When Jaguar first showed its mind-crushing XJ220 prototype to prospective buyers at the 1988 British Motor Show, it had a V12. When the car finally rolled up to buyers' estates, it had a twin-turbo six from an MG Metro 6R4 Group B rally car. Awesome, for sure, but not a V12, and buyers bailed.
In a recent article, Nelson Ireson from MotorAuthority considers why the Lexus LFA isn't selling, even while Lamborghini claims all of its similarly-priced Aventador LP700-4s are spoken-for. Has the Lexus LFA become today's Jaguar XJ220?
Cutting to the chase. What happened? Some claim emissions regulations killed the V12, some say it was packaging issues. Either way, the prestige of the XJ220 took a hit, and buyers stayed away. Also, it cost nearly $600,000.
Still, despite the XJ220 failing to reach its branded top speed of 220 mph, it was the fastest car in the world (at 217 mph) for a time. Unfortunately that time was the early 1990s, whose global economic meltdown looks tame to us now, only in light of our recent little punch in the fiscal nutsack.
What does that have to do with the Lexus LFA? As Ireson points out, the LFA has similarly failed to set rich guys' pants on fire. But why is this so? The rich have seemingly rebounded nicely enough to lay claim to the entire first run of Lamborghini Aventadors, whose $387,000 starting price is in the same ballpark as the LFA's.
Notwithstanding that the LFA emerged after a seemingly interminable R&D period, Ireson notes the biggest problem for the production-ready LFA is its value for dollar. The LFA lags competitors from Ferrari and Lamborghini (and soon McLaren) in areas related to both technology and performance. It's not fast enough and isn't cutting-edge enough. Or is it?
Sure, it's about six tenths slower from 0-60 than the Aventador. For LFA owners, that means six tenths' more trips to the ball dryer when Lambo owners start squawking on the links. It's also a little light on top speed: 202 mph vs 217. And the horsepower? Indeed, 600 hp is the new 500 hp, which would mean the LFA's 552 hp is still merely the new 452 hp. See how that works?
But what about technology? Here, the LFA's problem is the details. The LFA is awash in details, details that do nothing to sex up the place. Details like a center of gravity that emerges somewhere around the driver's kneecaps, which LFA engineers accomplished by fitting a counter gear to the engine so the crankshaft can sit lower than the torque tube. Details like, as Richard Hammond pointed out on Top Gear, side-view mirrors that direct air into the rear intakes. I happen to think all that stuff is hot. Start talking like that to a typical supercar buyer, and a shed load of infrared sensors couldn't count all the yawns.
Also, the car's epoch of development time (possibly close to a decade, all told) and the company's desire to do most of the R&D in-house put it behind the dual-clutch gearbox curve. Of course, geeks will note that with less reciprocating mass, the LFA's single-clutch actuated manual furthers the company's engineering brief of searching out and killing inertia-related disruptions. For what that's worth. Actually, it's worth a lot, unless you try that line in a Miami nightclub.
Of course, then there's that savage V10, which revs to the square root of infinity. That thing could be the most important product of Toyota's abandoned Formula One program since the wind tunnel the company now rents out to race teams for oodles of cash. Trouble is, that screamy ten-pot is far too sexy and demonstrative a powerplant for investment-banker types. It's the engine equivalent of bending Jane the M&A lawyer over a conference-room table to celebrate a successful merger, instead of sneaking her off to the Four Seasons. Somehow, an engine like that speaks to character.
Despite the sales woes, it's premature for Ireson to suggest Toyota's investment in building the LFA was a futile effort. (I also think he's overstated the R&D dollar amount by a factor of three, but that's debatable, considering how many places on Toyota's balance sheet the expenses could have been cubbied — the engine in the half-billion-dollar F1 program, for example.) There's no doubt investing in carbon-fiber production, which fostered the late-stage LFA, is a must for carmakers, as saving weight becomes mission-critical in the coming decades. Toyota will get most of that CF money back. What's more, when it comes to determining the viability of new materials, there's no substitute for building an actual car out of them. Lest we mention, the LFA arrived nearly 200 pounds lighter than the Aventador.
Maybe the LFA just needed to be $100,000 lighter as well. That is, if you could buy one outright. By instituting a byzantine lease-only scheme, Lexus has kicked an entire tier of buyers out of the market — speculators, flip artistes, movers, floggers. These guys traditionally lubricate the supercar market, providing the kind of liquidity that makes rich guys comfortable about dropping their gotten gains on the latest and most impressive toy. When these guys bailed on the XJ220 back in the early '90s, it was game over.
Or could it be that, demographically, it's still too soon for a $400,000 Japanese supercar? How many 55-year-old multi-millionaires wax nostalgic for Japanese cars? Probably not as many as once fantasized about taking Raquel Welch for a moonlight burn in an Italian V12. Call us back when Generation Y enters its peak earning years, and boom, as the kids once said, goes the dynamite.
Whatever happens with the LFA, Lexus should consider the Jaguar lesson. Next time, build the fastest car in the world. If it doesn't sell, it helps to have a little something that'll take the edge off.