No, it's not written by Jeremy Clarkson. No matter, for Jason Barlow stepped up to the plate quite nicely and produced probably my favorite among the LFA reviews from the journalists fortunate enough to have driven it on the Nürburgring. Here it is:
by Jason Barlow - The Sunday Times Online
Jeremy’s away, and not only am I filling his shoes, but I’m also reviewing the single most baffling car of 2009, maybe even the decade. It’s also possibly the best Japanese car I’ve driven. But, seeing as it costs a comical £336,000, perhaps it’s the worst. God knows, it may even be both.
You know Lexus, don’t you? Posh, impeccably engineered Toyotas. Big in America. The application of Toyota’s hybrid technology has lately given Lexus a new lease of life, with public figures as disparate as David Cameron and Sir Paul McCartney driving them, as well as most of Notting Hill. Yes, in a Lexus hybrid you can have your fair-trade cake and eat it too.
Not in the LFA, you can’t. This is a carbon-fibre-bodied, mid-engined supercar, powered by a 552bhp 4.8-litre V10 engine, that can rip to 62mph in 3.7sec and on to a 200mph-plus top speed. Yes, Lexus, the caring, sharing limo maker, fancies its chances against the likes of the Mercedes SLS AMG, the remarkable new Ferrari 458 Italia and 2010’s most keenly awaited (and clumsily named) car, the McLaren MP4-12C. That is what’s technically known as a tall order.
Before I tell you what it’s like to drive, though, I should fill you in on what Hollywood scriptwriters call the “back story”. Lexus showed a concept version of the LFA at a motor show in 2005, having secretly started work on a supercar project five years earlier. The firm has since engaged in one of the most extravagant pieces of commercial foreplay in history. Not since Tim and Dawn’s fumbling romance in The Office has there been such a tantalising “will they, won’t they?” plotline. Only when Toyota appointed a new president, the motor-sports-mad Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company founder, did Lexus finally get the green light for a limited run of 500 LFAs. Sadly, that coincided almost exactly with the red light being flashed up for Toyota’s Formula One effort, after eight seasons and £1.5 billion had yielded not a single race win.
You could argue that the LFA is all that remains of Toyota’s F1 ambitions. Its engine is stuffed full of lightweight, low-friction oily bits. The valves and connecting rods are titanium, the pistons — which move at 25 metres per second — forged aluminium. Dry-sump lubrication reduces the car’s centre of gravity and enables it to pull cornering forces of up to 2g. Each cylinder has an independently controlled throttle body, to optimise the amount of air taken in. A separate control system measures the throttle pedal angle and estimates the intake air volume to improve the fuel injection. You don’t get this sort of thing on the Yaris.
Lexus also claims that the engine can go from idle to its 9000rpm redline in 0.6sec, which isn’t very long at all; the car uses a digital rev counter because a regular analogue one can’t keep pace with those sorts of dizzying crank speed. This is clever and slightly crazy stuff.
Though not as crazy as building your own loom to make the carbon fibre for the chassis and body panels. Even McLaren, which pioneered the use of carbon fibre in F1 in the early 1980s, doesn’t do that. Crazier still, the LFA was all aluminium until halfway through the project’s 10-year gestation, at which point the decision was made to switch to the stronger, lighter and vastly more expensive carbon stuff. You wonder whether Lexus was making it up as it went along.
You can make up your own mind about the LFA’s looks, but it is aerodynamically efficient, authentically Japanese and more chunky Transformer than curvy Megan Fox. The sci-fi theme continues inside. You can customise the data display and adjust the cabin illumination according to mood, but after 10 minutes of fiddling I felt as befuddled as Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Still, you can always just admire the leather and Alcantara and the fabulously comfortable seats.
That said, the LFA would probably be a straightforward car to drive were it not for the fact that the venue for my first go in it is the infamous Nürburgring Nordschleife, or Ring for short, in Germany. Lexus raced a pair of LFAs at the 24-hour endurance event there earlier this year, with the boss driving. He was slow but steady, apparently.
The protocol at a driving event such as my test run requires you to affect a studied nonchalance at all times — doubly so if you are wearing race overalls, as I am. With a serious-looking deputation of Japanese engineers hovering in the pit lane, I begin to feel like an X Factor hopeful in front of Simon Cowell. I’ve driven the Ring plenty of times, but the chances of this journey ending in the Armco are starting to look worryingly high.
If Lexus is known for anything, it’s the noise its LS saloon makes: none. It’s as hushed as meditation time in a Nepalese yoga retreat. The LFA, on the other hand, comes the closest any road car has ever come to mimicking the feral roar of an F1 car. It’s also extremely challenging at speed. The LFA doesn’t do lazy. Driving it quickly is like being shouted at by the manic drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. In Japanese.
Added to that are the Ring’s 73 named corners and a stomach-churning 1,000ft variation in altitude. A good driver will “sight” corners properly, brake correctly and carry the right amount of momentum into them to maximise exit speed. Get it wrong and you’ll mess up your approach to the next corner. Do it again and the whole lap is wrecked.
In a 552bhp supercar, that’s a lot to think about. The first section — through Hatzenbach and Hocheichen — is all about acclimatisation. The gearbox is a sequential semi-automatic, operated by steering-column-mounted paddles. It’s slow compared with the latest dual-clutch systems, but there’s a mechanical feel and intensity to its shifts that underlines the LFA’s surprisingly abrasive personality. The box is a rear transaxle setup, which helps the car’s weight distribution, and the low centre of gravity is palpable too. You notice these things at the Ring because there are compressions and crests here that in effect pull a car in two directions at once.
Then it’s out of Aremberg and into the Fuchsröhre. Deep breaths are needed here. The LFA is balanced but racing-car edgy, even with the traction control switched on. It needs commitment and moves with a similar physicality to that of Ferrari’s hardcore 430 Scuderia. That’s something I hadn’t expected.
Next is the downhill section towards Ex-Mühle, then up into Bergwerk — where Niki Lauda had the accident in 1976 that ended F1 racing at the Ring — and the car is beginning to settle into a rhythm. Or so I think. Suddenly I’m careering into the blind, banked Caracciola-Karussell hairpin and the car needs manhandling to the point where I’m sweating, with a white-knuckle grip on the wheel. It’s true what they say about the Ring — it bites back. After the Hohe Acht high point, things get easier. If you can call 190mph along the two-mile back straight easy.
My lap time for the Ring was nothing to write home about but that’s a reflection of cautious driving more than the abilities of the car, which, I conclude, is something very much worth writing about. Ultimately, the LFA is baffling because it takes a sledgehammer to everything Lexus stands for. It shouldn’t really exist at all, and almost didn’t. That is precisely why it’s so enjoyable. The biggest automotive company in the world has unleashed the most idiosyncratic car of the year.
What will become of it is an interesting question. Some think it will be a bit like the Jaguar XJ220 — another limited-edition supercar that was as expensive (£403,000) as it was desirable, launched into the teeth of a recession in 1992 and probably just too crazy and extravagant for its own good. But brilliant nevertheless.
Barlow’s verdict: 4 out of 5 stars