No matter how good its cars, Lexus has struggled to find its place as a brand since it was launched over 20 years ago. Now, however, it seems to have found the resolve to be the bold, confident, alternative brand it always should have been.
The paradox for Lexus is that to be a viable competitor to the established premium makes it needed to avoid trying to compete head-on. It cannot be a Mercedes, a BMW or an Audi, and being seen to try left it a me-too, a second-best. Lexus needed to see its newness as an advantage and to clearly state its position. But it still has an opportunity to create a brand around the current and future needs of the market, uncompromised by demands for high volumes. So it can be not only relevant but cutting-edge, daring and appealing on an emotional level.
Ironically, Lexus could always have been the independent-thinking person’s option. I was involved in the launch phase of the brand and its only launch product, the LS400 luxury car in the early-1990s. The economic downturn then meant the LS was a no-brainer boardroom option. Objectively as good in almost every respect as an S-Class, with astonishing refinement and a price about half that of the German car with equivalent equipment, it should have been the smart choice. But this wasn’t backed up emotionally or intellectually. And to the annoyance of the UK marketing department the company was inundated with requests for a tow-hook for customers’ caravans. Imagine that on an S-Class.
Now Lexus is adopting a more lateral approach. The strapline is ‘Creating Amazing’, and it’s aligning the brand with cutting-edge design, technology and creativity. The website is peppered with short films, videos referencing landscape and architecture, travelogue images, design objects, studies in motion.
This last element is significant as it’s reflected in the styling of the latest cars. Movement is embedded in the emerging Lexus design language, and nowhere more so than the ‘spindle’ grille on the new IS series and LF-CC concept. It’s a full-height design, framed by the bonnet panel and the front spoiler, but with a pinch in the sides about a quarter of the way down, where it sits noticeably forward of the rest of the grille. The effect is of a malleable surface being stretched in 3D, of natural energy and force, enhanced by the zigzag mesh being distorted above and below the pinch like a graphic illustrating space bending theory; think Audi grille redesigned by Stephen Hawking. It’s not a form we’re familiar with, so it jars at first. It’s not classical or beautiful but complex, innovative, even disruptive.
This IS is the first production iteration, but the super-sculpted LF-CC shows where Lexus will be in a couple of years or so. For the first time, Lexus styling will reflect the advanced technology of the company’s hybrid powertrains. Dynamic form will follow dynamic function.
Lexus has the assets to be a truly exciting brand, different from the German standard-bearers by design. To occupy its own space. To make you think. Which is what a Lexus should do.