2013 Lexus ESh (David Dewhurst/Toyota)

Renewing the brand

The new face of Lexus

NEWBERG, ORE. — Special to The Globe and Mail

The redesigned 2013 ES 350 and ES 300h hybrid is the latest new model in Lexus’ product offensive.

We’ve seen and driven the redesigned GS sedan, both V-6 and hybrid; it came in the spring. The RX SUV – the only Lexus built outside of Japan, though the hybrid version remains a Japan-only product because of quality concerns – has been given a facelift. Next up is a reinvented IS 250/350 lineup of sedans and we’re assuming convertibles, followed by a totally new LS large sedan, both hybrid and gasoline versions. A mid-cycle change to the LX 570 SUV is due, also.

Lexus, the luxury brand of an increasingly aggressive Toyota Motor over all, is in the midst of a serious product offensive – nine new or refreshed models in 2012 alone, says Sandy Di Felice, the public affairs director at Toyota Canada. She says each of the new models “must” push Lexus to a place where the brand is seen by the public as “bold, emotional and expressive.”

If you know your Lexus history, you can see the enormity of the task. This is a massive shift Lexus is trying to execute and it will not happen overnight.

For 22 years in Canada and 23 in the United States, Lexus has been first about bulletproof quality, second about luxury at two-thirds the price of comparable models from the big German trio – BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi – and third, deliciously cushy customer service.

But last year Lexus lost the U.S. luxury sales crown to BMW and Mercedes for the first time in more than a decade and sales in Canada were down 6.2 per cent, according to DesRosiers Automotive Reports. A largely aging lineup was one issue, but an even bigger problem for Lexus had to do with inventories limited by the earthquake in Japan.

The made-in-Japan ES was especially hard hit. Sales in 2011 were down about 30 per cent, to less than 3,000 cars. Not good, not for what has been the best-selling passenger car in the Lexus Canada fold for the past five years. (The ES, says Lexus Canada director Larry Hutchinson, accounts for one in four Lexus sales, further underscoring the importance of this car.) To change the fortunes of the ES and all its models, in fact, Lexus is completely reinventing the look of Lexus.

The LF-LC concept unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January signalled where Lexus is going design-wise is pretty explicit terms. “Most noticeable is its bold interpretation of the spindle grille – the new face of Lexus,” Di Felice says, adding “Other cues include the L-shaped daytime running light pattern” and “the extensive use of glass to create a spacious cabin.”

And another thing. Lexus, like all of Toyota is doubling down on hybrids, as the LF-LC also underscored with “a powertrain built around the Lexus Hybrid Drive to deliver advanced performance, remarkable fuel efficiency and minimal emissions. The LF-LC story is the story of the new look of Lexus,” says Di Felice.

Personally, for a design language intended to express the lightness of hybrids, the look seems a bit on the heavy side. The weight of the designs based on the LF-LC concept seems to have been pushed low to the ground. Artistic considerations aside, the new designs suggest deep changes are afoot at Lexus. Lexus wants to pull in younger customer with a combination of bold designs, earth-friendly and performance-oriented engineering and a bevy of upscale features.

If Lexus succeeds, that’s how you’ll see the brand a few years from now – as a line of luxury cars that look lovely, drive beautifully and perform flawlessly. The flawless part we all get, or at least most of us. Last week, ALG released the results of its latest U.S.-based Perceived Quality Study, which ranks volume brands and luxury brands based on how the public perceives them. Lexus, with a score of 85.4, led the luxury brands for the second straight time, ahead of three German brands – Mercedes, 82.9; BMW, 81.5; and Porsche, 80. (Honda led volume brands with a score of 81.3, while Toyota was second at 80.1.)

Lexus has the bulletproof piece in hand, as the study shows. The real question is, will this latest design and engineering approach expressed in the new-model blitz – including the 2013 ES – work to bring in younger buyers and more of them?

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