What If? 1997 Lexus LF-A

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1997 Lexus LFA rear three quarter
Abimelec Arellano

Welcome to What If, a new feature from imaginative illustrator Abimelec Arellano and Hagerty. We’ll be taking you back in time—and possibly forward into the future—to meet alternative-universe automobiles. Even better, our time machine is working well enough to bring “short take” reviews along with the photographs and advertisements. Buckle up and enjoy the ride! — Jack Baruth

(Originally published in Automotive Magazine, August 1996 edition)

1997 Lexus LFA advertisement
Brandan Gillogly

Lexus has risen to the top rank of luxury cars in short order. After a rigorous “Five Seasons” test in which we covered more than 27,500 miles traveling around Michigan, we called the 1990 LS400 “the greatest car to ever possess wheels, a car of greatness that greatly shocks you with how great it is.” In 1992, we subjected the new SC400 coupe to the same “Five Seasons” test. This time we covered 36,468 miles in the course of traveling to high school reunions, first dates, and all sorts of other places you wouldn’t want to be seen in the kind of cars we actually own. Our verdict? “Toyota set out to make the perfect machine and, with the Lexus SC400, has come as close as anyone ever has. It is difficult not to turn a backflip for this car and the entire company that made it possible.” (In 1991, we requested an ES250 sedan for a “Five Seasons” test but one was not available. Our subsequent review of the vehicle noted that it was “an unspeakably bad car, hideous to view, terrifying to drive, basically the kind of tetanus-laced disease box that is probably giving you fourth-stage cancer just from sitting in it.”)

1997 Lexus LFA rear three quarter
Abimelec Arellano

Now, some of you who are not regular Automotive readers might not know that Lexus is vaguely related to Toyota somewhat. This is not to say that the LS400 is a “Celsior”, or that an SC400 is a “Soarer”, or that the ES300 is a “Windom”, or that the recent GS300 is an “Aristo”. When he expressed a concern along those lines, our editor-in-chief was promptly flown by Toyota to Tokyo on an exotic sushi-tasting/waterfowl-hunting/scarf-commissioning trip lasting a full nineteen days, and he reported back at the end of said fact-finding mission that he could not discern any similarity between Lexus vehicles and existing “JDM” Toyotas, at least based on the marketing materials provided to him on the first-class plane trip home.

For that reason, it seems churlish to suppose that the beating heart of the new Lexus supercar, the “LF-A”, is in any way related to the five-liter, 48-valve V-12 making its debut in a new varietal of the home-market Toyota Century. Rather, this is probably a completely different five-liter, 48-valve V-12 engine created especially for Lexus. When we asked a Toyota engineer if this was true, he slapped us on the back and emphatically agreed that “Bakayaro, it is very true!”

This new “LF-A” clearly starts with the SC400 as a canvas but features reshaped front and rear fascia, all the better to hold a more aggressive wheel/tire package, to say nothing of the additional plumbing required by the new V-12. Happily, the LF-A doesn’t need a stretch of the nose to fit the V-12; it was already designed around the three-liter inline-six found in the SC300 model. What it did need was a bit of a wedge job to get the exhaust pipes past the wheelwell.

1997 Lexus LFA engine
Abimelec Arellano

The remarkably difficult engineering required to give the Lexus SC its signature circular inner headlamps has been put aside in favor of additional intake air supply for that bent-twelve. Here at Automotive magazine, we don’t do our own performance testing—it was discovered to be radically incompatible with three-martini lunches at the London Chop House—but we feel secure in standing by Toyota’s preliminary numbers of a 189-mph top speed and a 0-60 in a lightning-fast 4.2 seconds.

Our brief drive in Japan, which happened to be held on the same day as the debut of a new (but completely unrelated) Toyota Soarer Elegante Super Twelve Maxi Bongo 5.0 coupe for the home market, revealed a close-coupled interior with outrageously high-bolstered seats in black leather and a blood-red take on the brand’s famous Optitron instruments. The mandatory four-speed automatic starts in third gear to protect occupants from “the feeling of excessive torque” according to an engineer, then immediately shifts to fourth once the car is rolling to ensure a smooth ride. In the event of a situation requiring maximum acceleration, second gear may be selected from rest by pressing the “Sport” mode selector switch five times in precisely four seconds, activating a transmission program known as Bright Racing Under Best Exacting Knowledge (BRUBECK). We couldn’t master it; although we asked for multiple chances we were only given three to get ready. A Lexus engineer engaged it for us, at which point we encountered a “wig-wag” wheelspin situation at launch that ended up with our test LF-A firmly lodged in a portable bathroom trailer. This concluding our test experience early, we were then given a tour of some fascinating-looking cherry blossom trees near the airport.

1997 Lexus LFA and LS advertisement
Abimelec Arellano

As far as we know, first gear is not available under any circumstances, but we have been assured that it is there and that it is also subject to scheduled maintenance on an annual basis.

Pricing was not available at the time this magazine went to print, but we have been told it will be directly comparable to existing products from Ferrari and Aston Martin. Will the LF-A achieve a spot among our coveted “Super Stars”? Until we receive a complimentary example for a “Five Seasons” test, we won’t know.

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