The Lexus LF-A has been a while coming, and now that it’s finally here and ready to be driven in anger – around the UK’s Goodwood motor circuit, to be precise – the heavens above West Sussex have just opened up. It’s a typically English kind of introduction to a typically Japanese kind of supercar.
To recap briefly on the somewhat protracted history of the LF-A, this is the car created by Toyota as far back as 2003 in order to celebrate its first victory in Formula 1. The idea was that when the first F1 victory came, the LF-A would be wheeled out as a glorious celebration of the Japanese team’s success. That’s why it has a full carbon monocoque chassis and a V10 engine under the hood, just like all F1 cars had back in 2003.
Trouble is, that first victory never came and so gradually the LF-A began to wilt, even though it had yet to officially see the light of day. So a couple of years ago Toyota’s engineers didn’t so much go back to the drawing board as begin tinkering with a car they’d already finished.
In late 2007, LF-As began testing at the Nurburgring regularly and in 2008 a prototype was entered into the 24-hour race at the famous circuit. Despite setting some very quick lap times, it didn’t do particularly well. The same goes for the two cars that were entered this year.
That pretty much brings us up to date, except in the meantime Toyota – and I do mean Toyota, even though, for marketing reasons, the car will wear a Lexus badge – has used its racing exploits with the LF-A to develop the road car behind the scenes. It might be the opposite way around compared with most other manufacturers, who tend to produce a road car first then develop a racing car from that platform, but then the LF-A has had a topsy-turvy kind of life right from the beginning.
In October, however, it will finally and at long last go on sale, once it’s been launched to the world at the Tokyo motor show. In total Toyota will build just 500 examples over two or three years, depending on how long it takes to sell that many cars. It may take a while considering the price – around $400,000, which is an entire IS-F above the price of a Ferrari 599 GTB, in conceptual terms the LF-A’s most obvious rival.
Before you accuse Toyota/Lexus of going completely overboard with the LF-A’s price, it’s worth homing in on the car’s more obvious technical details, such as its V10 engine. Officially, Toyota says this 5.0-liter motor will have “more than 500hp” but unofficially the figure is nearer 550hp – with a rev limit of 9000rpm in the production car.
The gearbox will be a paddle-shift six-speed sequential manual with a transaxle over the rear axle for perfect 50:50 weight distribution. Suspension is by double wishbones and coilover dampers at the front with a multi-link arrangement and, again, coilover dampers at the back.
A full limited-slip diff sourced from “within the Toyota group” will also appear, and as for the brakes, they will “not be steel.” So unless Toyota has somehow developed a new line in wooden brake discs, it’s fair to assume that carbon-ceramic rotors will be sitting behind the magnesium alloy 20-inch wheels.
It’s the chassis tub that will hit the headlines hardest, though, because the whole shebang is made from carbon composite, which will provide the LF-A with one of the stiffest shells in production car history. And just to round things off, the outer body skin will be made from aluminum, which will not only protect the quality of carbon composite beneath but also allow Lexus to produce a typically exquisite paint finish.
Plans call for LF-A owners to be introduced to their car at a private circuit in Spain by one of Toyota’s hand-picked driving superstars. What we’re talking about, in other words, is a Japanese McLaren SLR kind of experience with an ultra-exclusive version of Lexus’s renowned after-sales service to back it up, in light of which $400k no longer seems quite so ludicrous.
Sitting inside the LF-A in the Goodwood pitlane, waiting for the rain to abate, it’s obvious that once you strip away the racing fripperies, this is actually already a production interior. There are electric window switches that don’t work and a road car-style dashboard with a big central rev counter that reads to 9000rpm, backlit in white if the TC is set to dry, red when set to rain. It feels like a road car that’s been stripped and turned into a racer.
Just before I press the button and pull away, I ask chief engineer Tanahashi-san how much the road car will weigh when it goes on sale, and he replies, “Same as this car – 1500kg (3,300 lbs)– because when you take out the roll cage and replace with proper interior, you end up with the same weight.”
The V10 doesn’t explode into life, but neither is it what you’d call quiet. It is almost entirely vibration-free when I blip the throttle, which is surprising considering the engine is effectively bolted to the chassis beneath the hood.
There’s a clunk from the transaxle when first gear engages, and as I pull away the ride immediately feels firm but refined, not at all racecar-hard. Another faint but disappointing clunk as second and third are selected. A bit more throttle introduces a lot more noise into the cockpit, and a delicious sound it is too, a cross between a 1980s Quattro and an F1 car from a few years ago, with a bit of Lamborghini-style crackling on the overrun for good measure.
It’s so wet I’m a bit reticent about nailing the thing wide open to begin with – not until fourth gear is selected at least – but when I do it is so immediately obvious that there is traction, and lots of it, that I down-change to third and hold on tight, at which point the LF-A goes fairly berserk.
Down the back straight it a) feels very, very quick beyond 5000rpm, b) sounds absolutely fantastic at 8300rpm, and c) accelerates so violently towards the still soaking wet horizon that it’s not long before I bail out and brush the brakes, at which point it becomes equally obvious how well it stops.
Ultimately, that’s what you notice most when there is such relatively little weight to control; everything the LF-A does, the way it accelerates, the way it brakes, turns in and then settles in a corner, stems from how little it weighs. And how stiff it is in the bodyshell. Even though visually it’s quite a big beast, there’s a quite spooky lack of inertia to its actions. You turn in, it goes. You brush the brake pedal, it stops, without any particular sense of weight being transferred laterally or from front to rear.
And even in the wet it is just blindingly fast across the ground during the few brief laps I get behind the wheel, with a real sense of fluidity to its handling – if not its transmission which, to be honest, still needs a little work.
If I couldn’t set a faster lap time in this car around Goodwood than I could in a Ferrari 599, I’d be prepared to make a genuine attempt to eat my trousers. It’s that well sorted, that quick, that good. In the meantime, roll on October, when the production car will at long last go on sale.
Words: Steve Sutcliffe/Autocar
Photos: Stan Papior/Autocar