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Lexus LFA - The roar of an angel

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A certain Morizo-san has spent a lot of time in the development of the Lexus LFA. He was there, right from the very beginning in the year 2000, when this supercar was but a germ of an idea in the minds of a few passionate individuals at Toyota. The idea was to create a sportscar that would be a benchmark in its category, but given Toyota’s corporate mindset, it was always a below-the-radar kind of a set-up – in automotive parlance, it was a skunk-works scene. Morizo-san has always been a different kind of a Toyota person – he loves fast cars, does a bit of racing himself and was instrumental in honing the capabilities of the LFA at the famed Nurburgring circuit in Germany, where this supercar has spent considerable amounts of time. Morizo-san’s profile in Toyota has since changed, but his enthusiasm for sporty cars and go-faster design remains undiminished. The fruits of his passion are beginning to be seen already, with the launch of the smashing GT-86 sports coupe that was showcased at the recent 2011 Tokyo Motor Show and there is a promise of more exciting Toyotas in the coming years. Morizo, by the way, is a pseudonym.

So who is this mysterious Morizo, a misfit of sorts, a hardcore enthusiast at a giant corporation that makes unexciting but reliable cars? All will be revealed. Meanwhile, there is someone else I’d like you to meet. His (real) name is Tanahashi Haruhiko and his designation is chief engineer, Lexus Group. What that designation does not describe is that he is the father of the LFA – easily, the only production Japanese supercar on the planet currently. He has spent one-third of his career in the company exclusively on this car and the car bears his imprint. To familiarise yourself with the LFA, it’s important to understand Tanahashi-san’s philosophy first.

 

 

 

Unlike its equivalent Lamborghini and Ferrari models, the LFA is designed to be a car that does not scare the pants off you; it is a car that’s built to be inherently forgiving to all sorts of driver capabilities yet offer a complete sensory experience. To that end, the LFA has three critical facets. One, it has a rigid, lightweight carbon fibre body that’s packaged in such a way that the driver is positioned close to the centre of the vehicle. Two, emotive performance comes via a potent, highly responsive V10 engine. And three, it has elements of sound and design that stimulate the senses, making the drive a physical and mental experience.

Every single element that’s gone into the making of this car follows these three parameters. The engine is at the front, but it’s positioned aft the front axle while a transaxle – where the gearbox and differential are housed in one unit – is located at the rear. This, and a few more clever packaging tricks, allows for a terrific 48:52 front/rear weight distribution, allowing for agility. Linking the engine to the transaxle is a rigid torque tube that’s housed in special aircraft-grade steel. With carbon fibre contributing to 65 per cent of the mass of the LFA, weight is down to a minimum – in fact, Lexus dramatically decided to shift from using aluminium extensively to carbon fibre during theearly development of the LFA, all in an effort to shave weight down to its 1,480 kilos, unmindful of the costs. The obsession with keeping weight down to the minimum is so extreme that there are no struts holding up the carbon fibre bonnet – you stick up a reed-thin carbon fibre rod to do just that! By harnessing carbon fibre technology internally, Lexus has gained the capability to use this wonder material – so don’t be surprised to see future Lexus models wearing this exotic and expensive stuff.

 

 

 

The engine is a purpose-built V10 that’s put together by Yamaha. The Japanese motorcycle-to-musical instrument manufacturer has had a close relationship with Toyota, since the days of the James Bond-starring Toyota 2000GT of the 1960s. Four engineers from Yamaha take two days to assemble this high-tech engine, which again uses exotic stuff like titanium for many of its components. Even though it’s a large displacement V10, it’s as compact as a V8 and weighs less than a regular Toyota V6!

Of course, the LFA has been spending time on aerodynamic tests since the very beginning, leading to its coefficient of drag figure of 0.31. And those scoops and inlets are there for a purpose, not just to make you feel like you’ve got yourself a supercar. The front inlet below the hood functions as an engine oil cooler, while the rear top intakes supply air to the radiators placed at the back of the car; the lower ones are devised to keep the transmission cool. The innumerable hours spent at the wind tunnel have also contributed fundamentally to the way it looks – in this car, clearly form followed function. The function being to slice through air rapidly and achieve downforce that would keep the supercar stay planted at all speeds.

There’s more inside the LFA’s bag of tricks, but I guess it’s time I got behind the wheel, which of course, is made of carbon fibre and reportedly the smallest one that Toyota/Lexus has in its kitty. All I had was two laps of the Fuji Speedway, the Toyota-owned circuit located a few hours away from Tokyo, with Mount Fuji looming in the background. Two laps also means only a few minutes in a car this fast; it attains 100 kph from standstill in just 3.6 seconds and boasts a top speed of 325 kph. What else can you expect from a car with a power-to-weight ratio of 373 bhp per tonne? But it will be a memorable few minutes nevertheless. Strapped in and with a helmet for protection, I follow the Lexus test driver in my white LFA. Since only 500 units of the LFA will ever be produced, Toyota plays safe with the car. If I do something stupid with it, then it’s not nice to have a non-round figure of 499 for selling worldwide, right? So all the electronic nannies are on full alert and they won’t be switched off. Never mind. The LFA cockpit is all high-tech and cosy without being claustrophobic. Staring at me is a TFT LCD instrument console that looks 3D and Star Trek, with the tachometer as the highlight. Now why would Lexus use a digital display? Hold on to your seat... it’s because the engine revs from zero to a 9000 rpm redline in just 0.6 seconds and a conventional tacho needle just cannot keep up! That’s the speciality of this bonkers engine. This highly-strung 40-valve DOHC 4805cc motor with ten cylinders in a 72-degree V formation develops 552 bhp at 8700 rpm and 49 kgm of torque at 7000 rpm. Power is fed to the rear wheels via a six-speed electrohydraulic automatic sequential gearbox operated using paddles. The system allows you set any of the four modes: Auto, Normal, Sport and Wet. Of course, on a race track, there’s no doubt as to what setting I would choose. Clicking the right-hand side paddle towards me, I follow the test-driver exiting the pits. Two laps, and I am going to use it to the fullest.

 

 

 

The LFA whines like an F1 engine that fills up the cabin with an automotive orchestra. The engine pulls as if the rest of the car and a generously-built me are weightless. Redlining at each shift, the engine gathers more momentum, and as speed (and courage) builds up, I am sticking my LFA’s nose into the test-driver’s car’s tail. A bunch of corners comes up and I shed speed by pulling the left-side paddle – and what’s this? It takes more effort and makes the LFA react with each shift. Though downshifting in this car is not comparable to a Gallardo – where it is like the solid kick of a mule up your backside – it is pronounced nevertheless. Tanahashi-san has obviously engineered it to make you feel those downshifts. That’s the sensory experience he was talking about. But there’s more. The feel of the paddles on upshifts is engineered to be clickety-click smooth, while downshifts actually make you feel you have done something physical! Surreal.

While manoeuvring the car over some tight corners (perhaps added by Toyota to keep speeds down?), the LFA feels incredibly lithe and completely connected with me – it’s not a compact roadster after all, but a sleek, wind-cheating large supercar. And that’s exactly the idea behind it. As I take the LFA through the corners, I am amazed at the oneness I have with the car. In a car like the Gallardo, rapid changes in lateral-gs can give muscular catches in unfit people – which, as you guessed right, I endured. Here, the action is done and dusted much more smoothly and without drama. The feeling you get is you are not wrestling with an animal, but well in control of a highly sophisticated, superfast gigantic precision tool. With a high-tech soundtrack to match.

I brake as late as possible before taking on corners because I know that the Brembo carbon ceramic anchors have been designed to take more abuse than what I can dish out. Exit the corner and wham! The response from the V10 is instantaneous and the rest of the car is super quick in answering back and everything else is a blur... except the thought that my time with the LFA is ticking rapidly. But then there is the delicious anticipation of the main straight. Here I go all out, that is how much ever the test driver in front will allow me. Damn courtesy, I am going to force him to pick up the pace. I have so much confidence in the way the LFA is built and how it will respond that the two LFAs are strung out almost like a train! The empty grandstands echo with the roar of the V10 – a high-pitched wail of a manic motor. It’s not an angry sound, it is the triumphant scream of sheer mechanical genius.

 

 

 

Lexus engineers call it the roar of an angel. It sounds the way it does all thanks to a superb effort to create just that, using the unique three-tailpipe exhaust placed in an inverted triangle formation – a design hallmark in the process. This is again the sensory feel that Tanahashi-san speaks to me about, using words like ‘harmony in sound’ and ‘orchestra’ – as if he has created a musical instrument rather than a supercar that works with you rather than the other way round. And that’s exactly the sensation I got. It is a highly flexible supercar that seems to have its own intelligence – you decide what you want out of your LFA, and it will do your bidding. Awesome. This from a production car that’s the fourth fastest at the Nurburgring with its timing of 7m 14s (Fast, BSM October 2011). Yeah, this car may hail from Japan, but it calls the ’Ring home. No wonder there is an LFA Nurburgring Package on offer with slightly more power, lowered ride height, carbon fibre aerodynamic bits, special wheels etc.

Well, I don’t know if there will be any takers for the LFA in India – all the 500 units may possibly be sold out by the time Toyota brings Lexus to India in 2013. Though the LFA is divine, it does not have the cachet that European supercars have and the twenty-year history of Lexus may not be as hallowed as that of the other European marques. Unfair by all means Abecause Lexus cars are as brilliantly engineered or better in many aspects as any of them. But if Morizo-san has his way, the future is bright for both Lexus and Toyota. A future where the cars it makes will be much more desirable to look at and exciting to drive. Oh, in case you haven’t figured it out, Morizo is the alter ego of Akio Toyoda, president and CEO, Toyota Motor Corporation.