Halo... and welcome to the club

GRAFFITI-COVERED corners, familiar from countless spy shots, are coming at me fast. There’s no time to take in which year Hans or Franz was here with a spray can. The Lexus LFA, I’m told, can cut a lap of the Nurburgring’s famous Nordschleife in less than seven minutes and 30 seconds. With a real race driver at the wheel, of course.

Obviously, this could all end in ugliness. Run-off room and clear sight-lines are not abundant, trees and Armco are. Not for nothing did Jackie Stewart call it the ‘Green Hell’ – a name that’s stuck. So even though I have a guide (Herwig Daenes, a 39-year-old Belgian pro-tester with maybe 1000 ’Ring laps under his belt is showing me the way round the 21km track in a blue Lexus IS F), I’m nervous. Even though I’m sitting, safe and sound, in Buddha’s hand...

Last night, I questioned LFA chief engineer Haruhiko Tanahashi. Why had he chosen a front-engine, rear-drive layout for the LFA? For driving feel, he answered. Especially important was how the car behaved when pushed to, and through, its limit of grip. “I don’t want the car to give up,” he added. “It’s not just being safe; that is boring.” Then, to illustrate his point, Tanahashi holds out his right hand, cupped palm upward. He tips it fore and aft, rolls it side to side, miming rolling a small ball to and fro, never letting it fall. “Like being in Buddha’s hand…”

Right now, in the present, a corner exit beckons. It’s time to squeeze the floor-hinged, forged-aluminium throttle pedal, and find out if the tubby, smiling deity is paying attention.

The 412kW 4.8-litre V10 a few centimetres from my toes wails its approval at being asked to hit the high note. With more than 3000rpm showing on the tachometer, the valves to the uppermost pair of the car’s triple tailpipes are already fully open. Now the sound, so pure-pitched it’s downright musical, soars towards a 9000rpm crescendo.

The tacho face flashes. Time to dab the right-hand paddle-shifter. In the six-speed gearbox, nestled between the rear wheels, powerful hydraulics slap third gear out of the way and fourth into place. The LFA’s small-diameter, single-plate clutch re-engages with a brutally efficient thump. For the track, the quickest of the computer-controlled transmission’s seven selectable shift speeds seems the smart choice...

Even on the straighter bits of the Nurburgring, the steering talks to you. And there’s a lot to chat about. Photographs fail to convey the sheer uppity-downy nature of the place. The electrically assisted rack-and-pinion system is supernaturally direct and perfectly weighted, but it also transmits every nuance as the front tyres’ pressure on the bitumen constantly changes. Over the crests you can clearly sense grip becoming tenuous, through the bottoms of the hollows you can feel it intensify. There’s a rare and brilliant clarity to the LFA’s steering. Like a high-end audio system, it reveals every detail. And, at the same time, it makes almost everything else you’ve experienced seem like a discount-store all-in-one stereo.

At wide-open throttle, through the upper half of its rev range, the LFA accelerates with stunning, ridiculous ease. It’s as though the normal laws of motion and aerodynamics have been temporarily suspended. When fourth gear tops out at 218km/h, a flick to fifth readies the LFA to haul to 277km/h. I don’t see more than 255 on the Lexus’s digital speedometer at the Nurburgring, but this is still well into aero-critical territory.

While the active rear wing that extends automatically above 80km/h is impossible to miss, less noticeable airflow management measures are to be found all over the car. There’s a rear diffuser, naturally, and a perfectly flat underbody. Less obvious are the small, turbulence-quelling fins where the A-pillar meets the windscreen, the air-channelling synthetic rubber lip at the bottom of the front bumper, and the four ridges on the inside of each of the exterior mirrors which guide air to the black-meshed maws of the radiator inlets.

Yes, the LFA’s radiators are hung on aluminium frames attached to the rear of the car’s carbon-composite central structure. While this accounts for its unique look, the front-engine, rear-cooling layout was chosen partly for reasons of weight distribution, partly for the aero attributes that come with a low nose. The LFA combines a reasonable 0.31 coefficient of drag (wing down), with strong downforce, sweetly apportioned front and rear.

The LFA’s perfect high-speed stability is proof the Lexus guys aren’t making this up. Truth is, as the lap unfolds, there are few situations where it’s not stable. Although it turns in with synaptic precision, this isn’t because the Lexus is inherently inclined to deviate from the straight ahead. It’s just brilliantly responsive. Even ambitiously early throttle applications don’t much fluster the Lexus’s cornering composure. When the V10’s torque does overwhelm the grip of the big Bridgestones, the onset of oversteer is pleasantly progressive. Although the LFA is equipped with an electronic chassis stability system (and I left it switched on round the ’Ring), selecting the transmission’s ‘Sport’ mode apparently loosens its parameters. Unlike any other car wearing a Lexus badge, a little sideways-ness doesn’t invoke a distracting, doorbell-like chime as the stability system takes control of the throttle and stabs the brakes like some panicked, telekinetic granny. In fact, the only way I could tell for sure that the LFA’s system was operating was occasional flashing of the orange warning icon in my peripheral vision.

Only under fiercely hard braking is the LFA’s truly awesome dynamic repertoire found wanting. It’s the only circumstance in which Buddha’s hand seems a little shaky. Even though the car’s weight distribution is slightly rear-biased, hitting the brake pedal (which, like the throttle, is made from forged aluminium and floor-hinged) shifts the emphasis to the front. The unweighted rear end, especially when slowing downhill, can get a little wandery, though it never feels as coit-clenchingly spooky as some mid-engined cars I could mention. As you might have guessed, the brakes are plenty powerful. The discs are carbon ceramic whoppers squeezed by some serious hardware. Assistance is provided not by the usual source – engine vacuum – but by an electric pump generating hydraulic pressure. Although this last measure is designed to get rid of variations in the level of assist, LFA’s brake pedal feel doesn’t match the incredible intimacy of its steering or the fabulous precision of its throttle response.

At the end of two Nordschleife laps I’m exhilarated, impressed (and sweaty), and aware that Lexus has created something special. Even if the Buddha’s hand stuff sounds to western ears a little, well, goofy, this is a car with distinctive character and immense ability.

Later, I ask Tanahashi how he found the right people within Toyota and Lexus to work on the project, on which he’s been toiling since the beginning, back in 2000. Instead of the dull, detailed answer I expect, Tanahashi keeps it brief: “Birds of a feather stick together.”

The colour of Tanahashi’s plumage becomes obvious when you learn what car he owns for weekend driving. While he’s got a Yaris company car for workday commuting, there’s a Porsche in his garage. His choice – a 993, last of the air-cooled 911s – makes it clear the man has great taste. No wonder the LFA feels the way it does…

He also has an engineer’s scorn for the kind of technology that appeals to marketing departments. I ask why the LFA was kept relatively simple, with just four selectable transmission modes (also affecting engine and brake control logic), a choice of shift speeds, an on-off switch for the chassis stability system, and nothing to vary damping or the level of steering assist. With steering and suspension, Tanahashi says, dismissively, “there is only one right answer.” Those answers work pretty well on the road. While the low-speed ride is firm, it’s not punishing. The sharp impacts are nicely rounded off and softened. At high speed – and on a stretch of unrestricted autobahn we briefly see 285km/h – the ride is brilliantly secure and utterly stable, the steering perfectly calm.

Less impressive is the occasional misbehaviour of the sequential transmission at low speeds. In ‘Normal’ mode – the setting for driver-initiated shifting on public road – occasional but very obvious clutch slip is apparent. The car is still more than a year from production (see below) and the Lexus engineers acknowledge there’s still work to do on the transmission control software. Otherwise, the transmission is pretty user-friendly. Start-up and gear selection are logical and simple and the lazybones ‘Auto’ mode is reasonably smooth. Unlike the Nordschleife cars, with their race seats, four-point harnesses and compulsory radio comms equipment, the road-driving LFAs are fitted with proper production interiors. And it is, as expected in a Lexus, a beautiful place; high-grade materials, design and craftsmanship everywhere you look.

Like the interior, the LFA’s exterior was designed in-house. It’s the work of the Lexus studio in Toyota City and it’s a clean, subtle and restrained piece of work. Badges aside, everything has a function. While the cabin is not short of space, the tightness with which the Lexus’s mechanicals are clothed is apparent when you raise the glass liftback; the carpeted cargo compartment is quite small. It’s taken Lexus a long, long time to develop the LFA. By the time the first cars are ready for customers, Tanahashi and his team will have laboured for a decade to create it. And it shows. The Lexus LFA is genuinely exotic, expertly engineered. The LFA is also a significant car for other reasons. Lexus promises that the driver focus and dynamic satisfaction embodied in the LFA will serve as a template for future mainstream cars. After two decades carving itself a reputation for peerless quality and superb refinement, Lexus, at last, seems to have discovered the joy of driving…

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