Like watching someone enthusiastically geek out and/or hearing about brilliant engineering? HAVE I GOT A POST FOR YOU!
If you've read my last post, you'd know that I'm a pretty huge car nerd. I'm also one who likes pretty much anything. As far as I see it, a good car is a good car. It doesn't matter who makes it. This makes me a rarity in most car communities. Most car people, it seems, like particular makes of car and/or countries that make them. They also dislike particular makes of car and/or countries that make them. I just like cars. Thinking this way is weird, apparently.
There's also a good deal of groupthink, especially when it comes to what they hate. Of all the marques currently making cars, there's one that is almost universally viewed as the epitome of what a car should not be by the people who describe themselves as enthusiasts: Lexus. Ask most car guys what they think of Lexus, they'll admit that they're well engineered and beautifully put together followed by a condemnation of the brand, using words like “boring”, “beige” and “soulless”. As far as they're concerned, a Lexus only exists to eliminate all involvement from the act of driving. A Lexus is a car for people who don't want to notice that they're even at the wheel.
Less a car and more a living room that takes you where you need to go
I, on the other hand, like Lexus a lot. Yes, almost all their cars sensory deprivation tanks and offer nothing for people who like to drive, and as such I don't really want one, but a Lexus is a really great car. Toyota has some of the best engineering minds in the business, and when they design a Lexus, they do so with an obsessive attention to detail. Every component, no matter how small, is the way it is because it's what they deemed to be the best way to make the car as quiet, comfortable and refined as is possible. And the obsessiveness doesn't end when the design is finalized. The cars are built to the highest quality standards in the industry. These guys are really anal about quality control. They count the number of stitches in the seats and on the steering wheel and if there's even just one too many or too few, the car gets sent back. The gaps between the doors are measured with a laser and if they're off by as little as 1/1000th of a millimeter, the car gets sent back. They have specially trained inspectors who do nothing but push every button in each car, making sure it depresses with the correct resistance, bounces back correctly, and makes the proper sound. If a button doesn't, it gets sent back. They build cars the way NASA builds spacecraft, and I respect them hugely for that.
And now for the car this post is about, Lexus' supercar, the LFA. Most enthusiasts, it seems, don't take this car seriously, and when you look at the performance figures, it's easy to see why. The first thing a supercar must do, above all else, is be as fast as the laws of physics allow, and when compared to other supercars, the LFA doesn't fare too well, especially when you factor in the price. 350,000 dollars is a lot of money for a car that's slower than most other cars of this type, including many that cost a whole lot less. I was a bit disappointed, too. I was expecting to be blown away by the numbers this car would produce, since it's a supercar made by those genius obsessives at Lexus, but I wasn't. I, like everyone else, wondered what the point of this car was, why they even bothered making it in the first place. Once I learned what Lexus set out to do with this car, though, and what they did to achieve it, I fell madly in love.
Be still my heart
Lexus didn't set out to build the fastest car they possibly could. Their goal with the LFA was to build the greatest driver's car that the world has ever seen. And that's the best bit of thinking behind a car I have ever heard. To achieve this, Toyota gave their best engineering minds an unlimited amount of time and essentially infinite resources, and after ten years and, if the rumors are to be believed, somewhere between 200 and 400 million dollars, they created something truly amazing.
The car's detractors have a tendency to say that the car lacks “soul” and there was no “passion” in its creation, without actually saying what “soul” and “passion” mean. They'll usually say something about a Ferrari having both and then reminding everybody that the LFA is a Lexus. The thing is, though, the LFA has more “passion” behind its creation than any car since, well, probably ever. The LFA is exactly what all truly great cars tend to be: one man's vision of what a car should be like. The chief engineer, Haruhiko Tanahashi, spent 10 years of his life with his team of engineers doing the Lexus thing and obsessing over every conceivable detail of the car and making sure that they all make the driving experience as enjoyable as is possible.
This is where I start geeking out.
Let's start with the most amazing thing in the car: the engine, which produces 552 horsepower. But that's not what makes it so amazing. Everything else about it does. Tanahashi wanted a high-revving engine, so he went to the best people he had access to for such an motor: both Toyota's Formula One team and Yamaha. The engine they produced is, in my opinion, the greatest engine ever fitted to a road car. It's a 4.8 liter V10 with ten independently computer controlled throttle bodies mounted inside an intake box that continuously changes its internal geometry to optimize the pressure of the air as it enters into the engine. It's smaller than Toyota's V8 and lighter than their V6. The light weight comes from the engine being built out of the lightest materials that could withstand the forces involved. The block is machined out of a solid block of forged aluminum aluminum alloy, the valve covers are made from magnesium, the pistons are forged aluminum and are connected to forged titanium connecting rods. The valves are also made from titanium and are actuated by rocker arms that have been coated in DLC-Si (diamond-like carbon with silicon) to reduce friction and increase wear resistance. The low reciprocating mass means the engine redlines at 9000 RPM going on to a fuel cutoff at 9500, which is quite high for an engine like this, but that's not what blows my mind. That would be how unbelievably fast this thing revs. It goes from idle to 9000 RPM in six tenths of a second. So fast that they had to use a digital tachometer, since an analog one simply couldn't keep up with how quickly it builds revs.
And this being the engine for a driver's car, it had to make a great noise, and thanks to an induction box and manifold-back titanium exhaust that was acoustically tuned by Yamaha's musical instruments division, it, well, just listen.
I need a cigarette after that, especially after watching it downshift at 7 grand. I like the noise it makes so much that it's my ringtone.
And on to the rest of the car. To keep weight down, they originally intended to make the car out of aluminum, which they then decided was to heavy, so they scrapped all the work they did and started from scratch to make it out of carbon fiber. To keep the center of gravity low, they needed to make the pillars supporting the windshield as light as possible, which led to them building one of only two dual-tube rotary looms in the world to weave a tube within a tube out of individual strands of carbon filament. And that's not all they did to keep the center of gravity low. The engine is mounted so low they had to invent a new system which uses a counter gear connected to the crankshaft spinning a now elevated carbon fiber torque tube that sends power into a six speed automated manual transaxle. The result of all this is a center of gravity that is only 17 3/4” above the ground, and the rear-mounted gearbox and radiators and an engine with all the ancillaries located on the back of the engine place it horizontally directly below the steering wheel. On top of this, the entire drivetrain, the engine, the torque tube and the transaxle, is connected to the car via mounts at the geometric extremes of the assembly which eliminates the twisting and flex that the engine's torque would otherwise cause on both the unit and the chassis.
Then there's the trademark Lexus obsessive attention to detail, this time used for good, not evil. The car originally had one of those new and awesome dual-clutch transmissions, which was replaced by a more primitive single clutch H-pattern transmission. This was done for two reasons, one was to reduce the mass the engine would have to spin, which helps it rev as quickly as it does. The other reason is one I love: because the dual clutch transmission would change gears so quickly as to appear seamless, which Tanahashi felt detracted from the driving experience because it removed the sensation of changing gears. And on the subject of changing gears, the paddle that initiates a downshift requires you to pull it with greater force than than the one you use to upshift, which they did to make it feel like you're interacting with the transmission on a mechanical level instead of just, well, flicking paddles. Also, when the vehicle dynamics computer is set into sport mode, the digital tachometer compresses the lower end of the RPM range to give the driver a more accurate readout of engine speed at high revs. My favorite example, though, of their consideration of every last bit of the car that is so thorough they did things that no sane person would ever think to do, is the steering wheel. They made the bottom of the wheel heavier than the top, which means the wheel returns to center in a more smooth and linear way.
You know the president of Toyota? That Japanese man you keep seeing on TV solemnly apologizing? Well, he was part of a team that drove this car in a 24 hour endurance race held on the world's most grueling circuit. They placed 4th in their class. A feat that would make him the world's most awesome businessman if the CEO of Aston Martin wasn't on the team that placed first.
I'm leaving a lot out, like the six-piston 15 inch carbon ceramic brakes and the aerodynamics that cause almost all the air that the car comes in contact with at speed to either create downforce, feed the engine's intake or cool the various components that need cooling. And it's also available in two different shades of brown, which now that I think about is something I'm probably alone in thinking is amazing.
I can't remember the last time a modern car has excited me to such a degree, so when I went to the New York auto show today, I made sure I saw it. I actually saved it for last, so I could spend as much time as I wanted with it. So there I was, standing in a huge crowd of people, watching the very same flat black LFA I've seen a million times in pictures and on video spin around on its display, in my own little car nerd slice of heaven. This period of bliss lasted for roughly two minutes when the guy next to me saw the child-like giddy expression on my face and asked me “How can you be excited by this? It's a Lexus, and it's slower than a Corvette ZR-1 which costs a third as much.” I spent the next few minutes telling him everything I've written above about the car. When I had finished, he didn't say a word. He just stood there like I was, staring at this incredible machine in awed silence. After a little while, he turned to me and said “even though I could never afford one, I sure am glad it exists.”