Photo: The CT 200h plays a starring role at Lexus in the 2010–2011 auto show season, and may prove to be an exemplar for a renewed lineup focused on performance and efficiency alike.
By Steve P., Club Lexus Editor
With 2010 in the history books, a new calendar year has arrived and the auto show season is already in full swing. Lexus USA gave us a taste of its present direction at the Los Angeles Auto Show this last November, setting the tone for subsequent events in the new year. It was in the City of Angels that the marque put its finest on display, in a metropolis that celebrates the automobile, and at a show that holds key memories for Lexus: in 1988, the first teaser images of the LS 400 were shown here; more recently, the third generation RX debuted here. This latest exhibition served as a snapshot in time, as it were, of Lexus’ past, present, and future.
As in recent years, the Lexus exhibit consisted of a largely open floor plan, with a walled backdrop. Past displays incorporated an inset video screen, but this time the entire wall became a digital canvas, alternating images of vehicle silhouettes with botanical splendor and feats of modern architecture (among them I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid and Valencia, Spain’s Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències). Touchstone phrases (“artful”, “provocative”, “quality”) defining the luxury marque appeared regularly. The video motif was more international than nation-specific, a stylistic theme stemming from Lexus’ history–the marque has usually presented a subtle rather than overtly Japanese character. The constant stream of changing colors and images lent a welcome dynamism to the Lexus exhibit, setting it apart from its rivals.
The arrangement of different Lexus models offered clues to the brand’s direction and customer goals. Roughly four rows of vehicles defined the exhibit: at the front, hybrid vehicles of modified (LSh, GSh, HSh) and production (RXh, CTh) varieties, followed by members of the IS line (IS F, IS C, IS 350 F-Sport), then the LFA and LS flagships, and at the back wall, the luxury utility vehicles (LX, GX, RX) along with the ES. For 2011, U.S. production vehicles no longer feature the ‘Lexus’ name badge on the trunklid, but still display the marque’s Circle-L emblem and model designation.
With customized hybrids perched at the exhibit’s fore and the CTh and LFA on turntables, a dominant theme was the intersection of alternative energy and performance. The newest Lexus model, the CT 200h, glowered against its own sparsely-lit “Darker Side of Green” cityscape backdrop. This compact hybrid is evidently being marketed at a different sort of Lexus customer: younger, urban, and more sport-oriented. With a new body style and athletic personality that is garnering favorable reviews, the CTh appears ready to win them over, and many Club Lexus members have been eager to judge for themselves.
The black CTh display, set apart from its bright surroundings, suggested that the model is a departure from the norm for Lexus. And yet, throughout the exhibit there were further signs of the brand’s performance shift. The presence of the production IS 350 F-Sport and LS Sport models, not to mention the IS F, all signaled Lexus’ move in the driving enthusiast’s direction. The LFA gleamed under spotlights, with the accompanying moniker, “Powerful. Progressive. Performance.” However, the production GS was absent (although a modified 0-60 Magazine example was shown), leaving one to wonder when the fourth generation will appear to broaden Lexus’ embrace of the passionate driver.
In recent years, Lexus’ U.S. auto show displays have alternated between hybrid (RXh) and performance (LFA) themes, providing a startling contrast; this latest exhibit brought about a much-needed convergence. While there still remains a significant gulf between the efficiency-focused Lexus hybrids (with better fuel consumption and lower emissions than same-class rivals) versus hard-core performance vehicles like the LFA (whose chief engineer says has only one environmental feature, its weight), the gap appears to be narrowing further with the CT 200h. As the marque becomes largely hybrid-focused in Europe and caters to strong Japanese hybrid demand, Lexus’ commitment to the gasoline-electric vehicles has grown; hopefully they will deliver on their promise to have some fun along the way.
The presence of custom modified hybrids further emphasized Lexus’ point that hybrid frugality and sporty aspirations may not be mutually exclusive. Previously unique to Lexus’ U.S. show displays, custom vehicles in the vein of the VIP Auto Salon LS 600h L have begun appearing at Lexus exhibitions in Australia and Japan, but are still seldom present at the marque’s exhibitions in Europe and other Asian regions. Their inclusion is an intriguing idea, serving to add novelty in years when Lexus has few new vehicles or concepts to showcase. The question remains however whether these unique one-off models can translate to more enthusiast-friendly production cars, for which the answer is eagerly awaited.
Comparing the Lexus exhibit with its top-tier rivals, conveniently adjacent at the 2010 exhibition, also provided insights. In contrast with the colorful video wall and circular CTh enclosure used at the Lexus display, the Mercedes-Benz exhibit was more angular, with geometric set pieces; the BMW display had wood surfaces and hanging video screens; and the Audi showcase featured a raised onyx floor and an ovoid ceiling enclosure. Each communicated a distinct blend of luxury, technology, and performance. The Lexus display held its own alongside this esteemed company, with an added touch of hospitality–ranging from the helpful Lexus Concierge desk to the comfortable cubist rest benches, reminiscent of Taste of Lexus events. Any cutbacks for economic concerns, if at all (live web cams, glass waterfalls, and more complex set pieces were not to be found), were aptly compensated by the video backdrop, iPad displays, and 3D kiosks. As a whole, the Lexus exhibit exuded a warm and inviting atmosphere, presenting the brand as intelligent and sophisticated.
The past year has seen Lexus go through many highs and unprecedented lows, challenging the brand’s core strengths. Stiff headwinds remain on the economic front, the line has had to weather multiple recalls, many models are past the midpoint in their production cycles, and the competition is fiercer than ever. However, as displayed on the auto show floor, the new CT 200h further establishes Lexus as the leader in luxury hybrids, the bread-and-butter RX, ES, and IS lines remain standard-setting entrants in their respective classes, the LS and other models continue to embody Lexus perfectionism, and the LFA stands as a tremendous exclamation mark on what the brand can do. Moreover there is a substantial reservoir of goodwill and trust built over two decades with loyal Lexus customers, many of whom are Club Lexus members.
Ultimately, the Lexus display at the latest Los Angeles Auto Show demonstrated a marque that is not standing still. Lexus is evolving, transforming in its never-ending “Pursuit of Perfection.” Year-upon-year changes show a company that is listening and adapting. Powerful hybrids have become increasingly fuel-efficient and sporty performance hybrids; optional accessory parts have turned into full F-Sport production vehicles; L-finesse designs have transformed sheet metal; and the Enform and Remote Touch systems set a new standard in cabin infotainment. While forthcoming redesigns and new models will be key to the marque’s long-term fortunes, these incremental updates, new options, and technological advancements may be just as vital.
In 2009, Toshio Furutani, Senior Managing Director at Lexus’ global headquarters, stated that the marque aimed to provide “Progressive Luxury”, defined as:
“a type of luxury that doesn’t stand still or rely on heritage to define its products and services. Rather, it seeks to demonstrate unique and leading edge solutions to meet the needs of the affluent buyer.”
This brand philosophy appears to be a case in point of turning a perceived shortcoming, a limited history, into a strength, by becoming more dynamic and innovative. It also puts rivals on notice–marketing nostalgia is not enough. In this decade, the “Progressive Luxury” theme seems set to be even more central to the Lexus ethos as “Make the Most of Every Moment” has been in years past. As Lexus moves into 2011 and beyond, owners and fans can look forward to seeing this spirit of change come to fruition.
Thanks to Lexus and the LA Auto Show
for their support and staging the event, with sincere appreciation to colleagues at Club Lexus. Special appreciation for the assistance of parent company