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The Lexus LF-LC. (ADAM_CAMPBELL/Toyota)
The Lexus LF-LC. (ADAM_CAMPBELL/Toyota)

Brand Strategy

Toyota's new mantra: Big, bold, fresh and fun Add to ...

Ray Tanguay looks a lot like a youngster on Christmas morning as he walks about the Lexus LF-LC concept, describing its features and extolling the virtues of its design.

“We had our (U.S) dealer meeting here and we told them we’d be cutting their margins this year and then at the very end we showed them this. They were really excited; it was the right way to end the meeting,” says the senior managing officer at Toyota Motor Corp., the Canadian who is the most senior non-Japanese in the entire company.

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“This” is what you might call a look into the future of design at Lexus. The futuristic two-plus-two hybrid sports coupe was created by Toyota’s Calty design studio in Southern California and while a “real” production version would be more down to earth, Tanguay and Lexus officials at this year’s Detroit auto show say this concept continues the design transformation started with the CT200h hybrid and the upcoming 2012 Lexus GS sedan.

The smart money is on something very much like the front-engine, rear-drive hybrid LF-LC rolling into showrooms in the next couple of years. It’s needed. Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand, does not have anything like it in the current lineup and nothing has been announced, either. If Toyota needed a nudge to pull the trigger on a production decision, Acura, Honda’s premium brand, said it will produce a roadworthy version of the NSX concept shown in Detroit – and it would likely be a direct rival to a real-world LF-LC.

The buzz says Lexus might produce the LF-LC on a shortened version of the platform of the next-generation LS sedan. That itself would be smart use of resources. And who wouldn’t like to see some of this car’s design elements – the massive rear vents framed by LED tail lamps, the mesh grille, the carbon fibre steering wheel, the dual display screens in the cabin. It’s hot and bold and says a lot about what Toyota wants Lexus to become.

Big, bold, fresh and fun are things Toyota wants not only for Lexus, but for the entire company and its products. Toyota has endured a brutal three years, but 2011 might have been the worst of them all. Toyota had been the world’s largest auto maker by sales between 2008 and 2010, but for 2011 General Motors reclaimed the No. 1 crown. Disruptions to Toyota’s operations resulting from the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as well as flooding in Thailand later in the year, cut into its sales for 2011.

Few were surprised in late December when Moody’s Investors Service cut Toyota and its affiliates' credit rating outlook to negative from stable. Moody’s is concerned that Japan’s strong currency, the yen, may delay Toyota’s profit margin recovery. The auto maker’s rating could be reduced if it is unable to implement steps to restore profitability, Moody’s said in a statement.

Toyota officials say they are taking those steps and fast. The company plans to increase sales by 20 per cent from 2011 to a record 8.48 million units in 2012. Toyota’s previous sales record was 8.43 million units in 2007. Naturally, that means a flood of new Toyota, Lexus and Scion models is heading to dealer showrooms. Think of the LF-LC as a tease, but the real show is about to start.

Perhaps the best expression of that in terms of a production model is the upcoming Scion FR-S. The 200-horsepower, rear-drive sports car will also help spice up the Toyota brand – it will be known as the Toyota 86 in markets outside North America. In Tokyo in December, Toyota president Akio Toyoda said the FR-S/86 is an example of a car with an emotional presence, one that inspires drivers. More “fun-to-drive” Toyotas are coming.

“Personally, I love the smell of petrol and the sound of an engine, so I hope that this type of vehicle never disappears,” Toyoda told reporters at the Tokyo Motor Show. “I hope that motor vehicles will continue to provide dreams and inspiration to people for all eras. I believe that if it is not fun, it is not a car.”

The FR-S is the product of a joint project with Fuji Heavy Industries, which makes Subarus. The Subie version will be called the BRS and production of both begins in the spring. Pricing has not been announced. But expect it to be affordable for recent university graduates.

The FR-S is unlike anything in the current Toyota/Lexus/Scion lineup: a long nose, short deck sports car with nimble handling, a low centre of gravity, no fancy electronic control systems and no turbochargers. Toyota says the ride can be customized and tuned easily for car buffs, but not with computer chips, but basic mechanical modifications. Toyoda himself has followed development closely.

With a four-cylinder engine and seating for four (although that’s one cramped back seat) the car is a nod to the popular AE86 line of Corolla-based sports cars of the 1980s. Thus, the name 86.

But more than being a nod to Toyota’s history, the FR-S, said Toyoda in Tokyo, is proof that Toyota is “committed to making cars that will evoke this feeling of ‘fun to drive, again’ in as many people as possible. …This is Toyota’s declaration.”

Ray Tanguay, swiftly moving about that LF-LC concept at the Detroit auto show, certainly looked like he was having fun showing me all the design and technical elements of what surely must morph into a production car within a couple of years. It could very well be that Toyota is poised for some serious fun with new models and that should concern all the company’s rivals.

Lexus plans

Industry sources say Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand, is preparing to launch a barrage of new or updated products in the coming year.

The goal is to move Lexus in a sportier direction with more emotionally charged vehicles. A new Lexus GS luxury car is the first of those new models coming to Canada in just weeks and that model is aiming to go head-to-head with the likes of BMW’s 5-Series, the Audi A6 and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

Lexus certainly is interested in expanding the success of the CT hybrid, an entry-level model that has received pretty positive reviews. A car-based utility vehicle might also be in the works as Lexus phases out body-on-frame trucks, replacing them with car-based SUVs.

The most immediate news is about the GS 350 and GS 450h sport sedans, though there is also talk of F-Sport variations of existing models and that is at least as intriguing. Also slated for updates are the ES 350, IS 250 and 350 and LS 460 and 600h. Lexus appears ready to refresh the LX SUV this year, too.

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