It's mid-January and Britain is going through one of those winter thaws where the whole island seems covered in grime. The 2011 Lexus LFA has just emerged from the workshop where technicians have spent the past hour pretending to do things to its giblets and crazy multiform surfaces. And now, whiter than the Stig's iPod, the LFA sits bang outside the showroom doors. You wonder if its angelic cleanliness is the result of some new scum-repelling lacquer developed purely for the Lexus supercar.
We have four hours with this car. That would be four hours in a $375,000, 552-horsepower car developed almost exclusively at the Nürburgring. Four hours in a car that is claimed to reach 100 km/h (62 mph) from a standstill in 3.7 seconds and that will apparently touch 202 mph. Four hours in a car that is intended to sprinkle magic dust on the Lexus brand.
But unlike anyone else in the world, we're going to spend four hours in the 2011 Lexus LFA on the roads of the real world, not just a racetrack. Our mission is to deliver one of the world's most expensive production cars to a Lexus showroom in the exclusive London district of Mayfair, so we have four hours to wend as epic a path through rural Bedfordshire as is possible.
The Starting Ritual
We set a course for some cracking technical roads not far from the Lexus technical center in Milton Keynes. Some young hoon in a drift-homage Nissan 240SX nearly swallows his tongue when he spies the Lexus, pointing and jabbering as flecks of spittle shower the inside of the Nissan's side window.
We were impressed ourselves as soon as we experienced the theatrical moment of rousing the 2011 Lexus LFA from its sleep. You enter the cabin by pushing down on a recessed flap on the door, and after the latch surrenders with a recognizable Lexus-style ker-thonk, the featherweight door glides toward you. Tumble down into the cozy chair, use the typically silent Lexus electric motors to perfect the seating position and then manually adjust the steering wheel. Before you plunge the key into the ignition barrel, admire its solid billet of titanium shrouded in carbon-fiber.
One turn of the key seems to ignite the instrument binnacle, as the Thin Film Transfer (TFT) display lights up. The tachometer pulses with dramatic reds and whites, and the redline is all the way up at 9,000 rpm. With your right thumb, you push the ignition button on the steering wheel and the starter motor spins with that distinctive high-pitched shriek that tells you there are lots of pistons on the move. Then all 10 cylinders catch with a demure brrrraaaap from the triple exhausts, and finally the 4,805cc V10 settles into a composed, judder-free idle.
We'll tell you, this thing feels indescribably special at idle. We just didn't expect the exquisite amalgam of tailor-made supercar detail and mass-produced Lexus quality and refinement.
In order to save weight, the 2011 Lexus LFA disdains the usual dual-clutch automated manual for a racing-style single-clutch automated manual. First gear selects seamlessly, but then the transmission shudders through the 1st-to-2nd change.
The throttle response borders on the immediate, which takes some getting used to, and the Lexus technician riding in the passenger seat must think us an incompetent fool as the car stammers the first few yards. The only engine as free-revving and responsive as this that we've ever experienced has been the Porsche Carrera GT's 612-hp 5.7-liter V10. The resemblance is uncanny, from the heavy, lash-free action of the throttle pedal to the rabid way the engine accumulates revs. Even the noise is there — higher-pitched than the V10s from Audi, BMW and Lamborghini, more shriek than warble.
The LFA's ride is busy but not jarring, and the refinement is pretty good given that the subframes that locate the suspension are hung from a stiff carbon-fiber tub that is bound to transmit vibration. These wide, specially made Bridgestone tires — 265/35ZR20s in front, 305/30ZR20s in the rear — grumble on anything less than virgin asphalt, plus there's some suspension noise as well, but overall the 2011 Lexus LFA feels about as relaxed on the pavement as a Ferrari 599 GTB, which makes it entirely happy as we trundle away.
This isn't a car in which the mere flex of a right toe has you surging past lesser traffic. The pedal works in a great arcing motion and this offers the driver more control over the energy released to the rear differential. So you squeeze the throttle a little farther each time on this damp surface, feel the tires claw at the tarmac and then push deeper into the footwell, hoping to trigger the traction control and, at the very least, understand where the electronics think the limit exists under such conditions.
One Hour Gone
As we drive through some corners, we try to take the measure of a chassis with a weight distribution of 48 percent front/52 percent rear that has been developed diligently in endless laps at the Nürburgring Nordschleife (and even several races in the Nürburgring 24 Hours). And of course we're doing so in a damp, gravel-covered, 2nd-gear bend in Bedfordshire. It's the usual squalid road test of an exquisite automobile, like choosing Yate's Wine Bar for your girl to model a Dolce & Gabbana cocktail dress. Ah, well, a supercar by Lexus has to work everywhere, right?
Matters quickly turn lively when you disable the stability control. When you turn the steering wheel, the car responds. The steering ratio is fast but just the right side of frantically fast, so you don't have to nibble away at the steering wheel to find an apex. But the transition from steering to throttle as you accelerate out of the corner needs to be finely judged. Push a little too hard and the rear tires swiftly spool up and transform a delicate drift into a ditch-tempter of a slide.
Gradually you get a better feeling for the delicacy of the controls and acclimate to the subtle messages that stream through the chassis. The car's 102.6-inch wheelbase actually feels short and brings with it all the expected benefits in terms of agility, so even though the 2011 Lexus LFA is very wide, it doesn't feel too big for everyday use. The steering never really comes alive at these speeds, though.
Two Hours Gone
Not since Mr. Gordon Murray went native with his design of the McLaren F1's interior detailing (well, he was a racing car designer, after all) has there been a more interesting cabin in a road car than this one. It is a mesmerizing collage of designs and materials that still displays fanatical attention to detail.
The titanium shift paddles offer slightly different levels of effort (the upshift is marginally lighter) and the indicator stalks are little slithers of metal that operate with the type of precision that has you tweaking them purely for recreation. The center console rises up high to your right, with the screen for the navigation system buried within it, and the joystick interface control is placed perfectly by your right hand. Flawlessly made carbon-fiber trim pushes up against exotic metals, while the hand-stitched leather is supple and expensive. As a place to enjoy, be comfortable and operate a machine, this might be our favorite supercar cabin of them all. Never thought we'd hear ourselves say that.
You certainly wouldn't hear yourself say such a thing in the LFA at high speed, because this car makes some noise. LFA chief engineer Haruhiko Tanahashi is pretty obsessed with the car's musical attributes, and he's made it a very vocal sports car. Induction and exhaust noises are ducted into the cabin and the result is an ever-changing melee of mechanical sounds. At first you grin at the idea of a Lexus with such an obstreperous personality, but after three hours these sounds become an irritating drone, at least if you're cruising down the M1 to London. You can only alleviate the annoyance with a punch of throttle, which is no great hardship.
When you do this, the LFA gets moving. Some 552 hp might not sound like much these days, but this car weighs just 3,263 pounds. The combination translates into some ferocious performance once the V10 is fully lit, which is at anything above 3,000 rpm. Once the tachometer reaches 4,000 rpm, the engine is pulling very hard. When you get to 7,500 rpm, the noise from the engine, road and wind is intimidating and you think it's time for another gear but there's still 2,000 rpm to go before the fuel cutout cries foul. The last 2,000 rpm is completely explosive, and as the tachometer needle bears down on the 9,000 rpm redline, the LFA's V10 is at once dignified and deranged.
Three and a Half Hours Gone
We've got about 30 minutes in north London traffic to go, and we're following the directions from the navigation system while soaking up tunes from the Mark Levinson hi-fi. What a strange, fascinating car this is.
We've deliberately avoided any talk of the 2011 Lexus LFA's list price of $375,000 until now, because having spent the day (well, four hours) in this car, the price doesn't strike us as especially relevant. That'll sound absurd to many of you, but this car isn't a normal retail proposition, not even in the abnormal reality of Planet Supercar. Just 500 will be made, some 150 of which will go to the United States and only 70 of which are destined for Europe (18 of them to the U.K.). Perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay this Lexus is to say that it doesn't feel like a bad value.
There are faster supercars and more dramatic-looking supercars than the 2011 Lexus LFA, and all of them have a more appealing badge than this one. But we're nevertheless ever-so-slightly smitten by the LFA. The execution is very good — especially that monster V10 — and the details are stunning. Chances are, most people will never see one, and you shouldn't underestimate the power of this.
Most of all, we adore the incongruous mix of refined Lexus values and harsh supercar tech. It's like Marmite and strawberries, only it works. They were a good four hours.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.