Two words send a shiver down my spine: You’re On. They arrive via direct message on Twitter from Lexus PR chief Scott Brownlee and I know immediately what they’re referring too – the Lexus LFA, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, with me at the wheel.
Cue involuntary sweating, palpitations that have nothing to do with the morning’s caffeine intake and quite a bit of disbelief.
This is closely followed by a morning on YouTube watching several rather expensive automobiles being completely rearranged on Goodwood’s infamous hill climb. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best way to calm my already frayed nerves.
The sheer magnitude of the stroke of luck I’ve somehow managed to pull off takes a while to sink in. This is the very same LFA that Top Gear’s Hamster has thrashed around their track, it is the same LFA that The Stig has wrung to within an inch of its life to set the programme’s fastest ever wet lap, and it is the only LFA in Europe.
Not only that, but I am to be the only UK journalist to pilot the LFA up the Goodwood hill climb at the Festival of Speed and one of only three hacks being put behind the wheel that weekend.
Then there are the figures to worry about. Those Lexus dealers among you – and in fact most car fans – will already know the LFA costs a staggering £330,000. There are only 500 of them being built and they’re all sold. It produces an ear-piercing 552bhp from it’s V10 engine and can rev to a stratospheric 9,000rpm. Oh, and it’ll top 200mph and crack 60mph in just 3.7 seconds.
This is a supercar – plain and simple.
Those figures soon find a quiet, dark corner in my brain to hide as just a few days later I’m sat on the hill climb startline watching a £1.2m Lamborghini Reventon Roadster – being driven quite angrily by a very young, very rich, and very lucky son (it was his dad’s) – squirm and slither as it distributes its rubber on the tarmac in front of me.
Tucked in tight to the red leather sports seats in the left-hand drive supercar, all that’s going around and round in my head are those images from the web of expensive supercars being wrapped around hay bales and stone walls.
Traction control clicked off, paddle-shift gear change set in super-angry fight mode, and a blip of the V10 in neutral sends a shiver down my spine. The LFA really does sound ferocious. Touch the throttle pedal in neutral and it barks like a racing car. It’s a high-pitched shriek, like a startled scream, and every time it brings an evil grin to my face.
In the days leading up to this event I’ve be studying the track to try and work out which way it goes. Not only have I never been up the famous hill before, but the only time I’ve driven the LFA before now is the two-minute quarter mile-ish drive down to the startline. This explains why I am currently softening the leather handgrips on the carbon-fibre steering wheel with sweaty palms…
A marshall pokes his head around the passenger side of the windscreen and waves me off. I give it a full pedal-mashing start to try and make it look like I know what I’m doing and two eye-blink gear-changes later I’m at the first right-hander.
The LFA angrily blips the V10 for me on the downchanges – further helping me bluff my way as a ‘proper’ driver in front of the thousands watching – and it hunkers down into the first rubber-strewn arc of the hill.
Even with a ham-fisted hack at the wheel like me, this Lexus is positively explosive – it fires through up-shifts with mind-boggling speed and feels every bit as rapid as its performance figures suggest.
In seconds I’m hurtling along in front of the famous Goodwood House, under the bridge and rapidly approaching the left-hander I’d been warned so many times about. Already this morning someone has stacked some automotive exotica into the hay bales here and I am not prepared to be the star of a smashed-up-supercars-blog rogue’s gallery.
So when I spot a three hundred metre board signalling a left turn, then 200m, then 100m, I’m already hauling on the anchors before I realise I’m about to cock up in the highest order.
Those boards aren’t signalling the arrival of the left-hander – they’re highlighting a SERVICE road. What. A. Div. I try and make up for it by knocking it down a few cogs and roaring off – I can always pretend I was showboating, as it is the Festival of Speed after all. But the fact of the matter is, I’ve been a complete numpty. I just hope no-one notices.
What’s really remarkable about the Lexus is just how ‘normal’ it feels. It’s not as intimidating as I thought it would be, and I’m surprised at how quickly I get used to it. There’s no doubt though as to just what this machine is capable of. Power delivery is brutal – the closest thing I’ve
come to it is in a Caterham R500 – but whereas that rocket-powered rollerskate feels untamed and raw, the LFA feels controlled; more guided missile than sledge-hammer.
In the Nissan GT-R – another stupidly fast machine from the Far East of a similar ilk – it can feel like you’re only taking part in a life-sized version of a PlayStation game, detached from the process, devoid of precious feel. A bit like swimming in a wet suit. But with the LFA it is nothing like that – it tells you your inputs matter, delivering delicious feedback from the controls that is very rare.
With my pleb moment left behind, next up is the run towards the flint wall – responsible for a number of bodyshop-pleasing car crushing incidents over the years. I treat it with maximum respect. The fact the LFA is a left-hooker means it’s easy to place well away from the wall, but I still end up pootling around it in at a distinctly crowd-displeasing velocity.
But the last section of the climb is where I really get to enjoy myself. As the course opens up, my bottle returns and I relish in stretching that glorious V10 unit to the 9,000rpm red line. Sadly the whole thing’s over too soon, but at least at the top of the hill I can admire the credit crunch-defying collection of metal as I mingle with the drivers who have far more right to be there than me.
I park next to a McLaren MP4-12C making its public debut at Goodwood, admire two Bugatti Veyrons, a Spyker, Ferrari 599 GTO, Ferrari 458 Italia, a brace of Alfa 8Cs, a Chevrolet Camaro with Jason Plato at the wheel, and the Batmobile-esque CitroenbyGT. My nerves and pulse rate return to a more sedate pace and the sheer enormity of what I’ve just done sinks in…
There’s no doubt the LFA is one awesome achievement by Lexus – but I can’t help wondering what dealers think of it. The car is sold by only one person in the whole of Europe – Devshi Varsani at Lexus Park Lane (see over) – so it must be a tad annoying for salesman at other centres to have to hand over enquiries for a car worth 13 times that of a bog standard IS to one of their rivals.
But, according to Lexus UK director Belinda Poole, it’s the ‘halo effect’ that’s really important. That’s what the LFA is all about – a car produced to generate interest in a brand at the very top in the hope that interest filters down to the bread and butter cars.
‘The LFA has undoubtedly had a positive effect for our retailers and for the brand as a whole,’ Poole tells me. ‘For example, we have seen high levels of interest on our website for this car. Thanks to strong media coverage we have benefited not only on LFA but across the range, particularly with our other F marque vehicles such as IS-F and our new IS F-Sport.’
So it seems the halo effect is working. Lexus dealers also got the chance to use the LFA as a marketing tool with customers invited along to drive other ‘F’ models at special events. Poole explained the LFA was key in creating demand for places on these days.
But what about those dealers forced to hand over £330,000 car enquiries to rivals? Does Poole think the increased interest the LFA created compensated for that?
The director wouldn’t go into too much detail here, only saying: ‘Lexus Centres in the UK worked actively with us to support taking customer enquiries and then introduced these customers to the LFA Personal Liaison Manager.’
OK, so maybe that’s a bit of a touchy subject, let’s return to the car. A Lexus spokesman told me at Goodwood that it took just five months to sell out – and most of those orders were placed before customers even saw the LFA in the metal. That’s some going, even by supercar standards.
‘We always planned to sell only 500 units to preserve its exclusivity,’ Poole explained. ‘The level of interest is currently in excess of those 500 units.’
The manufacturer is busy allocating those cars to the 56 countries where the LFA is sold. The biggest market is Germany, followed by Japan and the US, with the UK not far behind. The spokesman also told us that it had taken more deposits than it’s got cars for – which means there will be some very disappointed buyers out there when Lexus works out just who they’ll sell the cars to. A nice position to be in though.
So just who is blowing £330k on an LFA? Footballers?
‘The spectrum of LFA customer profiles is very broad, from business people to drivers of competition sports cars,’ said Poole. ‘Some 75-80 per cent of requests for further information or expressions of interest have come from non-Lexus customers. The remaining 20-25 per cent are Lexus owners already familiar with the unparalleled levels of quality, refinement and technological sophistication which hallmark the brand.
‘A high percentage of requests have come from customers who have closely followed the different stages of concept car development since the LFA project was started in 2000, and who appreciate its unique,
Interesting stuff, but I can’t help wondering with the manufacturer’s background, why the LFA wasn’t a hybrid? Lexus is a pioneer in this field so an out-and-out sportscar seems a little strange for a marque so dedicated to economy. Surely a hybrid that showcased the technology would have been better, or an electric-powered one like Audi’s e-tron?
‘Lexus is recognised for its hybrid technology and we believe that hybrid is one of the answers to the environmental issues facing the automotive industry and one better adapted to the premium market,’ Poole explains.
‘The LFA and its unique character stands apart from the rest of the line -up. It is the pinnacle of the Lexus F sub-brand. Since the beginning of the LFA project in 2000, we set ourselves the goal to create a clear demonstrator
of Lexus F capabilities to compete with the most prestigious brands in terms of driving dynamics and pleasure. And even if the recent focus on environmental performance along with the difficult global economy
may have slowed down the “horsepower war”, the appeal of a true supercar is still valid.’
Despite the LFA’s undoubted success at heightening awareness of the brand, its performance credentials and its sell-out performance – take a peek at Lexus’ sales figures for 2009 and they don’t make happy reading. The maker was 28 per cent down on 2008 against other premium marques like Mercedes (down three per cent) and BMW (down 12 per cent). Why was that?
Poole explains: ‘Lexus’s sales strategy is customer led, supplying cars at the level of customer demand. We took a decision to withdraw from a number of fleet channels in 2009 and focus on retail and business customers. By taking this approach we have focused on the quality of sales which has led to strong increases in retained vehicle margins for our retailers.
‘Additionally, Lexus did not significantly benefit from scrappage compared to some of our competitors. In the future we intend to continue this strategy, with our growth coming organically through the introduction of new models such as the CT 200h in early 2011. We are confident that the Lexus business and our Lexus retailers will be strong again this year and in the future.’
And there seems there’s other good news from the LFA’s development for dealers too –the feel, handling and ‘driving pleasure’ ingrained in its DNA is all set to filter down into other models in the range. Poole even hinted that lessons learnt utilising carbon fibre in the LFA could help address tackling weight reduction on future, more mainstream cars.
Okay, so maybe it was a tad annoying for dealers handing over LFA leads to a central hub – but what’s clear is that Lexus has learnt a lot from its first supercar. Retailers are enjoying renewed interest across the range and the promise that the ‘total performance philosophy’ of the LFA will make it into other road cars is enough to whet our appetite, if not theirs.
If just an ounce of the LFA’s ability makes into an affordable road car from Lexus then I for one believe the motoring world would be all the better for it.
Words: JAMES BAGGOTT Pictures: DEAN SMITH