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Toyota pumping passion into Lexus

AP

The 2013 GS is 'the first car to wear the new face of Lexus,' said Akio Toyoda, CEO of Lexus' parent Toyota.

By Paul A. Eisenstein

What do you do with an old car? If you’re Lexus, you don’t send it to the scrapyard.

The luxury carmaker recently decided to ask a group of leading-edge designers what they could come up with using old parts from the automaker’s CT 200h -- a compact hybrid.

Fashion-forward Moss Lipow transformed a transmission starter and exhaust manifold into the “Environmental Crown of Virtue,” while Alejandro Ingelmo’s Luna Shoes were stitched together from the car’s armrest leather and plastic tubing.

You likely won’t find these fashion spin-offs in your local mall, but Lexus does plan to feature the results of the fashion project in a new ad series set to appear in Vogue magazine. It’s all part of the automaker’s critical campaign to pump some passion into the normally staid Lexus brand.

Once seen as a serious challenger to the established luxury automotive order -- and until recently the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. -- Lexus has its work cut out for it, company officials admit.

Lexus

Moss Lipow's 'Environmental Crown of Virtue' uses a transmission starter and exhaust manifold gasket.

The Lexus brand has developed a reputation for solid, albeit often boring products, industry analyst George Peterson, of AutoPacific, warns. As a result, the average age of the vehicle’s buyers has risen steadily into the 60s as younger, hipper customers turn to other more motivating car brands.

“Today, buyers in the midsize luxury segment want a more engaging driving experience,” Lexus Group’s Vice President Mark Templin said during an interview following a recent media drive of the second-generation, 2013 Lexus GS.

The mid-range sedan -- which goes up against the likes of the BMW 5-Series, the Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz’s E-Class -- is so critical to the company’s success that Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Lexus’ parent company Toyota, took on the assignment himself when the 2013 GS was first unveiled during the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance last August.

“This is the first car to wear the new face of Lexus,” Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota’s founder, proclaimed. But the new sedan is more than just a new styling exercise, he added. It’s the result of an intensive effort to get more in touch with the brand’s customers and, as such, Lexus “is leading the way in how the entire Toyota Motor Company should operate,” Toyoda emphasized.

The new design language, dubbed L-Finesse, is aimed at responding to criticism that dates back to the 1989 launch of Lexus and says the car’s styling is derivative -- essentially, a copy of what its European rivals were doing.

To help give Lexus a more distinctive shape, Toyota has started out by giving the brand’s vehicles both more independence and more resources, including its own design and engineering operations.

And if the shape of future products are to be unique to the brand, Lexus will also try to ensure that its approach to performance and technology are equally distinctive.

The car maker was the first in the luxury segment to put a hybrid powertrain under its hood and now offers the high-mileage technology in nearly a half-dozen offerings. Lexus’ Templin has stressed a goal of eventually having hybrid variants for all Lexus product lines.

But while the base HS250h may focus on fuel economy, the hybrid version of the new GS -- the Lexus GS450h -- puts a premium on performance. It uses a combination V6 engine and electric drive to serve as an alternative to the more fuel-hungry V8s found in competing luxury sedans -- without sacrificing the car’s get-up-and-go.

There’ll also be a new GS350 F-Sport model that will use a V6 alone to launch from 0 to 60 in barely 5.5 seconds. Significantly, Lexus took the wraps off that version of the sedan at last month’s SEMA Show, an annual industry extravaganza in Las Vegas that focuses on passenger-car performance accessories.

Company officials hope the new products can counter recent setbacks to the Lexus brand that began in late 2009 when Toyota ordered a massive recall due to concerns about so-called runaway cars. The recall was triggered by a fiery Lexus crash that killed a California highway patrol officer and several family members.

Even though Toyota was cleared of a broader problem with sudden acceleration, the luxury carmaker was slammed by the aftershocks from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March. It is only now starting to rebuild dealer inventories after months of production cuts.

In the interim, Lexus’ competitors have cut ahead of it. The Japanese carmaker will be facing tougher competition going forward from brands as diverse as BMW, Cadillac and even Hyundai, which has a luxury product line growing to include the updated Genesis and new Equus premium luxury sedan.

For his part, Templin recently surprised observers by saying Lexus won’t try to keep up with its competitors, especially the Germans, who have been trying to fill every possible luxury niche. In particular, Lexus won’t move into the small near-luxury segments as Mercedes has with its A-Class.

“I don’t want an enormous model range,” even if that means sacrificing pieces of the luxury pie and, notably, losing some market share, he said.

“The [luxury market] pie will be divided into smaller pieces,” Templin predicted, but if Lexus can deliver a more passionate and distinctive product line, he continued, it expects it will still be able to remain a leader in the high-line segment.