The 2011 Lexus LFA isn't the fastest car ever made, nor the most powerful or even the quickest to 60 MPH. It can't even match the ZR1 around the Nürburgring. So why will this Toyota cost nearly $400,000?
Full Disclosure: Lexus wanted us to drive the LFA so badly they flew me to Miami and put me up in a fancy hotel. Also, they fed me cornbread with jalapenos in it. If anyone wants to bribe me, southern food is definitely the way to do it, but I'd really have preferred country ham biscuits and red eye gravy.
You've probably been bewildered by how much attention one car from a previously maligned automaker is getting on this and other enthusiast sites. But the attention we've paid pales in comparison to the attention to technical detail Toyota's displayed in the design and construction of the LFA. The car's gestation has taken nearly a decade not because the program had problems or limited resources, but because Toyota decided to design and build nearly every element of the LFA, its first ever supercar, in-house. Where most companies — Bugatti, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche included — contract out things like gearboxes and the design and construction of carbon fiber components, Lexus chose to teach itself how to make those things better than anyone else, then build its own tools in order to make them.
Take the carbon fiber, for instance. To make the LFA's, Toyota created one of only two circular looms in the entire world, then used it to simultaneously weave one tube of carbon inside another. They built this system just to make the A-pillars on the car.
This all sounded like little more than corporate grandstanding to us. It's the largest car company on earth patting itself on the back for being able to use the money it got selling the automotive equivalent of beige orthopedic shoes to build some fancy tools.
That attitude lasted all the way to turn 6 at the Homestead Speedway road course. An over enthusiastic application of the sharp throttle had the 552 HP, 4.8-liter V10 spinning rapidly towards its 9,500 RPM redline and the tail sliding out towards the grass. Normally that'd have been an oh-shit-I'm-going-to-break-a-$400K-car moment, especially in an unfamiliar supercar, but in the LFA it barely requires conscious correction as it just blended into rocketing down the following straight at three-figure speeds. In fact, oversteer in the LFA doesn't feel so much like oversteer as it does like the rear tires are sitting on castors and being pushed around by a couple of assistants. There's no body roll, no drama, just complete communication and smooth recovery. The reason for that? The impossibly anal approach Toyota took when building the LFA.
The LFA has an unprecedentedly low center of gravity of 17 3/4" — located directly beneath the steering wheel's rim. So far a conventional attribute executed perfectly, but how that CoG got there is way more complicated. First, the engine is located way back in the engine bay and mounts to a 6-speed rear-mounted transaxle through a carbon torque tube. The oil coolers are in the front fenders, while the radiators are at the rear to aid weight distribution, they're fed by the shoulder scoops. That creates a 48% front, 52% rear distribution for the 3263 Lb curb weight. That accounts for the CoG's position front-to-rear, but not vertically. That was achieved by using a world's first counter gear to raise the relative height of the torque tube, allowing the engine to be mounted incredibly low in the car, accounting for the CoG's height.
Of course, that's still only part of the story. The rigid drivetrain assembly (engine, torque tube, transaxle) is connected to the car by four mounts positioned at the geometric extremes of the unit. With no twist in the assembly due to torque, this arrangement eliminates the effect of power delivery on the chassis, there's no torque reaction.
You see where this is going?
Of course, the reason I was over aggressive with the throttle is that the engine revs extraordinarily quickly. From idle, it can be bouncing off the 9,500 RPM fuel cut off in just 6/10ths of a second. That's thanks to an incredibly low reciprocating mass, but achieving that wasn't simple either. They used technology developed by Toyota's F1 program to develop the block, for example, which was cast in the same foundry, using the same technique as the F1 engine. The same goes for the gearbox. The paddle-shifted hydraulically actuated 6-speed features a traditional H-pattern over the more popular dual clutch design because it was determined that the two clutch plates of the latter would negatively impact that low reciprocating mass. Shift speeds are adjustable, taking just 2/10ths of a second a their fastest, but can be slowed to "smooth" for everyday driving; at their fastest, they're anything but.
Transitioning off the incredibly powerful brakes — 15 1/3" diameter carbon metallic discs at the front with Brembo Monoblock 6-piston calipers — and onto the super sensitive throttle isn't currently as smooth as easily driving on the edge of grip requires. But these LFAs are pre-production prototypes and will be continually refined before production begins December 2010. Lexus plans to "break the molds" after just 500 LFAs and plans to build each car for a customer's own bespoke requirements. The company half-jokingly estimates that there's "30 billion" potential combinations of spec.
With only a 202 MPH top speed, a 3.7-second 0-60 MPH time and a 7:30 ‘Ring time, the LFA isn't going to be a bench racer's dream. But we actually admire Toyota for eschewing the conventional, numbers-based approach to supercar success. The LFA's 500 lucky customers aren't buying bragging rights, they're buying the most comprehensively complete supercar package ever made. As a statement of technological ability and performance intent, the LFA firmly establishes Toyota firmly within the upper echelons of sports car manufacturers. The real payoff to us enthusiasts isn't going to be the the incredibly rare LFA, but the trickle down reaching forthcoming Toyota FT-86 sports car and other future Toyota performance models. If the FT-86 can be 1/20th the car the LFA is, us everyday enthusiasts are in for a real treat.