TOYOTA CITY, Japan -- The soaring Japanese yen has killed any hope of launching a variant of the money-losing, carbon-fiber Lexus LFA sports car, at least for now, Toyota Motor Corp. officials say.
When the last $375,000 LFA was built here Dec. 14, Toyota was left with a very costly and sophisticated -- yet nearly idle -- carbon-fiber factory.
Now, engineers are looking for ways to repurpose the plant and channel the company's newfound carbon-fiber expertise into other products. For the first time, Toyota is planning to use the expensive, high-tech material in a car besides the LFA.
In October 2010, Toyota opened the carbon-fiber plant inside its Motomachi complex to make jet-black, superstrong yet lightweight carbon-fiber components for the LFA. About 65 percent of the LFA's body, by weight, is carbon fiber.
Since the first LFA was built on Dec. 15, 2010, observers have speculated that Lexus would follow the initial limited edition of 500 vehicles with another car, perhaps a roadster.
The LFA was never expected to turn a profit. It was envisioned as a halo car to show that Lexus engineering could compete in the rarified supercars league.
Midway through development, the chief engineer, Haruhiko Tanahashi, ditched plans for an aluminum body, opting instead for carbon fiber, a swap that assured the car's stratospheric cost base.
"At one time, there were informal talks about another project to follow here after the current LFA project finishes," one Toyota official, who declined to be named, said during a visit to the workshop while the LFA was still being painstakingly hand-assembled there. "But the current business environment is too poor."
The main problem: the yen's strength.
When the project was authorized for commercialization in November 2005, the yen stood at 118 to the dollar. When the production version was shown at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 2009, the dollar had fallen to 89 yen. Since then, the rising yen has spiraled as high as 75 to the dollar, though it has settled recently at around 85 yen. That level represents a roughly 30 percent swing in currency rates, all to the negative as far as Toyota is concerned and compounding losses for the made-in-Japan car.
Still, Toyota says its carbon-fiber experiment can pay off because know-how gained on the LFA can be applied elsewhere. Aside from making spare parts for the LFA, the in-house mill will soon start pressing carbon fiber for other models.
Those carbon-fiber components are expected to show up in other products in the Lexus and Toyota lineups.
But that hasn't happened yet. The LFA is currently the only Toyota or Lexus car that uses carbon fiber. And Toyota would not identify any other Lexus vehicle that is slated to get carbon-fiber components.
Automakers are increasingly considering carbon fiber -- particularly for hoods, roofs, trunk lids and aerodynamic parts such as spoilers -- as an option as they seek to cut weight from vehicles to boost fuel economy. The material is stronger and lighter than steel. The LFA's carbon-fiber body weighs just 193 kilograms, or 425 pounds.
But it is also extremely expensive. Cost relegates it mostly to the league of exotic sports cars. If more manufacturers used carbon fiber, the cost would come down. But until the price comes down, they won't widely use it.
Toyota approached carbon-fiber production as it has other manufacturing technologies: It brought the process in-house to see whether the famed Toyota Production System could eke out efficiencies.