Lexus is throwing itself a bit of a party. And who can really blame the automaker? After all, this year marks 30 since the brand made its debut, though just 29 since it arrived in Canada. So Lexus gave us an extensive presentation of where it's come from – and then one to show where it's going. Here's a look at Lexus milestones, and where the future will take Toyota's upscale brand.
In the 1980s, Toyota was a massive force in the industry, building a reputation for reliability and selling ever more cars. But as buyers moved through the lineup, from Tercel to Camry, there was no model to follow buyers who wanted to move higher on the automotive food chain to the luxury car. If they wanted a premium badge, the choices were German or American.
"We need something bigger, and we need it today," said Norman Lean, then Toyota USA COO.
Toyota President Eiji Toyoda got behind the idea, and when your name is on the building that means you've got a lot of sway. So the Circle F project started, as Toyota's attempt at a luxury flagship.
The target for lead engineer Ichiro Suzuki was a car that could hit 250 km/h, 10.5 L/100 km, 58 dB at 100 km/h, with a drag coefficient of 0.28. Of course, those figures were all picked to be better than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or BMW 7 Series.
Lexus, though that name hadn't arrived yet, called it their "yet" philosophy. Better handling, yet comfortable. Fast, yet fuel efficient. Very quiet, yet lightweight. You get the picture.
The company says that internally, only a few thought that they could hit the targets. They built more than 450 prototypes, covered more than 4.3 million kilometres, and had more than 1,400 engineers on the project.
On the marketing side, Toyota execs needed to find out who the target customer was. What they needed to do was give this luxury sedan the best shot at success.
So it was time for a new dealer network. New sales channels, new showrooms. A new name.
For the showrooms, the new company looked for owners who had high satisfaction scores from their existing franchises, and who were very hands-on with their stores. Lexus Communications general manager Brian Bolain told us that some of these were third-generation Cadillac dealers, and even Rolls-Royce store owners.
Former Lexus exec Dave Illingworth said, "Back in the '80s, there was a sense that the dealerships didn't really care about the customers. It was talk –but it wasn't really put forward in action. And all of us felt a responsibility as we work with Japan, and Mr. Suzuki, the chief engineer. The car – when you watch the effort the engineers and the company, were putting in this car – we had to put the same effort back at the retail level in this country, taking care of the customers.
"So when we selected our original dealers, we spent a lot of time going over how they handled customers and their present dealerships."
There were more than 219 names for the brand put forward, with "Alexis" being the most popular. But nobody involved had apparently remembered that Alexis was the name of a villain on the then-popular primetime show Dallas.
So they softened the name to Lexus, which was almost immediately challenged. Legal research system Lexis said nope, that's too close, just weeks before the 1989 Detroit Auto Show reveal.
Since Lexus is still, well, Lexus, you can guess how that court case ended.
The LS 400 that launched is now legendary. And Lexus gave us the chance to drive it during the same event. While the car was a hit, Lexus soon had a big hurdle to climb: a recall. There were a couple of small problems reported: a failure of the cruise control to shut off, some warping of the third brake light cover, and a connection that caused the battery to drain.
All 8,000 LS 400 models sold were recalled, before a government investigation (usually how a recall begins) had even started.
Lexus handled this recall like no other. Owners more than 300 km from a dealer had their cars picked up. All got a full tank and a clean car upon return. The automaker calls that omotenashi, a Japanese word that translates to "hospitality". It means anticipating customer needs to give them a better experience. It's part of the company's operating philosophy.
Since then, Lexus has brought other similarly disrupting vehicles to market. The RX 300 wasn't the first crossover, or the first luxury SUV, but it blended luxury car and crossover in a way that hit the market like nothing before. That RX launched the first luxury gas-electric hybrid, in 2005.
That's the Lexus past. So what about the Lexus future?
First, look at the Lexus transition from comfy cruiser to sporting intent. Moving from the classic Cadillac end of the spectrum to something a little more BMW. That's best shown with the F-Sport trims and the ever-expanding spindle grille.
Bolain told us at dinner that the average Lexus buyer in the US and Europe (and Canada) is around 62. In the rest of the world, where the brand is growing most quickly, it's more like 35. Typical IS buyers are in their 20s, decades younger than BMW 3 Series'. So don't expect sporty Lexus to go away anytime soon – most likely, it'll be the opposite.
Chief designer Koichi Suga talked about the evolution of Lexus design and how they wanted to appeal to a new generation of customers. He said that they knew Lexus cars were "not quite so expressive. Some could even say 'boring'." So they set out to design "cars that make you say 'Wow!'"
Now, they set out to create dynamic and expressive cars. With "seamless anticipation". Look more closely at the spindle grille, which has actually been evolving since 2005, and see that on the latest models it carries from the nose, over the hood and roof, and even through the tail. Much more cohesive than it seems at first glance. It's definitely more expressive. And less boring. Suga calls it "incisive simplicity".
The design of the latest RX was actually initially refused by Akio Toyoda for not being bold enough. The RX we got is certainly bold.
Today, sales of the NX and RX make up 54 percent of Lexus sales. They expect the UX to add around 10–15 percent to that crossover ratio. The brand is also expecting to sell 30 percent hybrids in calendar year 2019.
Which makes it no surprise that the automaker will be bringing a new small crossover-like hatchback concept to the Tokyo Motor Show in October. They briefly showed us a sketch of the car, and while my art skills can't reproduce it, this was a very sleek-looking concept. With what appeared to be a two-door body, it featured a spindle grille that encompassed the entire nose – what might be the ultimate evolution of that grille.
The new, yet unnamed model, is set to be an electric, part of a massive new plan to increase electrification. That means by 2025, they want every model to have an electric or electrified variant. That could be a full EV, a plug-in hybrid, or a fuel cell model. Lexus is also hoping to offer an electronic axle, with individual in-wheel motors to increase agility. Though for now, it's just a concept.
Lexus Chief Engineer Koji Sato talks about five new types of luxury. The luxury of "Me", where the consumer focuses on wellness. The luxury of "We", which is the effect of the sharing economy on luxury. The luxury of "Real", where real experiences are becoming replaced by digital experiences, with things like VR and social media. The luxury of "Time", as minutes can't be bought. Finally, the luxury of "Choice", as buyers develop new and increased expectations.
Lexus says to expect change in the next 10 years that rivals that of the last 100. Sato says the company will leverage its design and brand to adapt to this moving world. Evolving new capabilities and experiences to suit changing luxury needs. "The challenge for Lexus is to find new ways to offer these technologies that remain uniquely aligned with the brand."
Sato also announced that in 2020, the company would launch what it calls the ultimate highway teammate: a Level 2 semi-autonomous driver aid system. "Ensuring that the Lexus autonomous experience will be as amazing as when the driver has hands on the wheel."
Lexus is also working on vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. More than 500,000 Lexus vehicles currently have the necessary hardware. And they're prepared to implement the technology, which can increase safety and efficiency. Lexus is currently working with other automakers to implement a standard way to communicate before turning it on.