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(Lynne Sladky/Lynne Sladky/AP)
(Lynne Sladky/Lynne Sladky/AP)

Brand Marketing

Lexus: looking for love Add to ...

I am doodling, scratching circles and designs and dots on a notepad. This while an excruciatingly earnest Toyota Canada engineer races through a precisely scripted presentation, one pregnant with technical details about the all-new 2012 Lexus GS series:

“… the new GS features an electronic power steering system or EPS …” doodle, doodle.

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“… has been optimized …” swirl, dot, dot, dot.

“…lateral rigidity of the mounting bushings… ” doodle, smiley face, circle, scrawl.

“...rack compliance… ” doodle.

“…EPS ECU works cooperatively with the various chassis dynamics ECUs…” dot, dot, dot, do, dot…

“…precisely provide various voltage levels…” doodle, swirl.

“optimize handing at speed or efforts during low speed manoeuvres.”

More caffeine, please.

There is a reason why Lexus ranks highest in dependability among all 32 brands in the latest long-term J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study or VDS: attention to detail. No, that’s damning Lexus with faint praise.

It’s more than mere attention to detail that has put Lexus atop the VDS since almost the day this study was invented (with the mainstream Toyota brand not far behind, year after year after year). We are talking about an unfathomable almost incomprehensible devotion to fine-tuning even the most minute, infinitesimal elements. Lexus was born with the tagline: “The relentless pursuit of perfection.” This nose-to-the-grindstone approach to making cars and selling is an apt description.

If you want a premium car that above all else won’t break, buy a Lexus. The research is all there to backstop your decision. The problem is, Lexus is trying to reinvent itself as more than the auto industry’s paragon of perfection, the supreme ruler of wringing out “things gone wrong.” As Toyota/Lexus Canada external affairs director Sandy Di Felice reads to us in measured tones, “This is a very exciting vehicle launch for us because it also launches a new chapter in the Lexus story.”

Late last year at the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda talked about this unfolding chapter at Lexus using the words “Waku Doki” to describe what he wanted from his engineers and designers as they fine-tuned the new GS. Translation: “heart pumping, adrenaline racing.”

“Toyoda-san,” says Di Felice, “demanded new levels of passion from the design and driving dynamics of the new GS.” At the same time, we should assume Toyoda made it clear he doesn’t want any slips in quality, durability and reliability – the pillars that drove Lexus to the top of the sales heap in North America as recently as 2010.

Since then, however, Lexus has been battered by reinvigorated competition from the German luxury makers – BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz – as well as self-inflicted wounds on the new-model front. Those wounds have cut even more deeply in the wake of unforeseen natural disasters in Japan (earthquake and tsunami) and Thailand (floods). Oh, and there was that little global recession.

From today until the end of 2012, however, Lexus plans to launch nine new or significantly updated models, starting with this new GS. As you would expect from Lexus (and Toyota) the way forward has been mapped out to the last, tiny spec.

Lexus, for instance, is going in a new design direction starting with the GS: “aggressive/passionate” and clean.

Every new Lexus going forward will have “emotionally intriguing performance” and “unparalleled driving pleasure.”

Innovation? New technology will be “intuitive” yet state-of-the-art. In particular, the Lexus types have zeroed in on refining comfort and maximizing safety.

A special package on the GS called “F-Sport” is intended to up the performance ante without punishing the enthusiastic driver with bone-crushing suspension settings that paralyze your spine when you roll over a manhole cover. And hybrids. For now, with the V-8 version of the GS gone, the fastest GS (0-100 km/h in 5.6 seconds) is the GS 450h hybrid.

All this and not a penny more from you. No, the story is even better. Lexus, says Di Felice and her colleagues, plans to offer more for less – less than in the past at Lexus and less than the German competition. In the case of the GS, that’s the BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Audi A6.

The GS “beats them all” on price while “going head-to-head” on performance, features, styling and innovation: $51,900 for the GS 350, $54,900 for the GS AWD (all-wheel-drive) and $64,650 for the GS 450h hybrid which is “a remarkable $12,000 less than the launch price of the GS hybrid it replaces and with more standard equipment,” says Di Felice.

Warren Orton, the sensible and unflappable company veteran who runs marketing at both Lexus and Toyota Canada, concedes the reality of where Lexus finds itself today. Sales were down 6.2 per cent last year in Canada and the United States. Lexus has lost the luxury sales crown it once held. To the Germans. As in Canada, BMW rules the luxury market in the United States.

The ideas behind this relaunch of Lexus, says Orton, come directly from Akio Toyoda himself. “He wants people to think about luxury and Lexus in the same breath. This car [the GS]and future models will reflect a new passion,” he says, before adding, “We need people to fall in love again with Lexus.”

But there’s no way to script a romance; it just happens. It just unfolds magically just as the stars align – or not. Falling in love is risky and very un-Lexus-like. It’s not quantifiable. No one swoons over a lover whose perfection is defined only by a lack of imperfections.

For Lexus to go full Waku Doki on us, those inside the company will need to throw away the script, strop reading the words of excitement, and instead live them – let emotion and intuition overwhelm reason and logic. If you’ve ever fallen madly in love, you’ll know we’re talking about something both terrifying and joyous, all at the same time.

I’ll stop doodling when they shred the script at Lexus and just let Waku Doki overwhelm them.

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