Lexus redefines its defining model.
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.
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.
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.