Finessing Big Lex

Lexus redefines its defining model.

Image: lexusenthusiast
Image: lexusenthusiast

Almost twenty nine years ago, Toyota unveiled the Lexus LS 400 saloon, giving the European and US luxury car establishment the shock of their lives. That car, lovingly created by a skunkworks of Toyota’s brightest and best was beyond doubt the Honda NSX of luxury saloon cars. A gamechanger for the industry, a new benchmark.

A justified success in the US market, Lexus however struggled in Europe, where provenance, heritage and snob value mattered at least as much as outright ability and utter reliability. Toyota perhaps in retrospect made an error in clothing the LS400 in such a rationalist manner. While its styling appeared to reference the W126 Mercedes in its lack of expressive flourishes, it left customers with little to engage with.

Over the intervening decades, Lexus pursued this modus of styling rectitude for the LS model with increasingly diminishing returns, especially once Chris Bangle’s stylists changed the rules of engagement in 2001 with the E65 7 Series. Latterly, Lexus has changed course, electing to go radical, clearly taking the view that its better to be loved and detested in equal measure than to elicit almost universal ambivalence.

Since 2010, each successive Lexus model line has adopted the latest evolution of their ‘L Finesse’ design language, mating an increasingly large and more elaborate spindle shaped grille with a highly expressive lighting treatment. It’s Marmite styling writ with a spatula, but has certainly got them noticed.

The carmaker’s website describes it as follows. “Broad expanses of elegant bodywork flow into intriguing detail and dynamic changes of pace. Forthright boldness of expression fuses with compellingly poised composure. There is movement and, simultaneously, there is stillness. This is Intriguing Elegance.” Mind you, they also speak of ‘Incisive Simplicity’, and ‘Seamless Anticipation’, but it was all starting to get a bit Gorden Wagener for me so I was forced to stop.

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At this week’s Detroit motor show it’s the turn of their heartland model, the car Lexus hopes will reverse the model’s latterday slide towards irrelevance. Longer, wider and appreciably lower slung than the outgoing model, the new LS cleaves to industry norms in eschewing traditional calm formality for naked aggression and an athletic mien.

Amongst the notable departures from the outgoing model is the car’s semi-fastback silhouette, placing it closer to cars like the Porsche Panamera and Jaguar XJ than the more overtly three volume German rivals; a suggestion perhaps that Lexus is no longer gunning directly for the S-Class and its ilk, but slightly left of target.

Dominating the nose is the enormous and almost cartoonishly aggressive spindle grille flanked by z-shaped lamp units. The profile is rakish and dramatic, even if some of the surfacing points to Infiniti’s current signature styling language.

However, owing to the constraints surrounding the necessity in offering decent headroom within a notably lower profile, the roofline and shape of the DLO openings seem to be pulling in different directions. While the tail styling offers a softer appearance to that of lesser Lexi, there’s still a little too much going on here for comfort.

Viewed from certain angles, the styling effects have the intended effect, but overall, it appears as though Lexus’ designers got their elegant anticipation mixed up with their intriguing simplicity.

The interior styling is also something of a departure, Lexus benefiting from having no appreciable heritage to draw upon. Impeccable build has always been a given but design innovation hasn’t always been. However the LS 500’s sculpted dashboard is certainly more daring than any of its big name European rivals.

Customers will be able to choose between several different types of wood trim, ambient lighting is said to have been inspired by Japanese lanterns and the swooping door panels incorporate a ‘floating’ armrest. Twist knobs mounted on top of the instrument binnacle which select the drive and stability control modes are a reference to Lexus’s LFA. It’s all decadently plush and finely wrought, but I’m just not sure how restful it appears.

Power comes initially at least from an all-new, twin-turbocharged, direct-injected 3.5-litre V-6 engine, developing 415 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque in marked contrast to rival V8’s. Unsurprisingly, there will be no diesel power units on offer but a hybrid version is likely to be made available at some point. Air suspension is offered as an option, but whether comfort will be sacrificed on the altar of agility can probably be guessed at.

Not it's best angle is it? Image: lexusenthusiast
Not it’s best angle is it? Image: lexusenthusiast

Of course, once you get past debating the car’s aesthetic qualities, the only question really worth asking really is whether Toyota have called it correctly. It’s no longer enough for Lexus to sell strongly in the US, to the exclusion of everywhere else. In order to make such an expensive to develop model line pay, global success is required.

The risk for Lexus is that amidst the most conservative customer base of all, and against a zeitgeist of stultifying design conformity, they may be taking a similar route leftfield that Jaguar took with the current era XJ. (And that hasn’t gone well).

With the new LS 500, Lexus has achieved stand-out. But this car, on paper at least, speaks of capitulation to class norms more eloquently than any real attempt to realistically change the established order like its distant predecessor did all those years ago.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

15 thoughts on “Finessing Big Lex”

  1. 19 years ago, this would have appeared as a concept at a motor show. The media reaction would be: striking looks, but obviously a production version would look very different, as the concept is over 5m long and 2m wide. And the massive wheels will need to be toned down.

    Here, you can almost see the join where the roof has been raised to allow more rear seat headroom. This car’s relevance to Europe is surely very limited, given that it won’t fit in a standard parking space or garage.

  2. Yes, the styling is a dice roll for Lexus, but I have to say I like it. I certainly prefer it to the X351 XJ you reference, which can only be regarded as a misstep on a par with the XJS. Whether the Lexus can unseat the S-Class from its throne, I doubt it, but if Lexus get the basics right then it’s potentially a top three contender in a competitive segment.

  3. The bigger story for me is the revised Camry. Toyota are taking a huge gamble with that one, the potential volumes being that much bigger. And again, I have to say that I like what they’ve done. Interesting times for Toyota watchers.

  4. the exterior is hideous. it looks as if Lexus slapped its corporate front end into a Hyundai Azera.

    while the 1st-gen LS is arguably a bit charmless, its austerity has some appeal. the same can be said about the current-gen, albeit a bit charming. my fave Lexus saloon is hands down the GS – a car which proved you don’t have to go full “4-door-coupe” fashion to spice up a saloon.

  5. It’s the DLO that vexes me – it slopes down from the front to the point at which that rear ellipse starts to form. Like an Austin Montego …

    1. That roofline (visual crest above the rear passenger compartment, completely detached DLO shape) seems to be in the process of becoming a Lexus staple. That NX SUV is a car that still baffles me whenever I come across one. And yes, S.V., it’s interesting in the same vein as late David Bache output.

  6. The Hyundai Azera is a good comparison, although it would have to be said the Hyundai’s proportions are a little more harmonious than Big Lex. The LS’s styling direction looks to me like a tacit admission they are never going to unseat Mercedes. The 2005 GS could also be said to have been a precursor to this style, but again was carried out with a bit more (L?) finesse. Okay, I’ll stop this now…

  7. Until I saw the front I rather liked it. By which I mean that, although it is all a bit contrived, it is at least coherently contrived, unlike the work of the House Of Gorden which is disjointedly contrived. But that grille looks like something you’d toast crumpets on.

  8. “Broad expanses of elegant bodywork flow into intriguing detail and dynamic changes of pace. Forthright boldness of expression fuses with compellingly poised composure. There is movement and, simultaneously, there is stillness. This is Intriguing Elegance.”

    What a piece of meaningless garbage! Fluff like that are completely void of any meaning. Are people really paid to write shit like that? Can they even do it straight faced? “Yeah, I have this piece of corporate spin, I thought you could garnish it a little. Make it sound like we really have something!”

  9. Yes, but are the seat springs painted? CAR was amazed at the rusty seatsprings in the LS400 compared to the elegant painted ones in a Jag in their teardown 25 years ago. They decided it didn’t matter because nobody usually took seats apart to wonder. It was like a French car – only the surfaces that showed were finished. Very rational.

    As for this new LS500. Well, it’s just another Japanese nightmare sent to blight the landscape so far as I can see. I can imagine the manor hunting trophy room where rams’ heads locked in struggles, snarling tiger heads, lions heads and a one-eyed polar bear head are screwed to the wall. Across the room cower the heads of ibyx, moose and deer and a stuffed white shark. But on the far end wall is one of these new Lexus’ front clips with a plaque: Bagged in Baltimore under difficult conditions. An Alibaba genuine reproduction.

    Lets face it, one nudge into a bollard and you’ll need a new clip. Plus a 70 mph run through moths at dusk on a sweltering summer evening will bugger up the look intensely, requiring valet resuscitation, a pressure washer and a day’s labour.

    1. A very good point about the cleaning, Bill. As I’ve admitted previously, I’m no great car cleaner, but when I do it’s a pleasant enough experience, polishing up all those external curves. But only the most obsessive cleaner would get pleasure from polishing up those grooves with cotton buds. I can see the queues at car washes getting longer and the rates going up.

    2. The mess insects will make of that cow catcher will be bad. I am also interested to see how quickly it cakes over with ice during a winter run along Interstate 90 from Chicago to Cleveland.

    1. That’s very likely. Wouldn’t you think a Euro/US version was possible? The spindle is grotesque. As noted elsewhere, brands can move up to Euroacceptibility – if Kia and Toyota can then why not Lexus?

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