The June 2010 issue of CAR Magazine features CAR's Supercar World Cup. Georg Kacher was on hand during the exclusive Merc SLS vs Lexus LFA cover feature and tells his story here. For Jethro Bovingdon's full eight-page supercar twin test of the year, make sure you buy the June 2010 issue of CAR Magazine
Lexus LFA vs Mercedes SLS. It's a clash of characters like Suzuki Hyabusa vs BMW K1300 S, Moog synthesiser vs Bösendorfer piano, techno
vs classical music. Each is a supercar from the opposite end of the spectrum. Emphatically modern vs tastefully retro, high blood pressure vs low blood sugar.
Which is a little surprising when one compares the almost identical DNAs of the two super coupés. Both are front-mid engined, powered by high-revving naturally-aspirated motors, feature a well balanced transaxle layout, rely on lightweight body structures, muster non-adjustable suspension and steering set-ups. But despite these conceptual similarities, LFA and SLS are about as different in approach and ability as a sinewy rev-hungry sprinter is from a muscular long-distance runner with extra-large lungs.
After all, the way they look, sound and drive could hardly be more antagonistic. From a performance point of view, however, the two contenders are so close that the virtual stopwatch inside your head struggles to declare a winner. Yet at the end of a long day and an even longer night in and around Frankfurt shooting our cover story for the June 2010 issue of CAR Magazine, one supercar turned out to be fractionally more desirable than the other.
Lexus LFA vs Mercedes SLS: the twin test
When these testosterone-laden machines tiptoe in fourth gear through the narrow village streets of the picturesque Odenwald forest region,
they come very close to doing serious decibel damage. While the high-pitched voice of the Lexus is a constant threat to tired window panes, the densely packed roar of the Mercedes puts loose plaster to the real test. And that´s even before you shift down into second, which makes cats arch their back, and dogs bark and bristle.
The LFA in particular is infamous for its insane intonations of raw power. Redlined at 9000rpm where the rev counter changes colour from snow
white to devil´s red, the V10 is as intensely shrill as a Moto GP bike or a F1 racer. When the wide white wedge appears at the horizon, bystanders poise their mobile phones not only to freezeframe one of Europe´s rarest sports cars but also to capture that spine-tingling soundtrack.
In tunnels, people inadverdtedly step on the brake when the Lexus driver floors the loud pedal, because the xenon-eyed noiseball in their rear view mirror sounds and looks like an UFO heralding the end of the world. The SLS is more minor than major, all bass and tenor, roaring tiger
rather howling wolf. While the LFA misses no opportunity to launch its shrieking high-pitched back-up choir, the car from Stuttgart loves to indulge in a simulated part-throttle misfire which blat-blats like a highly tuned American muscle car from the 60s.
The transmissions fitted to our two night warriors are about as far apart in concept and personality as dawn is from dusk. Mercedes pairs its
seven-speed box with a dual-clutch unit which reduces the power loss during full-throttle upshifts to virtually zero. There are four shift patterns to choose from: C for controlled efficiency, S for sporty, S+ for very sporty and M for manual. In S+, the black box automatically blips the throttle during downshifts, holds the gear through fast corners, changes down early and changes up late.
I tried the SLS in manual for the first part of the route, but there is actually no need to work the paddles which are attached to the steering wheel. Why? Because in S and S+, one step on the throttle is all it takes to summon a lower ratio and to release it. The interaction is beautifully intuitive and sensationally speedy.
And the Lexus LFA transmission?
There is no doubt that the clutch which operates the automated six-speed manual transmission is the Achilles heel of the Lexus. Light and compact, the clutch is operated via paddles attached to the steering column where you find them even with the wheel on full lock. The four shift patterns are labelled Auto, Sport, Normal and Wet.
Auto is slow, jerky and out of sync with the car´s focused dynamics. Normal is exactly that, so you end up driving in Sport most of the time. To complicate matters, there is a choice of seven different shift speeds ranging from a whiplash 0.2sec to an almost lethargic 1.0sec. Nice touches include the change of rev counter colour from black to white as soon as you hit Sport mode, and the contrasting resistance between the featherweight upshifts and the relatively high-effort downshifts. So far, soo good.
Unfortunately, the mechanical execution is not in line with the brand´s premium-quality, total functionality image. Take-off varies from rough on level surfaces to wah-wah wailing on inclines. Like the Nissan GTR, the LFA struggles in particular through tight and slow uphill bends when torque delivery is everything but smooth. There is fair bit of clickety-clonk noise involved, too, and in the wake of a sequence of ultra-
fast shifts a whiff of burnt friction material tends to waft through the cabin.
Manoeuvring the Lexus is reminiscent of early Ferrari F1 gearboxes. To switch from D to R, you must first pull both paddles into neutral and then reach for a small toggle left of the instrument panel to trigger that change of direction. Don´t rush, or you´ll have to go through the same sequence again, even if that truck is approaching at a hair-raisingly rapid rate.
Tell me about inside these drool-worthy supercars
Instead of a conventional transmission lever, the SLS boasts a small joystick-type drive-by-wire gear selector with a squared off T-handle. Push it forward to engage reverse, pull it backwards to dial in drive, hit the button marked P to lock the cogs in park. Angled to the left is the so-called AMG drive unit we know from SL63 and E63. The keyboard contains five round buttons marked engine start, transmission mode, rear spoiler (it automatically extends at 75mph) and AMG (to store your favourite settings).
Last but not least there is the familiar Comand controller which provides direct access to the various communication, navigation and entertainment functions. A similar toggle-switch solution can be found in the LFA. Like every AMG car, the SLS offers a choice of performance-oriented in-dash readouts which relay the coolant, engine and gearbox oil temperatures, the ESP setting and the most recent lap and journey
times computed by the on-board chipmaster. Above the two large main round instruments there is a supplementary digital LED rev counter
with one amber warning segment at 6900rpm and two red warning dots which come on at 7100 and 7200rpm, but only when you are flying along
The LFA cockpit looks and feels even more special than the cabin of the SLS. The starter button is conveniently placed on the carbonfibre steering wheel which boasts a squared-off bottom and two broad horizontal thumbrest spokes. The LED instrumentation stars a large
analogue rev counter redlined at 9000rpm, a relatively small digital speedometer and your choice of secondary readouts. In addition to the
fuel, oil and water gauges one can, among other things, summon a tripmaster, a lap timer and a tyre pressure monitor.
The electric handbrake sits in a niche in front of the driver´s right knee next to the transmission tunnel where it is harder to reach than in the Merc.
The seats are comfortable, supportive and generously adjustable. Subjectively at least, the LFA feels a little roomier than the Benz, which combines a C-class-type switchgear with bespoke instruments, plenty of leather and a high level of fit and finish. The party piece? Those gullwing
doors are true attention grabbers, but they are no more practical than the front-hinged panels preferred by Lexus.
In both cars, a glance in the mirror at Autobahn speeds relays an equally imposing tail spoiler which extends automatically to increase downforce and stability. While the luggage compartment of the Merc holds a useful 176 litres, Lexus does not even bother to quote a number, and half a year after the first drive the Japanese are also still vague about the kerbweight which is listed as ´between 1480 to 1580 kilos.´ The SLS tips the scales at 1620kg.
Time for an autobahn run in these supercars
We aimed for Karlsruhe on the A5 which typically is 150mph-plus terrain – but not today. Roadworks, speed limits and congestion slowed us down to 100mph most of the way. Only twice was there an opportunity to knock on 150mph, but we never saw the claimed 203mph in the LFA or 198mph in the SLS.
Having driving both vehicles on prior occasions, I remember that the Lexus takes a little longer than the Gullwing to reach its top speed. We can also confirm that the Merc´s 6.2 vs 4.8-litre displacement advantage and the 479lb ft against 354lb ft twist action lead give the German contender a small but noticeable edge when it comes to mid-range acceleration.
This impression is reflected by the torque curves which show a 6800rpm peak for the LFA and a 4750rpm summit for its rival. There is no doubt about it: the V10 needs to be revved much harder than the V8 to deliver, which takes some getting used to. After all, even at a yelling 6000rpm, you are only two thirds up the road to the cut-out speed, and with every incremental 1000rpm the inferno is becoming more intense. The V8 is
redlined at 7200rpm, but anything above 6500rpm does more for your ego than for progress.
How do the LFA and SLS perform cross country?
Although the winding roads through the Odenwald are pure bliss for committed drivers, the speed on the best bits is restricted either by
law or by heavy traffic. In this rollercoaster habitat where tight radii and narrow blacktop prevail, the Lexus does benefit from its more compact dimensions and from the lighter weight. The Mercedes is not only a touch wider and a substantial 133mm longer, it also has a phallic snout which positions the driver notably further back in the aluminium spaceframe cradle. In the carbon-fibre Lexus, you sit between the axles and thus closer to the front wheels, which supports the bum-to-brain interface.
The weight distribution is almost identical: 48:52 in the Lexus, 47:53 in SLS. Since both cars put a similar amount of static and dynamic mass on the 20in rear wheels and tyres, the acceleration times from 0-62mph are separated by one academic tenth of second. On paper, white eclipses red by 3.7 against 3.8sec. In real life, it´s all down to tyre wear, tyre temperature, surface quality and launch control action. Both vehicles must shift once before they exceed the 62mph mark, and even after a dozen or so full-throttle head-on sprints the result was a dead heat.
Do these supercars talk like a chatterbox? What's the steering like?
The electrically-operated power-steering of the Lexus takes 2.35 turns from lock to lock, which means that it is about 0.35 turns quicker than the hydraulically-driven rack-and-pinion device fitted to the Benz. The helm of the LFA feels light and communicative, quick and responsive. The SLS has a meatier direction-finder with a slightly stronger self-centering action, but turn-in is equally attentive, and the feedback does not deteriorate on poor tarmac or when you wind on more lock.
Both cars' stability control systems offer an intermediate sport setting which deactivates traction control in the case of the Lexus and lowers the ASR/ESP thresholds in the Mercedes. On public roads, that´s all it takes for a gentle nudge of power oversteer at the exit of an open bend. On the track, you may remove the safety net completely, thereby clearing the stage for tail slides lurid enough to qualify for the next national drift challenge.
In the LFA, the steering makes the car feel light and nimble and chuckable, but even the heaviest right foot must first get used to the sky-high
revs required to smoke the tyres. In the SLS, the balance between steering and throttle is more natural and better weighted. At very high velocities, the Gullwing needs fewer corrections to maintain a steady line, but it is more easily irritated by long undulations and sharp expansion joints.
And the brakes? You need good anchors in a supercar...
With just under 9000 kilometres on the clock and a long weekend on the Ring in its limbs, our pre-production Lexus felt a little loose and tired. Although fitted with carbon ceramic discs as standard equipment, it could have done with fresh brake pads to smoothe the grinding noises and the rather rough response. The Merc, too, was equipped with optional compound rotors which decelerate the coupé about as effectively as the counter-thrust of a jet engine.
But it´s not only the sheer stopping power which impresses, it´s also how the car copes with split-friction turf, hot discs and wet pavement that
deserves a solid 10 out of 10. Despite the substantial size, weight and inertia, this thing will actually outcorner most other sports cars on the planet.
As far as the gut feeling goes, the commendably progressive SLS can even pull more g than the LFA which is handicapped by a touch too much grip in the front and by its more brittle suspension. On the race track, this is rarely an issue. But through patchwork corners, the Lexus feels busier, more nervous, less stable. In these conditions, which can also apply on ancient autobahn sections, a little more compliance would probably make a big difference.
Both supercars launch into a recession. Hardly good timing!
At night, the city center of Frankfurt is a hollow Moloch crammed with towering glass cubes built by the banks before Mr Lehmann fell ill and infected his brothers. In the early hours of the morning, the streets around the main station were still busy with amber taxis chasing late barflies, with blue-over-silver panda cars on the prowl, and with two out-of-place supercoupés worth a combined €550,000.
We were looking for bright neon lights, for colourful cliques and cheerful claqueurs, for that final bit of metropolitan action. It did not take more than a pair of open gullwing doors and an impromptu V10 concerto to pull a very mixed crowd of scantily dressed ladies and chain-smoking scarfaces who probably never take off their sunglasses and the shiny jewellery.
No, there was no LFA customer in sight because Lexus screened all interested parties before they allowed them to sign a two-year lease contract. When it expires, the 500 lucky few will be allowed to purchase the vehicle, a move which may delay grey market action, but it won´t prevent it. There might be the odd drug baron and the occasional Lolita merchant among the 5000 or so SLS clients Mercedes intends to serve each year, but since the car is sold out globally until the end of 2011, early delivery from an independent dealer costs up to €40K extra even if you can flash an Organised Crime membership card.
Before we headed for the hotel at 4.30am, we took every opportunity to try and evaluate, to test and savour, to sample and then decide. What would I buy if I had the means and the choice – the 560bhp Lexus or the 571bhp Mercedes?
The LFA is a limited-edition high-tech and high-mech item, heart-stoppingly pretty and very nicely put together, a puristic street racer for track days and early Sunday mornings. The SLS is a powerboat for the road, a mighty mauler which evokes fond memories of a glorious past, a surprisingly practical and highly visible tool for the dedicated driver.
Both cars are honest and straightforward, classy and competent, intriguing in the way they present themselves and perform, pleasantly free of gimmicks and tweaks, dynamically focused and deeply rewarding. The final choice could be down to personal preferences and subjective impressions. Like the more modern Lexus exterior and interior, or the more practical packaging of the Mercedes.
But as it should be the case when you compare two so evenly matched machines, the true decider hides beneath skin. The LFA is let down by
its weak clutch and the automated transmission, and it is, albeit to a lesser extent, handicapped by the need to rev its melodious engine
to a plateau where it burns even more fuel than the much more relaxed bigger-bore V8. In all other departments, it´s a very close shave.
I could quite easily live with the less compliant suspension, and if this was toy number six or seven, even the high-revving engine would
not matter that much. But the clutch does, because it is at odds with what the halo car of the brand should deliver: ultimate quality in
every respect. The SLS on the other hand establishes a credible link to its maker´s F1 and DTM efforts. And it proves, 56 years after the original gullwing and only weeks after the demise of the ill-fated SLR, that Mercedes still knows how to make a supercar.