AlphaLuxe Drives Lexus LFA (Part 1 of 2)

06/23/2020
Billy Johnson

Growing up in Southern California, import cars were a big part of my childhood and represented an important time for Japanese manufacturing.  As I analyzed the proportions of the black LFA that sat before me, it was apparent that this car was not an evolution of a Toyota/Lexus product, but a revolutionary technical masterpiece built from the ground-up.  The LFA was after all, a necessity to alter the perception of Lexus as a performance car manufacturer and pave the way for their “F-Sport” line of vehicles.

Lexus LFA Los Angeles

Photo Credit: AlphaLuxe

Opening the door of the LFA, the outer door handle is smartly placed on the inside curvature of the radiator intake duct and it’s as ergonomic as it is functional.  Ingress/egress is as easy as any normal sports coupe and does not have inconveniently tall or wide side sills that are common in most carbon fiber-tubbed supercars.

The interior is filled with soft leather, carbon fiber, and “satin metal”.  The seats are uniquely designed and offer a lot of side bolstering.  The seat adjuster that’s mounted next to the side sills deserves recognition for being extremely simple and intuitive.  There are a lot of small details like this that are just so well executed.

Lexus LFA interior

Photo Credit: Xinzhu Li

The seatbelts are quite thick due to integrated airbags, which inflate during a crash and spread the impact forces over a broader section of the body than a traditional belt.

Headroom is reasonably good and the steering column’s adjustability offers a great driving position.  The steering wheel is thickly rimmed and simple with the start button near the right thumb, and a 4-position button that toggles through the display screen layouts.  Behind the wheel are nicely machined column-mounted paddle shifters that have a satisfying ‘click’ when pulled.

Lexus LFA Dashboard

Photo Credit: AJ Latteri

Personally, I prefer wheel-mounted paddle shifters.  Dragging your fingers over stationary column-mounted paddles affects your steering inputs and does not make sense.  No professional race car mounts them on the column.  The Italians (other than Pagani) won’t agree with me, but the Germans, Brits, and Swedes do.  Lexus even changed their newer cars to wheel-mounted paddles, but I digress.

Lexus LFA pedals

Photo Credit: AJ Latteri

From a driving standpoint, the best part of the LFA’s interior is the floor-mounted billet aluminum pedals.  The articulation of this design is more natural for the ankle and foot, and delivers a superior connection between machine and driver over typical top-mounted pedals.  The large-faced, textured brake pedal gives the driver a big surface to modulate the braking of the car, just like a proper race car.  Lexus’ execution may just be the best ever put in a production car, including the Carrera GT and LaFerrari.

The dash is pretty simple in design, with four high mounted air conditioning vents that sit above a large slab of carbon fiber and a horizontal leather shelf that gives the interior some depth.  The center console looks like a sculpture and continues the simple but purposeful design theme with easy to reach buttons that sit below a sunken-in navigation screen.  The dash itself has specific geometry and openings designed to fine tune the sound of the car’s induction noise to give the driver Formula-1 inspired harmonics.  It’s likely that no other car ever built had this much effort to go into how the engine naturally sounds to the driver.

Lexus LFA Steering Wheel

Photo Credit: AJ Latteri

The LFA has one of the earliest digital gauge clusters to be used in a production car.  The reason for this is because Lexus stated the LFA’s V10 can rev from idle to its 9,000rpm redline in a record-setting 0.6 seconds, and that a mechanical needle could not keep up.  I really like how Lexus designed the display.  Lexus blended a physical metal ring that frames the digital tach that provides more depth than just a screen by itself.  The ring is dynamic and actually slides to the right when selecting different menu options.  When switching to Sport Mode, the black tachometer changes white and the redline shifts from the 3-o’clock position to an easier to see 1-o’clock position.  The bottom of the tach skips a couple numbers and focuses your attention on the operating range of the engine.

Flanking the gauge cluster are a series of radial knobs that control the headlights, drive mode, windshield wipers, gauge cluster brightness.  I really like these as they are quite ergonomic and a bit of a throwback to the early 90’s cars like the NSX, GTR, 300ZX.  Thankfully Lexus also uses these knobs on the new LC500.

THE DRIVE

Sticking the key in the ignition and pressing the start button spins a high pitch starter motor.  After a second, the gem of an engine comes to life with a smooth purr devoid of a raucous cold start that’s found on modern cars to preheat the catalytic converter.

Lexus LFA Action

Photo Credit: AJ Latteri

Pulling the right paddle puts the car in drive and a little dip into the throttle engages the single-clutch automated manual transmission.  Shifting through the gears reminds you that the LFA is a 10-year-old car in the same era as BMW’s SMG and Ferrari’s “F1 Transmission”.  These gearboxes don’t really shift much faster or smoother than an experienced driver with a standard transmission, and suffer greatly from clunky drivability under most normal conditions.  They were somewhat of a transitional technology and do not compare to the sophistication, smoothness, reliability, and performance of modern Dual-Clutch Transmissions (DCTs) which carry a significant weight penalty for the advantages they deliver. 

Keep in mind that the LFA was being developed right when the first high-power DCT’s were hitting the market in 2007 (Nissan GTR), 2008 (BMW M3), and 2009 (Porsche PDK), and adopting an unproven transmission most likely would have pushed production back even further. There was unfortunately not enough time to learn the quirks of the LFA’s transmission and figure out the right amount of lifting of the throttle during an upshift that often greatly smooths out the shifting of BMW & Ferrari sequential transmissions.

Lexus LFA cornering

Photo Credit: AlphaLuxe

As the revs increase, the dominating sound from behind the wheel is the throaty, high-frequency F1-inspired induction noise.  Lexus and Yamaha spent a lot of time to make the aural experience a memorable one and it certainly puts a smile on your face, especially as the engine revs to its 9,000rpm redline. 

I must say that as special as the induction noise is, the exhaust has the real ear-piercing, high-pitch scream of an F1 car that I find even more enjoyable.  The sound is a big part of the driving experience and the LFA delivers an emotion that is difficult to match.  If you have an appreciation for the heyday of V10 Formula 1 engines like I do, the LFA will be near the top of your list of best sounding road cars.

Lexus LFA Engine

Photo Credit: Xinzhu Li

The 4.8L V10 has an extremely smooth and linear powerband that is reminiscent of the V8-powered E92 BMW M3.  The added cylinders and displacement give the LFA more mid-range torque than the M3, which feels more comparable to a 5.0L powered Mustang.  This is nice for daily driving and doesn’t require constantly revving the engine out in order to get out of your own way like you do in a torque-less M3 or Honda S2000.

The LFA begs you to take it to redline, which is where the magic really happens.  This temptation can quickly get you in trouble on public roads.  This might just be the best combination of engine size, weight, power, cylinder count, and sound.  In my opinion, combining this with electric motors for instant low-end torque, this should be the direction to make future performance hybrids exciting (are you listening Ford, GM, Mercedes, Ferrari, Audi?).

Lexus LFA Engine

Photo Credit: AlphaLuxe

Outward visibility is great – the Electronic Power Assist Steering (EPAS) was ahead of its time, delivering modern performance at a time when EPAS first started coming out 10 years ago and were often completely disconnected to the driver.

The LFA’s ride quality was quite surprising.  This Lexus is not your grandfather’s luxury car.  The LFA was meant to break this stereotype and showcase Lexus as a performance brand.  The LFA transmits a lot of high frequency bumps into the chassis, accentuating road imperfections that most Lexus vehicles would glide over as a nonexistent event.  This is not a Noise/Vibration/Harshness (NVH) byproduct of the mostly monoball suspension, but rather in the tuning of the track-focused dampers.  The ride isn’t ‘rough’ by any means, but you do feel a lot more feedback through the seat.

Lexus LFA Front

Photo Credit: AlphaLuxe

The LFA feels like a race car in the sense that it doesn’t like to be driven slowly.  Little aspects of the car’s ride and shifting that don’t seem polished all but disappear as you drive the car harder.  Upshifting near redline and downshifting under hard deceleration really smooths out the gear changes.  Likewise, pushing the limits of the handling makes the suspension come into its own and it just seems to work better.  The LFA just gets better the faster you drive it.

Lexus LFA Speeding

Photo Credit: AlphaLuxe

The LFA’s Carbon Ceramic CCM brakes are fantastic! Clamping 15.4 inch rotors, are six-piston Brembo monoblock calipers up front, and 14.2 inch rotors with four-piston calipers out back.  There is a lot of stopping power.  The feel of the pedal and modulation was probably my second favorite aspect of the car after the sound of the engine.  Forged aluminum BBS wheels are wrapped in bespoke Bridgestone Potenza S001 tires sized 265/35-20 front and 305/30-20 rear.

Lexus LFA brakes

Photo Credit: AJ Latteri

It was a surprise to later find out that the LFA has an Electronically Controlled Brake (ECB) brake-by-wire system.  Toyota pioneered this in 2001 on their hybrid vehicles for regenerative braking.  This was another technology that was ahead of its time since the only other performance cars with an EBC car that come to mind are the new hybrid NSX and most recently the new C8 Corvette. 

Bosch has recently started to push their brake-by-wire technology that also gets rid of the brake booster and allows for a lot more tuning of the brake control system by engineers.  You will likely see this quickly become adopted in more cars in the near future.  For Lexus to put this in the LFA 10 years ago, and for it to be as well-tuned as it was, is very impressive.

Lexus LFA malibu

Photo Credit: Xinzhu Li

On the tight canyon backroads of north Los Angeles, the LFA exhibited a bit of low speed entry understeer.  The LFA was not as playful or receptive to trail-brake rotation as its rearward-biased weight distribution and excellent brake feel would suggest. 

While the rear of the car was locked down and stable entering corners, if you pressed the conveniently located “fun button” on the left side of the dash to turn off stability control, the LFA becomes a tail-happy drift machine on-throttle with a progressive breakaway.  This made power oversteer a blast and felt very BMW-esque in its tuning philosophy.

Lexus LFA landscape

Photo Credit: AJ Latteri

The LFA had much of its development on the famous 13-mile Nürburgring Nordschleife race track.  It was able to turn the same lap time as the more powerful Ferrari 458 and Corvette ZR1, and was an impressive 9 seconds faster than its direct competitor, the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano when the Sport Auto Magazine did a shootout with the same driver.  It’s possible some of this entry understeer was tuned that way for stability on such a treacherous track, but it’s difficult to really qualify the LFA’s handling on back canyon roads, and would require taking it to the track for a proper evaluation.

CONCLUSION

Lexus LFA front corner

Photo Credit: AJ Latteri

The LFA is a Nurburgring specialist that really needs to be driven at speed to be fully appreciated from behind the wheel.  The ethos of “supercar” exudes from every aspect of the car.  From the unmatched aural experience of the car’s V10 engine, to the materials that make up the interior and exterior of the car, to the track-focused suspension tuning that makes more sense the faster you push it.  The LFA

It’s a shame the LFA was another victim of the perception that Japanese brands are lower quality, less prestigious, and unable to command the same price as their European competitors.  Cars like the LS400, (original) NSX, and GTRs have set their mark on history as world-beating Japanese cars, and the LFA deserves recognition for its technical manufacturing accomplishments, amazing sound, and great handling.  The LFA shouldn’t be viewed as an expensive Lexus, but rather as Japan’s submission to the high-end supercar/Grand Touring fraternity.

The story behind the creation of the LFA is an interesting one that has the driver and on-track performance at the car’s core. To really appreciate the significance of the LFA for the technical masterpiece that it is, and the numerous challenges that it overcame from politics to manufacturing hurdles, read Part 2 in the link at the bottom of the page.


Counterpoint by Kevin Blasko

Only 500 built, total?  That puts the LFA in a league occupied by limited-production cars like the Bugatti Veyron, and is less than half the production volume of the Carrera GT.

It’s certainly got the supercar recipe on lock, with an F1-derived V10 that revs to the stratosphere and sings like a choir of angels, a technology-packed cabin, striking design elements and active aerodynamics.  So, why does the LFA seemingly fly under the radar?

Lexus LFA front

Photo Credit: Xinzhu Li

Lexus wanted it that way, in my opinion.  They’re an understated company with a spotless brand image, and that shines through, even in their approach to building a supercar.  At idle and low-throttle, the car runs so smoothly that you could balance a penny on the crankcase (remember that timeless ad?).  The cabin is handsomely appointed in top quality materials, and the touch points fit like a glove.

Though, at full tilt, the LFA feels a little confused about its identity.  The single-clutch automated manual feels a full two generations behind the latest and greatest, with shift times measured in seconds, rather than milliseconds.  The steering rack, while communicative, feels too slow of a ratio to extract maximum performance from the chassis, resulting in awkward steering corrections mid-corner.

Lexus LFA rear

Photo Credit: AJ Latteri

All my concerns about the transmission and steering went out the window, as soon as that V10 wailed past 8,000 RPM.  I’ve spun my fair share of motors up to 9K, yet not even a Grammy-winning vocalist could belt out the sonorous tune of this mighty powerplant.  I presume only those who’ve driven a V10 F1 car can relay a similar experience- at high revs, this motor hits a resonace that will crumble the defenses of the most curmudgeon car-lover.

Despite that masterpiece of a motor, Lexus actually struggled to sell all 500 of these cars, with some sitting in dealer showrooms for years beyond the car’s initial release in 2011.  The astronomical asking price of $375,000 was partly to blame, but I think the LFA’s identity crisis also played a role.  In its attempts to toe the line between supercar and understated luxury, it sort of missed the mark on both.

 

For a technical exploration of the Lexus LFA, please read Part 2 here:   A Technical Exploration by AlphaLuxe (Part 2 of 2)

 


Author’s Biography: Billy Johnson

Billy Johnson is a (freelance) American professional race car driver who has competed in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and 24 Hours of LeMans from 2016-2019 for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, driving the #66 Ford GT at LeMans, and winning the 6-Hours of Spa Francorchamps.  He is the 2016 IMSA Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge GS Champion for Ford/Multimatic Motorsports driving the #15 Shelby GT350R-C Mustang with Scott Maxwell.  Billy also works as a development driver for programs including the Ford GT race car and road car, Ford GT MKII, Shelby GT500, GT350, and Mustang GT4 race car. 

Billy’s passion for cars began early in life where he read all of his dad’s car magazines cover to cover and grew an appreciation for European, Japanese, and American cars.  Over his career, Billy has raced everything from prototypes, sports cars, NASCAR, formula cars, karts, and vintage cars for marques varying from Ford, Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin, BMW, Acura, Mazda, and Nissan.

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