Lexus is not messing about. After six years of development, including at least one major rethink along the way, the company's LFA supercar is finally ready and there is to be no gentle introduction. Instead, they've just handed me the key and a handy little sticker that grants access to the Nordschleife industry pool. That's confidence in your product (and quite a lot in me).
So any questions over Lexus's motivation for producing a supercar, or its timing, will have to wait. Right now it's full concentration on the task of not stuffing one of only four completed production LFAs, each priced at a whopping 361,000 Euros ($534,000).
Yes, you read that right: a Toyota that costs around $150 grand more than the rather splendid Lamborghini Murciélago SV.
But it is worth considering just some of the technology that Lexus has employed in the LFA's construction before dismissing it out of hand. Technology that includes a custom 4.8-liter V10 producing 552hp, extensive use of carbon fiber composites in the chassis and body construction, and a transaxle six-speed automated sequential gearbox.
There is, however, one piece of technology absent from the LFA that you might expect in a Lexus, and that is hybrid drive. Lexus's intention with the car is to keep the driving experience as pure as possible, which means keeping weight to a minimum, and that rules out electric drive. So what we're looking at is a high-tech Japanese take on the old-school front-engined, rear-drive supercar.
Twenty seconds in and it feels (and sounds) like the LFA has been worth the long wait. Although in supercar terms 552hp and 354lb ft are pretty much the minimum standard, these figures don't adequately describe the magnificence of the LFA's V10 engine. For this is an motor that doesn't stop until it hits its limiter at a heady 9000rpm, one that gains and sheds speed so quickly and with such a sharp timber that it feels like a pure race engine. Which, in a sense, is exactly what it is because, air restrictors aside, the road LFA runs exactly the same powerplant as the LFAs that Lexus raced in the 2008 and 2009 Nurburgring 24 Hours.
Admittedly, the engine does need to be revved to deliver the sort of performance suggested by a 0-62mph time of 3.7sec, but believe me, there is absolutely no chore in that, because from 6000rpm the engine goes ballistic, producing one of the best engine notes of any car on sale. Its noise is similar to that of a V10 BMW M5, but higher pitched and a lot louder – more like a Porsche Carrera GT. Yamaha helped Lexus develop the engine, and the result is a compelling combination of the smoothness and polish you expect from a Lexus, but with much more rawness and intensity.
And then you change gear, and the experience becomes even more unreal. Because Lexus wanted the engine to rev with as little inertia as possible, it opted for a single-clutch gearbox. But it also says that this arrangement gives a greater sense of involvement than a double-clutch unit, and it's not kidding. There are four modes – Auto, Sport, Normal and Wet – and with the exception of Auto there are seven different shift speeds for each.
Choose the most extreme setting and the changes are brutal. On full-throttle upshifts at or near the limiter the 'box works very well and is quick; the LFA accumulates speed at a quite staggering rate.
But at anything less than maximum attack – for instance, when I later leave the track and try the LFA at road speeds – it feels a little too involving. In the less extreme modes the change is slower and marginally less physical, but still not smooth, and in its slowest setting it can feel like it is slipping the clutch. On the whole, the gearbox is one of only two things I'm not so sure about in the LFA.
The other is the steering, which is electrically assisted – an unusual move for a supercar. While it is super-precise and quick, it takes some getting used to, mostly because it is very light. There is some flow of information from the wheel, and the movement away from the straight ahead is progressive, but the LFA does not steer as intuitively as the best sports cars.
The experience is mired further by a ludicrously flat-bottomed steering wheel. Lexus say this reduces the mass of the wheel and therefore gives a more natural self-centering action. Make of that what you will, but if that's the case, why does the race-going LFA have a conventional circular wheel?
However, small question mark over the steering aside, the LFA handles brilliantly, both on the track and road. There are two consequences of Lexus's extensive use of carbon fiber. First, at 3,263 lbs, the LFA is pretty light for a front-engined supercar, especially one with the luxuries of sat-nav and a plush cabin. The stripped-out, mid-engined Ferrari 430 Scuderia may be lighter, but the more equally matched 599 GTB is around 220 lbs heavier.Second, the carbon fiber-reinforced chassis tub is incredibly rigid. You can feel this lightness and strength in the car's willingness to change direction with minimal roll and no flex. As with the engine, there is very little inertia, combined (on a dry road, at least) with masses of lateral grip. The LFA also rides relatively well for such a serious machine – firmly but not busily, and that's without trick adjustable dampers.
There may be other supercars with more power, or more driven wheels, but down a road (or track) with more corners than straights I'd be very surprised if the LFA couldn't keep up, or go significantly quicker, such is its composure and control.
The brakes, which are carbon-ceramic and 390mm in diameter at the front, are monumentally strong and precise. Whether on track, where the LFA stops with more reassurance than any road car I've tried, or on the road, where the brakes perform better at low temperatures than comparable systems, the anchors are very well sorted.
So it goes quickly enough, goes around corners nearly as quickly and stops exceptionally well. It also sounds the part. But is the LFA emotive enough to qualify as a supercar? Does it feel like a Lexus? And is such a combination sufficiently appealing to justify the serious price?
Slightly harsh gearbox aside, the LFA is impressively competent – clinical, even – but anything but detached. From the way the engine responds to the throttle to its chassis balance, the LFA has a level of sharpness and seriousness that definitely endorses its supercar credentials.
And yet there are elements that could only be a Lexus – such as the attention to detail and the build quality, which is absolutely first rate. Open the doors, hood or trunk and you'll find exposed carbon fiber, but it's so beautifully finished that you can't help but stare.
Similarly, the interior is incredibly well constructed, with a mixture of leather, carbon fiber, aluminum and a high-tech TFT screen rev counter. And the pedals are simply exquisite; each one is a single piece of forged aluminum. You also get a 12-speaker stereo, but one that is lighter and smaller than Lexus's regular system.
What you probably won't get from the pictures is just how contoured the cabin is, or how, as the driver, you feel alongside the tall transmission tunnel and in a low seating position. It may not be that subtle, but I like the fact that Lexus has not simply followed the standard supercar template, and instead tried something a bit different.
It's unmistakably Japanese but also has a real sense of occasion. And the same goes for the exterior; I'm not saying it looks pretty, or stylish, but it is certainly captivating. Unusually for a sports car, I think the shape works better statically, when you can pore over all the little details. One of which is the huge rear wing, which I'm sure is effective at reducing lift and very impressive in its hydraulic operation (complete with sci-fi whirring and hissing noises), but it is a touch obvious.
So in its construction and thoroughness the LFA has the hallmarks of Lexus, but in its concept and focus it feels nothing like what Lexus/Toyota has produced before. Lexus says the LFA's role is as a halo model for its F range of cars (we've only seen the IS-F so far, but more are in the pipeline), but the truth is that the LFA is massively more serious than any series production car. Not only in its performance, but also its purity. It is the product of a small and talented team of engineers, and it shows.
Is it worth the money? For performance the answer has to be no; other supercars offer more power, more straight-line speed and (subjectively) more brand lure for less.
What is clear, though, is that the LFA is packed with technology that has been developed to an incredibly high standard, presumably at astronomical cost. For example, Toyota invested in its own carbon fiber manufacturing facilities to ensure its quality standards. Only 500 LFAs will ever be produced, a sure sign that even at the price Lexus is asking it will be losing money on each one.
But technology and exclusivity aren't the LFA's only draws. It genuinely offers something different from other supercars – not necessarily better, but different. Its combination of refinement and rawness sounds like it shouldn't work, but it actually does. It is better appointed and less flamboyant than anything Italian, but just as poised and alert. It is perhaps what Mercedes and McLaren tried (but failed) to achieve with the SLR.
So for the privileged few, those who have tried (and probably own) the usual supercars, the LFA is much more than something else to park in their garage. It is a credible and exciting supercar in its own right. The rest of us should just be thankful that there are still manufacturers out there making (and reinventing) supercars, especially when the results are this good.