In the briefest of moments, while while firing off a gear change at 9000 RPM with the banshee-like V10 wailing in my ears, I caught a glimpse of that L-shaped Lexus logo on the steering wheel. And as I gripped the wheel to wrest the car through the winding road, I wondered if I had somehow woken up in a parallel universe that morning instead of my own.
I’m driving a Lexus right now, I thought to myself, bewildered. What the hell?
This is the kind of extreme cognitive dissonance that comes with driving the Lexus LFA, one of the most unusual, deeply misunderstood and utterly brilliant cars to grace this universe or any other ones in the last 15 years.
The LFA is a car that a lot of enthusiasts know about, but don’t really know, if you catch my drift.
It’s a difficult car to comprehend. Here we have a sports car that cost, at $375,000, almost as much as a Lamborghini Aventador when it debuted. It sat on a bespoke platform rife with carbon fiber weaved by a gigantic loom built in-house. Its power came from a high-revving but relatively tiny 4.8-liter Yamaha V10 mated to a single-clutch sequential gearbox. Later a more powerful, more expensive (!) Nürburgring Package LFA lived up to its name and set one of the fastest ‘Ring times ever. Just 500 LFAs were ever built between 2010 and 2012.
All of that, from a brand that had spent most of its life up to that point cranking out some of the most narcolepsy-inducing cars on the road.
How is anyone supposed to make sense of that?
You can see the issue here, and you have to wonder what Lexus (or parent company Toyota) thought this thing would do for their brand or their bottom line.
So forget the question of “why?” for a second, because none of that changes what the LFA is: A wild, uncompromising, truly legitimate supercar.
Not a luxury car, not a GT car, not a boulevard cruiser; a supercar. The closest the Japanese have ever come to making a Ferrari, even more so than the original NSX. It is a Dodge Viper from 30 years in the future, made by people who grew up with posters of Gundams on their wall next to the posters of Countaches. It is the car the Nissan GT-R could have been.
You’re probably familiar by now with the LFA’s insane Formula One racecar-like engine and exhaust note. The entire car is like that, from top to bottom. As a total package, it’s just fucking awesome. Its name stands for Lexus Fucking Awesome.
This gunmetal grey car is not a press loaner from Lexus. It is owned by an enthusiast and friend of Jalopnik here in Austin who preferred to stay anonymous for this story, a man whose affable charm masks his considerable skills behind the wheel.
He’s a humble guy with a good job whose daily driver is usually his Toyota truck or his Honda sportbike, but when he got the chance to pick up an LFA recently, he decided to go for it. And then he was generous enough to let me have a turn with it.
For him, the love affair started with the noise.
“Once I heard the scream, I was hooked,” this owner told me about why the LFA appealed to him. He said he sees them rising in value, and may enjoy it for the time being until he goes to sell it — or maybe he’ll keep it forever. “I can kind of justify it as a rational financial purchase? Sort of?” he told me with a laugh, explaining his decision with the uncertain Car Enthusiast Mental Gymnastics we’ve all used at one point or another. In the meantime, he has no desire to stash it away in some climate controlled garage. This car and its mighty engine are meant to be driven hard, and he does exactly that.
Whatever your reason for driving an LFA, expect to get noticed in one — just don’t expect people to know what it is. It is a visually dramatic car with a very Japanese approach to design: function over form, high technology over beauty. It’s all vents and scoops and sharp angles and long lines. Everything is done in service of the God of Aerodynamics, his will be done here on earth as it is in the wind tunnel. The tri-barrel exhaust looks so weaponized you may need a permit to own one in some states.
It’s cliché to say a supercar looks like the Batmobile, but the LFA truly does, especially in black. Following it (largely failing at following it, to be honest) in our chase car, a borrowed MK6 Volkswagen Golf R, I half expected someone in armor and a cape to step out, kick me in the face and scream “WHERE ARE THE DRUUUUGGGGS?” It’s violent and mean and high-tech and brutal all at once.
But what makes this car truly interesting is what lies under the skin: carbon fiber. So much carbon fiber. The frame is carbon fiber. The hood is carbon fiber. The little rod that props up the hood is carbon fiber. The steering wheel is carbon fiber. Everything is carbon fiber all the time. It helps bring the weight down to 3,263 pounds.
And why not? Toyota famously used the LFA as a technological test bed to see what they could do with carbon fiber, which is why they built a custom loom to make the stuff on demand.
You’d make damn near everything on your sports car out of carbon fiber if you had a machine out back that could make the stuff whenever you wanted. I bet Akio Toyoda added a deck onto his house made out of carbon fiber just because he could.
The purpose-driven design extends inside the car as well. Stylish but straightforward. It’s a nice place to be, albeit more cramped than you might expect given the car’s length. The LFA’s interior has aged quite well even if you know its center console would likely be dominated by some huge touch screen today.
It’s rife with so many intriguing little details, like the industrial-style hinged door handles, the satin metal, and the solid-block aluminum pedals.
There’s that weird Lexus clicky-mouse thing here to use the infotainment system, but you can easily disregard it since driving is what this car is meant to do. Would you ever use navigation in this car? Come on.
I have to mention the trick sliding digital gauge above the steering wheel, apparently necessitated because an analog one wouldn’t be able to keep up. It alone comprises amazing piece of technology and one that’s beautiful to look at. It glows red as you approach redline, although I’d definitely recommend keeping your eyes on the road instead of that.
But after a while I got tired of ogling the LFA from afar and asked for a turn behind the wheel. The owner instructed me on how to fire it up: twist the key, pull the transmission paddles back at once, then hit the start button on the steering wheel with my thumb. The V10 sprung to life with a mad furor. I knew this was going to be a drive to remember.
So how does the LFA drive? Let me give you a sense of what you’re in for: There is no cruise control on this $375,000 Lexus. There is no cruise control on this $375,000 Lexus.
Forget whatever you think a Lexus stands for: comfort, plushness, grand touring, a sedate experience, everything. Throw that stuff out the window. This one is different. The LFA is here to break shit, hard.
This is an unbelievably visceral and challenging car to drive, much more so than the McLaren 650S I had on these same roads earlier this year. The LFA has no interest in holding your hand, or having good manners at low speeds or on laid-back drives. It doesn’t do “good manners.”
It’s insanely quick and wants to be stretched out to its stratospheric 9000 RPM redline with every single pass, all while you grip the steering wheel in an act of holding on as much as controlling the car. As a driver you’ll back off long before it would even consider doing so.
The compact V10, small enough that it weighs as much as a V6, puts out 552 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. The zero to 60 mph run is said to happen in the upper-mid 3 second range.
It feels quicker than that, and in every way it doesn’t dial back its wild character the way so many modern supercars do so they can keep their owners alive long enough to buy more supercars. (The top speed is reportedly 202 mph; I didn’t get to test that.)
Some of its hardcore and uncompromising nature comes from the six-speed paddle shift gearbox. Shifts are felt here. When the LFA changes gears, automatically or by your command, they are forceful and immediate and jarring. Smooth is not anywhere in the LFA’s vocabulary. Compared to supercar rivals from its day and today, the LFA’s gearbox is distinctly unrefined.
It’s nowhere near as polished as what you get from a Porsche or a Ferrari, but it’s fast and gets the job done. Oh, and reverse? That’s a little standalone button to the left of the dashboard, if you need it.
All the while, the hills were alive with the sound of the V10’s furious engine sound and exhaust note. My friend the owner was right — everything about the LFA was incredible, and intimidating, and wonderful, but the sound is what makes you fall in love.
It sounds the way F1 cars used to sound before turbos ruined everything, back when you needed earplugs to watch a race. The noise, simply put, is perfect, and hearing it from behind the driver’s seat is one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in any car to date.
But this engine, gearbox and raw character present some challenges. Going through the twisties on some of Central Texas’ best back roads, it was tough to find that sweet spot in the powerband that would propel the car through a corner with ease. The gearing is incredibly tall so you have to keep your revs up, which is an unusual proposition with the V10 howling like it does.
Like a VTEC Honda on a cocktail of crack cocaine, steroids and Molly, it lives in the upper part of its RPM range — it doesn’t give you the prodigious torque of a Viper or even a Corvette Stingray. You have to be willing to run it with the revs high to get the most out of it all the time, and then you can’t let its tremendous power get the better of you, or its screaming engine deter you.
This on-edge character extends to the car’s handling as well. It’s incredibly planted, grounded to the ground in a way a Camry can only dream about, but with a hint of rear-end slip if you aren’t giving it the respect it deserves. This thing knows how to slide. The electrically assisted steering is accurate, but a little light on road feel, unfortunately.
Driving the LFA well takes some getting used to, and more time than I had. You have to learn its quirks before you can really master what it’s capable of. I didn’t even come close to scratching the surface of what it can do on the street, nor would I want to. Track time in one is now at the top of my bucket list.
The LFA is an amazing, fascinating machine. Rare as it is, misunderstood as it is, in spite of whatever flaws it may have, it will easily stand the test of time as one of the greatest supercars ever built by anyone — badging be damned.
All of this begs the question, though — was the LFA a success for Lexus?
I don’t really know. Define “success.” It’s true that it didn’t serve as the brand-elevating halo car for Lexus the way the R8 did for Audi, for example. It’s so rare, so expensive and so far away from anything else Lexus (or Toyota for that matter) has ever done before or since. There have been no extreme high-performance Lexus models since the LFA’s run ended. We have yet to see its carbon fiber trickle down to more plebeian cars as promised. And while it’s fast, it’s certainly not the fastest supercar ever.
All of those things are true. I know they are. I don’t care. If you ever get the chance, drive an LFA. Lift its hood, stare at the carbon fiber and listen to its noise. You’ll start to get it too.
All photos credit Kurt Bradley
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