Lexus LFA : First Drive

To understand what makes a Japanese supercar tick, try blagging your way to get behind the wheel of the Lexus LFA and let it make you feel like a hero who can vanquish Vettel! Adil Jal Darukhanawala got to play out his fantasy while making the V10 sing in all its unfettered V10 glory!

Lexus LFA Drive

Contrary to perception and short lived public memory, the Japanese have made a significant number of sports cars which have been pleasureable, fast and quick, technologically advanced, stylish as well might I add and this form has gone on since the mid-1960s when none other than Toyota made its 2000GT. Of course from there on many others followed especially Honda with its mid-engined NSX while Yamaha did an exceptionally hard core two-seater using the basis of an F1 car with a mildly detuned version of its 3.5-litre V10 F1 engine. As would have been apparent from this small list, the truly outstanding sports cars from the land of the rising sun to carry the tag of a supercar was however thin on the ground.

As such when the news came in slightly more than three years ago of none other than Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand to make a V10-engined supercar made one reel in disbelief. More so when it was announced that the orders to inculcate a bit of fun to drive and power packed performance came right from the top - from Akhio Toyoda himself. It might have been the bombshell of the decade but unbeknown to many, the project to give the world a Lexus supercar had been on for over six years and a small team under chief engineer Haruhiko Tanahashi had been beavering away on a front mid-engined rear drive supercar packing in many features and technologies culled from Toyota’s massive F1 effort and also a few of their own which the project team were anxious to try out.

The end result is the Lexus LFA, a car with a terrific power to weight ratio, clever aerodynamics with an underwhelming shape to it (probably the only thing which could have been done better I think) but enough on the muscle and the means to use it all which makes this one of the most unassuming of supercars but by that very essence it also puts forth a unique new hard edged performance tool which is precise, sharp, very powerful and most important of all fun to drive. When Toyota put together a full day session just before the Tokyo Motor Show in late November last year, for a group of Indian motoring hacks to experience the LFA in its full no-holds-barred glory, I was glad it had also provided us with the ideal venue to explore what it was capable of - the full length Grand Prix track of the Fuji Speedway just under the shadow of the fabled Mount Fuji.

Lexus LFA Drive

While the LFA has already adorned the covers of ZigWheels before (refer the 2010 ...... issue), this is the first time we have got to get behind the wheel and put it through its paces. However, jogging the memory banks for the basic configuration would be in order first and here goes. The basis of the car is an all carbon fibre monocoque manufactured by Lexus at its very own Motomachi plant near Toyota city. It is a modicum of super light weight and absolute torsional rigidity of the very highest order at the same time. Add a specially designed naturally-aspirated 4.8-litre V10 engine to the package and let it rest low in the tub way ahead of the scuttle but behind the front wheels (front mid-mounted, get it?).

That this engine came from race car thought is evident in its dry sump layout and this not only helps in being mounted low to the ground but also the clever weight distribution - the radiators are at the rear! - helps with the car’s manners. There is a counter gear at the power take off end of the engine which helps run the prop shaft taking the drive to the transaxle which incorporates a 6-speed automated manual gearbox. 552bhp and 480Nm of torque might not sound much in the days of over 600 horses and a torque nearing locomotive-like four-figures in other cars but then this is the beauty of this machine - doing more from less.

Lexus LFA Drive

Tipping the scales at a shade under 1,480kg this Lexus though delivers supercar performance as its numbers can testify: 202mph / 323.20km/h at the top end while also blazing away to 100km/h from standstill in a scant 3.7 seconds. The performance is there but the normal fastback looks do deceive which is a good thing because this is a car which can hunt with the hounds and run with the hares, like no other from Japan!

Just like the NSX before it, open the door and you are treated to a gorgeously decked out but highly functional cabin where the textures, the feel, the position, the seats, the pedal box, the steering wheel and the way forward all make you feel mighty comfortable. There is an innate balance in the cabin between form and function and any compromise or excess of one over the other might have been jarring. The Lexus stylists and packaging engineers got this spot on. Having said that the tall transmission tunnel plays the role of the seat separator very efficiently and that TFT instrument panel is a PlayStation delight, the graphics sliding sideways to enable the pilot to make sense of all that is happening around him, very rapidly when tearing through the Fuji Speedway! The manner in which the rev counter display changes from snow white at tick over to hot red when flat out and spinning close to its 9000rpm red line is pure PlayStation genre but then the analogue tachometer was incapable of delivering the inputs as quick as the engine’s ability to rev and thus the geeks were called in to help with a digital interface and this is what they delivered - analogue-style graphics!

Lexus LFA Drive

As did the engine men and the chassis engineers. For one the engine is a gem, truly one of the most outstanding V10s there ever has been with an aural reportoire which is surely, to borrow a phrase from Tanahashi’s team - the joy of angels singing! Yes, really! Thumb the start button (on the steering wheel) and the motor yowls into life with a delightful note played through the triple exhausts at the rear and one gets a feel of the silky smooth motor with one of the best soundtracks in this sanitised age. This is a motor which thrives on revs and with a torque peak of 6800rpm getting there quickly enables one to get the best out of the LFA.

The sad part, if I have to nit pick is the fact that in an age of dual clutch transmissions on most supercars, the LFA’s automated single clutch unit seems a clunker! There are four shift patterns - Auto, Sport, Normal and Wet and while Auto and Normal felt good to begin with, Sport is the one where the engine-tranny match-up works best and if thats not enough to complicate things, Tanahashi’s crew has worked in a menu of seven shift speeds which have everything in it from crazy charged hot heads to laggardly pensioners having doled out the big bucks for such a car. The shifts can take anything from a ponderous 1.0-second slow to a pelvic-bursting 0.2 sec quick change!

Lexus LFA Drive

What is impressive though is the pleasure part and this is where the LFA bests so many of the world’s best tarmac scorchers. It is the almost telepathic connect between driver and road surface which makes for a wonderful drive experience and the chassis along with its underpinnings eggs you on to push deeper into the corner, gives you the right hints just as the rear tries to slide out of line and then there is that delightful steering and that right throttle to both back it in line or let it drift a bit and powerslide your way through and out of the corner! The steering is mind numbing for its accuracy, race-car like minimum turns lock-to-lock (two) and its weightage given that it is an all electric-assist system! Threading the needle through the Fuji Speedway’s rapid series of left and right flicks with changing topography thrown in saw this fantastic trait in the LFA’s reportoire emerge to the fore repeatedly.

Tanahashi’s team has employed race-car inspired double wishbone front suspension up front while a multi-link set-up works the rear with remote-reservoir monotube dampers doing duty at each wheel. Add to this the car’s 48:52 weight distribution front to rear and while at times when you thought you had overcooked it going into a corner and loading up the the outside, the normal thing would have been to back off the loud pedal but in the Lexus wills you to go progressively deeper on the throttle. From there on with the steering and that delectable weight balance the car could be induced to either do a rip roaring tail out slide or track the corner as if on rails! The brakes are another detail as well with massive carbon ceramic units, 390mm dia six-piston calipered up front and 360mm dia four-pots on the rear on all four corners and when the scenary started brushing past at warp speeds while yet giving a most cozy feel while at the wheel, the brakes were the just as big confidence inducers as was the near impeccable sure footedness of the vehicle.

Lexus LFA Drive

So much for the race track but yes the three laps were much too less for anyone to get to grips with a machine so supreme in its wide span of capability. Top whack was a no-brainer (I saw 270km/h on the long start-finish straight on each of the three laps I drove) and expected but what was truly shattering was the marvelously damped ride which for a machine with the performance on tap is nothing short of remarkable.

Time then to bring in Tanahashi san for the clincher. “Many enthusiasts and others do put an overwhelming focus and priority on speed for a sports car such as the LFA,” he remarked. “However me and my team approached this from a completely different direction, focusing on driving pleasure as the first priority followed by outright lap times as the next. When a driver is enjoying the highest level of pleasure, so that car is driving fastest.”

Nuff said for I didn’t think I was driving that quick but I was truly in the delirious zone in this Lexus. Never thought I’d ever say this of the brand while making music unlike!


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