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22 December 2012

Jeremy on: the Lexus LFA

How can a super-expensive car with outdated technology and zero personality be Jeremy’s supercar of choice? Because it’s a machine

Jeremy Clarkson
Car image



Sometimes, my job is so stressful I want to sit in a corner and weep. Sometimes, I cannot find space in my yard for all the cars I need to drive that week. Then, I find I have to be in on a Friday because someone is delivering the new Pagani. Let me give you the most recent example: we had decided to film a selection of expensive cars in the deserts of western America. This would mean six days in the sunshine, hurtling about in someone else's car and showing off.

Hammond would be in the new Dodge Viper. May would be in the new Aston Vanquish. And I had bagged the Ferrari F12. But it turned out the Ferrari would not be ready in time, so I'd have to think of something else. The SLS Black? The Audi R8 GT? This is the sort of nightmare I have to go through on a daily basis.

I was still mulling it over when I slipped through the super-lightweight door of what appeared to be a Toyota Celica. It wasn't a Celica, though. It was an amazingly expensive Lexus LFA. And, an hour later, I knew exactly what I'd be driving in America. It was senbleedingsational.

This is a car that took five years to develop. And then, just as it was about to go into production, the engineers decided it would be better if the body were made from carbon fibre, not aluminium. Any normal board of directors would have told them to get lost. But the Toyota cheeses said, "OK, here is another bathtub full of yen."

So they went back to the drawing board and started again. And, after four more years of constant testing at the Nürburgring and constant fiddling and tweaking, they had created something really rather spectacular.

Unlike a normal Lexus which isolates the occupants from any sensations at all, the LFA feels like what it is: a machine. It has a single-clutch gearbox, because that way you notice the changes. It pitters, patters and howls. Sometimes, you get the impression you're actually sitting inside one of the 10 cylinders. It's a very long time since I drove something so highbrow, so magnificent, so detailed, so perfect. After driving an LFA, everything else feels as squidgy as one of Arsène Wenger's coats.

But I have a problem because, when we get to the States, Chuck Hammond and James Bond are going to argue I've brought the wrong car, and I don't doubt for a second they will force me to play Top Trumps. The Lexus will lose on all counts. It isn't as fast as their cars. It doesn't accelerate with the same verve. It isn't as powerful. And the stratospheric price tag makes it by far the most expensive. They will go on about this a lot, because they are children.

Afterwards, they will ask with serious faces why it has a V10 engine, knowing full well that when the LFA was first conceived, Toyota was in Formula One and, back then, the racers had 10 cylinders. It is therefore designed to showcase a technology that is now, very much, out of date.

There's more too. I have argued many times in the past that a car must have some sense of place. An Aston should feel British. A Ferrari should feel Italian. A Viper should feel fat. The LFA feels like the product of a science laboratory. This is something that affects all Japanese cars.

Probably it's because, from the very beginning, Japanese carmakers have thought most of all about export markets. While Austin made cars specifically for Britain and Citroen specifically for France, Toyota and Datsun were making cars specifically for absolutely everywhere. This is probably why Japanese cars often feel anodyne and bland.

You drive a Japanese car, and you feel absolutely no connection. It's something you neither respect nor like. It's a tool, like a shovel or chest freezer. There's no personality, and personality is the difference between a good car and a great one. To me, personality is everything.

James and Richard will mention this too, while pointing at the LFA. Then they will call me a fraud and say I'm using the LFA only because they'd already shotgunned the best cars.

I shall need to have a response ready for that, and I think I have. Because, very occasionally, Japan does make a car that's good precisely because it has no soul. Honda does it more than most, notably with the CRX and the NSX. Nissan did it with the GT-R, Mitsubishi with the Evo, and now Lexus has done it, in some style, with the LFA.

Let me tell you about the dashboard. When you change the settings, the speedo, which looks like it might actually be real rather than an electronic read-out, moves to make way for extra dials and more information. You would never get bored with that.

Then you have the materials chosen to line the doors, the dash and the transmission tunnel. Most car designers have a two-page catalogue - one for leather, one for carbon fibre. But Lexus has been to the Kevin McCloud school of interior design and found small companies in Latvia and Mali that are able to cut and shape stuff no one has ever heard of before. It really is a grand design.

Of course, like the Grand Designs we see on Channel 4, it has no history. It sticks up from the landscape like a weird thing. It's odd. But it draws you in. It intrigues you. Maybe after a while, you would be bored with it. But I suspect it would take a while...

The noise is one thing. At high revs, it sounds like a hundred bonfire-night sparklers, amplified through AC/DC's mixing desk and fired into the face of whoever it was you just overtook. It crackles. And then, when you think it can't rev any more, the crackle turns into a baleful howl. It's time to pull on the paddle, feel the clonk and settle back in the exquisite seat, ready for it to start all over again.

Then you see a bump ahead. The road surface is scarred by all the sumps that have clattered into it over the years. You feel you should brake because the low-riding LFA is bound to connect. But there's no need, because the suspension is so sorted that it doesn't ever bottom out.

On paper, the Viper and Aston demolish the Lexus. But I have a suspicion that in the real world - well, as real as it ever gets in and around Vegas - it'll be the other way around.

Hard ride? Yes. But it's not stupid. It's the exact amount of hardness you need to make sure the next corner can be taken at about a million kph.

There's only one comparable car I can think of. The Ferrari 599 GTO. Kato, if you follow the show closely. Obviously, this has bags more personality than the LFA and feels so much more human as a result. It's fallible and confused, and when it rains it goes all to pieces. It's hard to master, but deeply rewarding when you do.

The LFA doesn't show any of those traits at all. It's more like a Terminator. You tell it what to do, and it will keep on doing it. It absolutely will not stop.

Can you ever love a machine? Of course you can. John Connor did. And I love the LFA.

Tags: jeremy clarkson, ferrari, audi, lexus, r8, 599, 599 gto, lfa