Much to the chagrin of his communications team, Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda came clean about his feelings on stage at the Detroit Auto Show this month: Lexus , the automaker’s upscale marque, hadn’t been cutting the mustard.
While he walked the grounds at the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2011, “you had some very good questions and candid comments for me about Lexus,” he told the overflow crowd in Detroit. “Actually, I happen to have a few with me. Here’s a good one: ‘My impression is that Lexus cars are well made but boring to drive.’ Here’s another: ‘Lexus should clearly define their brand.’ And finally: ‘Lexus is at a crossroads.’”
Toyoda, grandson of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda, said he took direct responsibility for the brand after that. Peering at the audience from behind black-rimmed glasses that are quickly becoming his signature (despite protests from the people who manage his wardrobe), he said, “I was determined to make sure we became a more emotional brand and that the words ‘boring’ and ‘Lexus’ never showed up in the same sentence again.”
Cue the lights, raise the curtain and sound the music: there, before the Detroit audience, sat a distinctly uncharacteristic Lexus, the sleek LC 500, a low-slung performance car slated to go on sale early next year for about $95,000.
“The LC 500 is what a more emotional Lexus looks like to me,” Toyoda said, “and I hope you will agree it is anything but boring.”
Powered by Lexus’ first 10-speed automatic transmission and a new rear-wheel drive platform, the LC 500 will carry Toyota’s 5.0-liter, all-aluminum V8 engine to deliver 467 horsepower. It will go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than four-and-a-half seconds.
When the inspiration for the LC 500, the athletic LF-LC concept, debuted on the same stage four years earlier to showcase Toyoda’s post-Pebble vision for the brand’s future, skeptics doubted Lexus would spend the resources to produce such an exciting car. After all, Lexus’ 552-hp V-10LFA supercar, priced starting at $375,000, went out of production after only two years.
But with an average owner age of 60, Lexus has a pressing need to court younger buyers through more exciting, performance-oriented cars. The brand has been playing catch up with BMW and Mercedes-Benz in recent years but is narrowing the gap. Lexus sold 344,601 cars last year, compared with 372,977 for luxury leader Mercedes and 346,023 for BMW.
Could the LC 500 finally pull Lexus ahead of its German competitors? It’s unlikely that the pricy car will sell on volume, but if Toyoda’s vision holds true, it will inspire other vehicles down the line.
Four years after walking the links at Pebble Beach, Toyoda stood next to the LC 500 in Detroit. “I can confidently say this is a brave new Lexus,” he said. “We want to make cars to fill people’s hearts.”