Andrew Frankel - Road cars
Lexus supercar sizzles
It’s been almost 20 years since a Lexus first went on sale in the UK and while I admire very much what has been achieved in this time, particularly in the area of customer service, I still find myself wondering why, with the resources of the world’s largest and most successful car company behind it, Lexus has never managed to build cars to rival consistently the best of its European opposition.
Part of the answer lies in the fact that to Lexus, Europe is a mere sideshow. From the very start its focus has been on the US (Lexuses – or should that be Lexi? – only went on sale in Japan in 2005) and the requirements on the States side of the pond are very different to ours. There, ride and refinement are the overwhelming dynamic priorities, while here we want a more even balance – cars that handle and perform too. But producing cars that are as great to drive as they are to be driven in is not something Lexus has ever shown much interest in. Until now.
One of few real benefits of being a very young marque is that you can do what you like with it without risking die-hard traditionalists getting in a lather about it. When Porsche decided to build a huge and ugly SUV, it was not short of people hopping up and down, bursting with righteous indignation. I know, I was one of them. But if Lexus decides it wants to build a 500bhp supercar, the only thing I’ll jump to do is get behind its wheel.
For ever since the first LS400 I drove back in 1990, the potential of Lexus, however unrealised it might be, has fascinated me. That four-door saloon with its clearly Mercedes-derived styling was a landmark. No car had ever driven so quietly, nor ridden so comfortably. It struck fear into the heart of every major luxury car manufacturer, and that was before Lexus’s Toyota parent happened to let slip that with the LS400, it was only practising. If its first saloon could be that capable, what could it achieve with its first supercar?
It’s called the LF-A and it’s sitting in the pits at Goodwood circuit, waiting for me to funnel myself into its stripped-out interior. Though the LF-A is a road car, it was decided to race it first at the Nürburgring 24 Hours ‘to aid research and development’ and, no doubt, allow its drivers to have a jolly good time. Though various mishaps denied it the finish its raw pace suggested, a man from Lexus told me that when the car was running trouble-free, it was 30 seconds a lap faster than the Aston Martin Vantage V12 RS that was in the same category. And that Aston is bloody fast.
Given that it was first shown to the world in 2005, surprisingly little is known about the LF-A. Officially Lexus won’t even concede that it will be offered for sale, though, privately, it is universally accepted that it will reach the market next year priced at around £250,000. For the lucky few who secure one (LF-A production will be limited to a few hundred), we know only that they will buy a car made from a largely carbon-fibre structure with a 4.8-litre V10 engine delivering over 500bhp, running through a six-speed, paddle-shift, manual transaxle.
It should be said now, the LF-A is not a pretty car, but when it comes to exuding menace few do it better. The engine has been created for the LF-A alone and while it runs innocently enough at idle, listening to it circulate the track as its engineers warmed it up earlier it sounded simply savage, even when silenced to comply with Goodwood noise regulations.
The driving position is ultra low and reminiscent of the 700bhp GT1-specification Dodge Viper I drove at Paul Ricard a decade or more ago. You can tell this is a race-prepped road car in a number of ways: there are several blanked out buttons on the dash, the steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach, and there’s even a speedometer in the central display. But when you fire it up, the engine responds like few I’ve ever encountered on the public road. Revs rise and fall so fast it appears not to have a flywheel and when I look closer at the rev-counter on the screen, I realise that today I will be changing up at nothing less than 9000rpm, higher than any comparable supercar of my acquaintance.
Yet for all the ferocity of its acceleration and its no-prisoners appearance, it seems that just a little bit of what we might expect of other Lexuses has been left in, for this is a fabulously easy car to drive, even flat out around somewhere as unforgiving as Goodwood. It’s quite heavy for a racer (Lexus will admit to 1500kg) and you can feel it in the slower corners like Lavant and the chicane, but in the high-speed turns that characterise the bulk of this circuit, the combination of iron body control and superb aerodynamic balance gives you the confidence to work it harder and harder.
How fast would it go around Goodwood? I once lapped a Porsche 911 GT2 road car in a very cautious 1min 27sec, and with slicks, wings, race suspension and brakes I’d expect the LF-A to have gone a substantial number of seconds faster than that. More importantly, though, while I found the GT2 difficult and intimidating, the LF-A was fun, accommodating and predictable. It’s the sort of car in which you could spend hours whittling away at your lap times, confident it would never misbehave, and emerge fresh from your stint already anticipating your next turn at the helm. The perfect long-distance racer, in other words.
Despite the paucity of hard facts surrounding the LF-A, the only matter of real importance that has yet to be quantified is how different the road LF-A will be. Privately, I have been told by more than one Lexus employee that the race LF-A is very close to the road car. I hope so: 20 years ago Lexus stunned the world with a luxury saloon and now it has the potential to do the same with a supercar. It is an opportunity that should not be missed.
Boxster Jr would be the business
Just when you think Porsche might be losing the plot (and after the lacklustre new 997 and severely flawed Panamera, the thought had occurred), it’s suggested that I might benefit from a spin around the block in a new Boxster S. Several hundred miles later I still didn’t want to give it back despite, broadly speaking, not much liking convertibles.
When you drive the Boxster (or indeed its Cayman sister), the sense that you’re riding right in the middle of Porsche’s comfort zone is inescapable. These cars are so effortlessly able, so much better than anything else they might be compared to, you might wonder why Porsche continues to venture so far from what it knows best with cars like the Panamera, were the answer not so blindingly obvious. The lure of the lucre is irresistible.
Even so, in today’s straitened times Porsche should perhaps now be looking at extending its ranges in the other direction, not with smaller, more mainstream models for that would be fatal, but lighter, more focused and affordable versions of what it has already. It’s been over 20 years since the 911 ClubSport did exactly this, but never has the time seemed more right for another, and for it to be joined by a ClubSport Cayman and Boxster. A Porsche that costs less yet which is better to drive is a message that should not need much further explanation.
Good things in a small Alfa package
I know that in this job we should always approach cars with a mind free from any preconceptions, but I’m not afraid to admit I was dreading driving the new Alfa Romeo Mito. As someone who spent large chunks of his childhood in the back of ’Suds, and who has been largely disappointed with almost every small- and medium-sized Alfa produced thereafter, the Fiat Grande Punto-based Mito came with that sinking feeling as standard.
Perhaps it was because I was expecting so little that I ended up enjoying the Mito so much. No, it’s not a landmark, nor is it close to being as good now as was the ’Sud in the ’70s, but it has real character, engaging handling and, in the 155bhp 1.4 TB Lusso I drove, proper performance. At a smidge over £14,000, it seems good value too. So, and for the first time in more years than I care to count, here is a small Alfa to which the automatic response is not to run away. Indeed if you’re in the market for such a car, it’s worth a good, hard look.