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What was Toyota thinking with a $400K car?

Image: Lexus LFA
OK, so the Lexus LFA is pretty awesome. But the world’s No. 1 automaker should be focusing on other things.Lexus
/ Source: The Big Money

By now, we should all be familiar with Toyota’s woes. No sooner did the automaker finally ascend to the No. 1 global spot, displacing General Motors, than it began to hit speedbumps and potholes. There were historic financial losses, lawsuits, and embarrassing, tragic recalls. At one point, it was widely believed that Toyota could do no wrong. All of a sudden, it could do no right.

So last week’s Tokyo Motor Show, by all rights, should have set up as an opportunity for Toyota to redeem itself in its own backyard. Along with Honda and Nissan, Japan’s two other big carmakers, Toyota had the place to itself — the grim story of the Tokyo show, traditionally a forum for exotic roll-outs of concept cars, was that few international automakers would be spending the money to make the trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Still, there was the usual peppy, multicolored, futuristic zaniness that is the TMS. Unfortunately, Toyota did little to offer a redefinition of itself in the face of its recent troubles. True, there was a new/old sports-car concept, as well as an electric-car prototype. But the company made the decision to use the Tokyo Show to showcase something that’s arguably the last thing that Toyota needs right now: a 500-600 horsepower supercar, designed to match wheels with Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

It’s called the LFA , and Toyota has badged it — and I’m not kidding here — as a Lexus. That’s right, the preferred brand of Midwestern dentists and junior-grade Hollywood agents will no longer be limited to lushly quiet luxury sedans and mellow crossover SUVs for the soccer moms of northeastern New Jersey. Now Lexus will have a V-10 powered, two-door rocket sled that can tackle Germany’s famous Nurburgring test track in less than eight minutes. The car blogs have been strenuously agog over this impressive piece of mega-car-ness for a while now, but the Tokyo show provided the opportunity to spend most of last week considering the LFA in granular detail.

How did this monumental expression of ego manage to emanate from the staid environs of Toyota City? It’s the pet project of Akio Toyoda, grandson of Toyota’s founder, and, as of earlier this year, the company’s president. It was rumored that the LFA would be put on hold for a while, given the global financial crisis, some needed performance tweaks, the auto industry meltdown, and the fact that it will sell for close to $400,000. But Akio Toyoda, who has a jones for speed and apparently doesn’t fully embrace the idea that Toyota should be best-known for building the greatest 4-cylinder, 170-horsepower family sedan on planet Earth, felt otherwise.

An obvious complaint emerges: If Toyota can’t even engineer a safe and functional floor mat, what in the world is it doing proclaiming itself a player in the highly esoteric supercar market? Most years, the LFA would come off as an flamboyant sideshow, a little catnip for the fanboys and the ultra-enthuasiasts, a salvo fired in the general direction of Maranello and the prancing stallion. This year, with the auto industry experiencing its worst sales in decades, the LFA looks more like a grand folly, the kind of arrogant gesture made by a car company that has lost its way.

OK, the LFA is, by all preliminary accounts, a spectacularly good machine. But really, that’s to be expected. It’s not as if anyone would imagine Toyota building a bad supercar (and that’s now a theoretical exercise, because Toyota has built an awesome supercar). The issue is: Why would Toyota choose this moment to show the world what it’s been cooking up in its automotive skunkworks? This is a conservative organization that has methodically become the carmaker that everyone trusts, the carmaker to whose management and manufacturing practices all others are supposed to aspire. And yet the takeaway from the Tokyo Motor Show is that Toyota has focused heart and head on the very definition of a niche product.

The LFA probably was supposed to rescue the Tokyo Motor Show, at some level, so Toyota can at least be given credit for that. But if the automaker’s luck doesn’t change, further spectacles like this are only going to provide more fuel to the new Toyota doubters. There are still plenty of car shows left this year and next to change the message. But for the moment, Toyota looks as if it's jumping the shark.