LFA supercar. It's a 4.8-liter V10 that makes 552 horsepower and screams to 9000 rpm. We shifted it at redline, from 3rd to 4th gears, more than a dozen times during hot laps around Infineon Raceway, and it gives us goose bumps to recall.
Astonishingly, brilliantly, the 4.8-liter V10 is lighter and more compact than the 2.5-liter V6 that powers the Lexus IS250 sedan. It uses a dry sump lubrication system, and has titanium valves and connecting rods, among other things.
Weighing just 3263 pounds, propelled by those 552 ponies with 354 pound-feet of torque, the LFA will sprint from 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds, and keep accelerating all the way to 202 mph. At Infineon we forgot to look at the speedometer, although we glanced at the tach in the esses and got a rush when we saw 8200 rpm in 3rd gear.
The first thing we noticed when we pulled onto the track at Infineon was that 5000 rpm felt and sounded like 7000 or 8000. So you can imagine what 9000 sounds and feels like. Which we soon got used to. But we doubt if there will be much upshifting at redline on the street. It's so intense!
The torque reaches its 354 foot-pounds way up there at 6800 rpm, but there are still 319 foot-pounds down at 3700 rpm, so the engine doesn't feel peaky. With 552 horsepower and six gears with paddle shifters, and only 3263 pounds to pull, who's going to miss a few foot-pounds of torque?
We have our doubts about the practicality of the carbon ceramic brake rotors. Maybe they should be optional. Anywhere but the track, they're either totally unnecessary, or a disadvantage because they don't work their best unless they're hot. However, they weigh a total of 44 pounds less than steel rotors that size, and that's what they're all about on the LFA. Reduced unsprung weight.
The brakes are huge, with 6-piston calipers on 390mm rotors (15.4 in.) in front, and 4-piston on 360mm (14.2 in.) rotors in rear. You'll never ever have to worry about getting stopped, unless you pull out of your driveway and immediately go 100 mph and then the first time you hit the brakes it's a panic stop. We liked the way the brake pedal felt on the track, not hyper-sensitive. It was easy to use the brakes hard. We could have run far deeper into the two turns that the LFA reaches at well over 100 mph, but we just didn't need to.
The seats are at the center of the car's wheelbase and as close to the centerline as possible, a position that optimizes what's called the moment of inertia, and enhances the driver's seat-of-the pants feel during cornering. We didn't get enough laps to challenge the car's cornering capability, but even if we'd run more laps we doubt if we would have found anything to nitpick about the balance or turn-in, especially on 265/35ZR20 front and 305/30ZR20 rear tires. The double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, with aluminum components, is standard technology that works. The LFA's chassis, suspension and handling were developed at the Nurburgring 24-hour races, remember.
We don't love the electro-hydraulic 6-speed sequential automated manual transmission. It's similar to the Audi R8 sequential transmission, a car that we also tested at Infineon, and we didn't like that one either, at least not when compared to the 7-speed twin-clutch transmission in the Mercedes SLS AMG and Porsche 911 that we've tested, and the Ferrari 458 that we haven't.
Lexus says a twin-clutch like the Mercedes, Porsche and Ferrari wasn't possible because the V10 revs so quickly. They call the twin-clutch smoothness “almost artificial.” But we'd call that smoothness great engineering, especially when it means speed, as it does here. Electro-hydraulic single-clutch transmissions shift slower and harsher; the Mercedes can shift in 100 milliseconds, the LFA in 200. The difference is only one-tenth of a second, but in the car it feels like about 10 minutes.
Notice that the $70,000 Nurburgring Package for the LFA quickens the shifting: to 150 milliseconds. Closing in on that Mercedes.
Lexus calls that single-clutch feel “making the driver aware of machined parts working together in harmony when changing gears for a satisfying sense of mechanical engagement.” We call it getting your head snapped and the car's momentum upset.
But we're talking about full-on performance, with full-throttle upshifts. On the street, shifts are smoother when less is asked of them, and there's no rush. There are four driving settings for modes: Auto, Sport, Normal, and Wet and no less than 7 settings for transmission speed. We had the LFA set on Sport and 7 for the fastest shifts, never mind that they still weren't fast enough, on the track. But those modes change all kinds of things, including the ride, which we're sure won't be anything less than sweet on the road.
The Lexus LFA is a supercar intended less for super-rich car enthusiasts than super-rich car owners. Stat-by-stat and dollar-for-dollar, it comes up short against other supercars; others offer more performance for less money. But it's still spectacular, with a fantastic bespoke V10 engine and leading edge carbon-fiber technology. A slow transmission is its main drawback. The sound, inside and out, is like nothing else. The interior is as comfortable as a luxury car. You can order it in 30 colors, even Passionate Pink with lavender leather seats. That alone makes it unique.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Lexus LFA at Infineon Raceway near Sonoma, California.