First Drive: 2012 Lexus LFA

You might not be able to buy a new Lexus LFA, but it’s so good that it should inspire buyers of any Lexus model to give the F Sport package a serious look.

“Are you sure it won’t get hurt in the garage? I don’t want other doors bumping into it…” I uneasily ask the well-dressed valet.

I had just arrived at the Petit Ermitage, this swanky little West Hollywood hotel with a great rooftop bar, and I was already panicking about this week’s ride.

We sat there awkwardly, just before the dip into the garage, and it suddenly became clear to me that I wasn’t driving some run-of-the-mill Lexus. This one was very, very low to the ground, focused entirely on sport, and one of only 500 on the planet.

“It’ll be ok, Mr. Adams. Yours isn’t the first sports car we’ve kept down there.” The man reassured me.

That brought a smirk to my face. He thought it was mine. At that moment I realized that I already loved the 2012 Lexus LFA.

Lexus as a sporting brand

Since its 1989 debut of the LS sedan, Lexus has effectively cornered the luxury market with a long list of softly sprung sedans, coupes, and SUVs. Thanks to its utilization of high-quality materials and Toyota’s unmatched reliability, Lexus achieved the same stateside recognition in two decades that took Mercedes nearly a century to accomplish.

However, the brand’s focus on supple, smooth vehicles came at the expense of driving dynamics, and even the most engaging vehicles have been criticized of feeling more like Buicks than Porsches.

To challenge that notion, Lexus F was born. It’s said that the ‘F’ stands for ‘Fuji Speedway,’ where the cars are tested for performance, but you could just as easily say that it simply means ‘Fast.’

The brand would first launch the IS F, a 416-horsepower ultra-raw version of its compact IS sedan, intended to compete squarely with the BMW M3. Following that launch, a whole slew of factory ‘F Sport’ add-ons came to market, allowing owners of traditional Lexus models to upgrade their suspensions for more engaging driving experiences.

Then came the new F Sport trims, which have made their way across nearly every Lexus model in the lineup. These cars are delivered directly from the factory with upgraded suspensions, and the option to shift the vehicle into Sport and Sport+ settings, adjusting throttle, steering and suspension response times. And, those cars are genuinely entertaining to drive; the new 2014 IS350 F-Sport is every bit as entertaining as the comparable BMW 3 Series, and for the money, we actually prefer the Lexus GS F-Sport to the Infiniti Q70.

We can, we will

Like one of Google’s moonshot projects, the LFA was developed more as a proof of concept than anything else – a way for Toyota to flex its muscles with its new carbon fiber loom. The R&D conducted to develop this supercar would be the foundation for the more entertaining F-Sport models sold en masse.

Lexus’ reputation for reliability translates to its performance models, too.

To power the LFA, Lexus leveraged its partnership with Yamaha to develop a 552-hp 4.8-liter V10, made almost entirely of aluminum and titanium, and bolted it to a six-speed automated manual transmission. The rest of the chassis is made of aluminum, and the body of the car is wrapped in woven carbon fiber–more like a rigid evening gown than stamped-metal armor.

Outside, the LFA wears the ferocious lines of a supercar. Its long, low nose houses the engine, and there are air dams that channel cold air into the engine bay and around the brakes. The wheels are staggered, with 20-inches at all four corners, but with 9.5-inches of asphalt contact up front, and 11.5-inches per wheel in rear. Behind those wheels are massive 15.3-inch brake calipers–a necessity in stopping a car capable of reaching a top of speed of 202 mph. The rear of the car completes its wedge design, as it sheers off dramatically from its self-deploying spoiler, all the way to its three-port exhaust.

As for me, the LFA is likely the most beautiful car I’ve ever driven, and it certainly takes the cake for 2013. And it would seem that other people feel the same way. The LFA’s presence on the road created its own special kind of gridlock, mostly due to drivers whipping out their cameras to photograph the car as I cruised through southern California.

Inside, the use of carbon fiber is especially noticeable, as so much of the trim is just left exposed. Even the steering wheel is primarily made of carbon, with leather covering the handholds.

Sitting in the LFA reminded me of sitting in a fighter jet. Our particular tester had an all-black interior, though Lexus offered the car in nearly every color under the sun.

In the LFA, the occupants sit close to the ground with heavily bolstered seats and only the gauge cluster a few white lights remove you from the driving experience. The LFA even came with the first version of Lexus Remote Touch, which now feels almost like a relic compared with modern Lexus models.

The last, the first

When the Lexus PR folks asked if I wanted to drive the LFA, it came with a disclaimer. Only days before 2014, I was reminded that this was a car that debuted prior to 2012. And as one of only 500 vehicles on the planet, the particular LFA I’d be driving had been “ridden hard for several miles,” and that it was “the last LFA review anyone would see.” The folks at Lexus trusted me with a car that they knew had seen better days, and one that they couldn’t replace.

It’s one of very few cars today whose whole is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.

When I arrived at Lexus HQ, I received the walk-around treatment. With a Lexus rep at my side, I was shown how to opened the doors, the hood, and manually trigger the spoiler. Then we talked about how to shift from normal to sport modes, and how get the car into reverse.

The guys at Lexus made a point of showing me that some of the surfaces on the seats were worn from heavy track use. I was again encouraged to forgive the car any of its performance shortcomings, due to its age. I smiled and accepted the keys, too excited to think about anything but bombing down the highway to our hotel in WeHo.

Upon starting the car, I checked the odometer: 37,658 miles. That in itself is a feat for any supercar; you’d be lucky to find an Italian car that hasn’t caught fire after 20,000 miles. And you won’t find a British car that hasn’t gone through $10,000 in maintenance after 30,000 miles. According to Lexus, this particular LFA had only seen oil changes, brake replacements, and new tires over its life. We’ll call a spade and spade and say this: Lexus’ reputation for reliability translates to its performance models, too.

In LA traffic, the LFA was surprisingly easy to drive. In normal mode, the transmission shifted itself lazily and comfortably between gears, and the slow speeds gave other drivers plenty of time to admire our matte gray paint wrap and the exceptional exhaust note.

It wasn’t until I took the car up to the Angeles Crest Highway that it became obvious that Lexus had developed an absolutely brilliant exotic car. With a quick switch into Sport mode and a twist of the dial to improve shift speeds, we launched ourselves up the canyon pass.

The engine ran itself up to 9,000 rpms before requesting shifts, and the next gear delivered just as much torque as the previous. The LFA wasn’t the fastest car on the market, and it’s certainly not as quick as some of the other cars in its $375,000 price range. Much like the Porsche Cayman, though, it’s more precise.

2012 Lexus LFA- ainy mountain

The chassis is rigid and predictable, the power delivery is smooth and consistent, and the steering is razor sharp. The best part is without question the F1-inspired exhaust, though, which simply screams when you dig into the accelerator. It’s one of very few cars today whose whole is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.

I’ve learned a few things from my brief run with the 2012 Lexus LFA. Firstly, those few people who own one are some of the most fortunate people on the planet.

It’s a special car, and the very first realization of an ideology that has already begun to seep its way into the brand’s mainstream models. I’m also left with absolutely no question that Lexus is capable of producing legitimate sports cars, and that its next generation of vehicles will possess a level of sportiness more in tune with the brand’s competitors.

And while there may be some time before we see another Lexus supercar, the rest of the industry should fear the day when it comes. It won’t be the halo car that’s terrifying; it’ll be careful inclusion of that car’s mission into the rest of Lexus’s lineup that steals the show.

“You see, Mr. Adams? Your sports car made it into the garage without a single scratch.”

The valet was right. But then again, I now knew that the LFA didn’t have anything to fear down there; the rest of the cars needed to fear it.

Highs

  • Exceptional drivability, both daily and on the track
  • Reliability becoming of its Lexus badge
  • Screaming exhaust note
  • Head-turning rarity and prestige

Lows

  • Sensation of speed doesn’t match the competition
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