2012 Lexus LFA: A wet first drive

As a showpiece of the absolute apex of Japanese performance in a road-going car, the Lexus LFA is definitely a car that needs to be experienced.

With a carbon fiber body and a high-revving V-10 engine, the Lexus LFA is one of the most exotic street cars to ever come out of Japan.
With a carbon fiber body and a high-revving V-10 engine, the Lexus LFA is one of the most exotic street cars to ever come out of Japan. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

As I accelerated out of the rain-slicked Turn 2 of Infineon Raceway, I could feel the rear end of the Lexus LFA begin to slip and spin. "Holy crap," I thought, "how am I going to be able to pay for this $375,000 Lexus?"

Fortunately, my moment of terror was, despite the slippery conditions, both brief and isolated. But before I get into that, let's discuss how I came to find myself on a wet racetrack behind the most exotic vehicle to ever come out of Japan.

The day at Infineon Raceway started with an introductory session in the Lexus IS F sport sedan.
The day at Infineon Raceway started with an introductory session in the Lexus IS F sport sedan. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Lexus LFA performance driving school
The day's instruction didn't start behind the wheel of the LFA. Rather, we participants were first tossed the keys to Lexus' IS F sport sedan, a 416 horsepower Mercedes-Benz C63/BMW M3 challenger that the LFA school instructor referred to as merely "capable." which should give you an idea of the level of performance to be expected from Lexus' first supercar.

From the driver's seat of the IS F, we practiced vehicle balance and weight transfer on a slalom course before practicing a drill the instructors called the Technique of the Curve (ToC) during which we took turns rounding Infineon's Turn 11 until the flow of braking, turn in, apex, and acceleration were hammered into our brains.

After a helmet fitting and quick lessons in track etiquette and proper seating position was a lead and follow session, during which the driving school participants chased the instructors (also in IS Fs) around the long track configuration (as opposed to the NASCAR configuration that I drove during the Audi R8 V-10 event) to learn the proper driving line and become accustomed to driving at speed. Tucked in the center console was a radio from which I could hear my instructor, who was amazingly holding a radio in one hand, watching me through his rear view mirror, and gracefully piloting the course simultaneously.

I was also impressed by the stock IS F's on-track manners. Power was good and the torque delivery was linear and predictable when its automatic transmission was manually shifted. The handling was also quite good for the pace at which we attacked the course. Given the choice between it and the BMW M3 for a track day, I'd definitely choose the Bimmer, but I don't think I'd be disappointed by either.

The most exotic Japanese car ever
Finally, it was time to meet the LFA. We've already extensively discussed the numbers when the supercar debuted back in 2009, so I won't bore you with the details. I'll just give you the high points: A 4.8-liter V-10 engine screams to  a racy 9,000rpm redline, making 553 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque along the way. Fuel economy doesn't really come into play when you're talking about $375,000 toys, but the EPA puts it at about 12 mpg combined.

You may be thinking, "Big deal, my Mustang makes that much power and gets better fuel economy to boot!" However, there's more to the story of a car like the LFA than the numbers tell.

For starters, power from the engine is transmitted down what Lexus calls a "torque-tube" carbon fiber driveshaft to an automatic transaxle mounted at the back of the vehicle where torque is multiplied and distributed to the rear wheels via a Torsen limited slip differential. And that's no slushbox that we're talking about, but a six-speed sequential gearbox that fires off shifts with computer-controlled precision. Precision is a necessity because the LFA's low-friction engine revs so quickly that it can jump from idle to redline in 0.6 second. (Lexus also states that the speed of the engine is why a digital tachometer is necessary.) At its slowest setting (Wet), the transmission shifts about as fast as you do on a good day. At its fastest (Sport), the gearbox fires off paddle-selected, rev-matched gear changes in about 200 milliseconds. For comparison, an involuntary human blink takes about 150 milliseconds. While in Sport mode, the digital tachometer switches to a white background, the numbers on its face growing larger and more prominent. There's also a Normal mode that splits the difference and if none of those settings is just right for you, the gearbox shift speed can be tweaked by the user to one of seven levels. Finally, a grocery-getter Auto mode can take over shifting without your paddle-actuated intervention.

When asked why a single-clutch sequential gearbox was chosen for the LFA rather than the dual-clutch gearboxes that are in vogue these days, Lexus' representative explained that the sequential transaxle was both lighter and less complex than the dual-clutch. As you'll soon learn, lightness is something that the LFA's engineers took very seriously.

Like most cars, starting the LFA begins with placing a key into a key hole, but that's where the similarities between it and every other road-going Toyota end. After turning the key to the accessory position, the engine is fired with a Start/Stop button located on the steering wheel. Doing so causes to the digital instrument cluster to spring to life with a quick bark before settling into a rather smooth and quiet idle. There is no conventional shift lever or e-brake lever. To get going, simply pull the right paddle shifter to select first gear and you're off. Parking the car requires a simultaneous pull of both paddles to select neutral and a tap of the electronic parking brake switch. Similarly, reverse is engaged with a button located near the driver's left knee after selecting reverse.

All around the cabin are bits of exposed carbon fiber, but it's not just decorative trim. The LFA's chassis is almost completely made of carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP) which gives the vehicle a rigid platform that is also extremely light--220 pounds lighter, according to Lexus, than if the vehicle were made out of aluminium. Even the hood prop is made out of carbon fiber and feels as light in the hand as a ballpoint pen. The bits that aren't made of CFRP are made of aluminum. For example, the aluminum V-10 engine is lighter than the V-6 that you'll find under the hood of a Toyota Camry. The vehicle's front and rear suspension components are also made completely out of aluminium and connect to the chassis as modular subframes. Lexus apparently went to a great deal of trouble to devise a clever technique for fusing the metal subframes components to composite chassis for increased rigidity and, of course, weight savings.

Massive carbon ceramic brakes are ultralight and fade free, but also easily modulated for around town driving.
Massive carbon ceramic brakes are ultralight and fade free, but also easily modulated for around town driving. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Keeping the vehicle shiny side up in the corners are massive 20-inch wheels shod in wide, sticky tires custom made for the LFA--I'm told the tires run about $400-500 each--and house 15-inch and 14-inch carbon ceramic brakes on the front and rear axles, respectively. The suspension setup is complemented by a full aerodynamic package that is, for the most part, integrated into the styling of the vehicle. The chassis features a downforce generating flat belly that terminates in a rear diffuser. On the rear deck is a motorized spoiler that raises at about 50 mph to assist in pushing the rear wheels into the tarmac.

I probably could have spent an afternoon marveling at the amount of engineering that went into the black LFA that I'd found myself setting into. But as I followed the driving instructor's IS F into pit lane and began to accelerate into Turn 1, all of the specs floating around my head were blown right out of the window.

On the track in the LFA
The forecast called for rain, but the track was still bone dry for my first session of the day. Easing out of pit lane and then accelerating uphill toward Turn 2, I was amazed by the raw acceleration that the LFA's 5.9 pound per pony power-to-weight ratio enabled. I was also blown away by the sound of the LFA's V-10 engine as it wailed through its free-flowing, Yamaha-tuned exhaust. Yamaha, in addition to making motorcycles, brought a musical expertise to the sound the LFA makes and went as far as to add acoustically tuned ports (like an acoustic guitar) to the cabin that allow the right amount of engine noise in.

As the engine's revs approach the 9,000rpm redline, the white tachometer background flashes green at the optimal shift point. I grab the column mounted shifter and BANG! The LFA's gearbox snaps into second gear like a bolt action rifle. The change happens so fast, there's nearly no interruption of power to the wheels.

Braking hard for Turn 2 (because in the short distance, I'd gained considerable speed), I next experienced the stopping power of the LFA massive carbon ceramic brakes. Over the course of the day, I'd learn to appreciate their fade-free consistency, but at the moment I was vastly underestimating their ability to shave off miles per hour and had over-slowed for the turn. With plenty of power on tap and only an IS F to keep pace with, this didn't prove to be problematic.

As I made my way around the track, I began to settle into the LFA. Turn 3 is a severe, but slightly banked left-hander that can be taken with speed in the Lexus, allowing me to experience the high lateral G-forces the LFA was capable of creating as the vehicle and I shot uphill toward a fast, blind right turn. Turn 6 is the longest of the course, an off-camber, sweeping left that had my passenger pinned to the door as we carved through the apex and accelerated toward the high speed straight where the coupe would easily hit 120 mph before the braking point for the Turn 7 hairpin. Then it was into the chicane of Turns 8, 9, and 10, where the LFA's light handling at speed could be experienced.

The electronic power steering was decidedly un-Lexus, possessing none of the overboosted assist that other vehicles that follow the "L" badge exhibit and communicating every bit of information gathered by the front wheels to my finger tips. Meanwhile, the rear axle was relaying the attitude of its end of the vehicle through the seat. Lexus states that placement of the engine and gearbox at opposite ends of the vehicle produce a balanced weight distribution. Likewise, the placement of these components inboard of the vehicle's axles creates a low polar moment that allows the LFA to rotate around the driver through a turn.

With my speed and confidence increasing with each lap and encouraging chatter from the instructor (still ahead of me, driving, watching and radioing back from the IS F), I started to think to myself, "Why this is rather easy!"

Getting acquainted with Wet mode
I was feeling fairly good about myself as we parked $750,000 worth of Japanese engineering (two LFAs were on hand for the event) and broke for lunch. The other participants and I swapped tales of the mornings exploits. One gentleman was a new owner who was awaiting the delivery of his slightly more hard-core Nurburgring edition LFA, which would be added to his collection of Porsches. Another was a current owner who delighted in sharing how low the serial number of his red LFA was (only about 500 will ever be made).

However as we made merry, Mother Nature was setting up to spoil our afternoon and as we stepped outside in preparation for the second session of the day, we were disappointed to find a rain-slicked track. Undaunted, the instructors told us to helmet-up, strap in, and set the gearbox to Wet mode--the slower shifts supposedly upset the rear end less under acceleration, keeping the LFA's rear end planted in limited-grip situations. Engaging first gear, I headed out onto the track.

Shortcutting Turn 1 out of pit lane and charging uphill toward Turn 2, the LFA seemed undaunted by the precipitation. Braking was also still quite good. However, the vehicle hit a wet patch as I cleared the apex and began to accelerate, causing the rear end to lose grip and swing wide. A quick flick of the wheel to catch the slide (and presumably, a bit of intervention by the electronic nannies) and grip was quickly restored and I was able to complete the curve without incident.

The rest of the day's sessions were done at what felt like three-quarters of the speed of the dry session (still a respectable clip for the conditions) and on a modified racing line that placed a higher emphasis on stability than outright speed. Even then, the LFA felt faster around the track than anything that I've ever driven.

By the time we'd completed our second session, it was raining in earnest and windshield wipers were necessary for visibility. But before the LFAs were parked for the day, the instructors hopped into the driver's seat of the LFA to give us each a few final fast laps. Now, I've been given rides by trained racing drivers before but never in the rain. My instructor flipped the transmission control to Sport (not Wet, to my horror) and shot out of pit lane, engine singing and rear wheels slipping ever so slightly. The two or three laps that followed are mostly a blur.

Is it worth the cash?
I don't pretend that I can make a judgment of whether the LFA is worth its $375,000 price tag based on a few hours of driving in the rain, but here's some food for thought: a Ferrari 458 Italia is about $100,000 cheaper and it's a freaking Ferrari. Heck, a Nissan GT-R is a quarter of the price and likely makes its way 'round a racetrack just as quickly as either of these cars. Then again, a GT-R is nowhere near as exotic as an LFA and a 458 Italia doesn't have the same limited production rarity. Being exotic, expensive, and rare is sort of the point at this level of the game.

At the end of the day, purchasing an expensive toy like the LFA is about as unpractical and subjective of a decision as one could hope to make. It's a decision that's based on emotion and a sense of drama. With that in mind, I feel that as a showpiece of the absolute apex of Japanese performance and racing technology in a road-going car, the LFA is definitely a car that needs to be experienced to be believed.

 

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