A Cut Above

As Germany’s full-sized luxury GTs lurch further into decadence and creative atrophy, we appraise (and praise) a Lexus.  

Image credit: (c) Car and Driver

Heritage has become something of a double edged sword for carmakers nowadays. On one hand, it acts as emotional anchor for a marque’s visual identity, and employed with sensitivity and skill, lends a tremendous richness to what marketers might choose to describe as the ‘brand narrative’.

On the other hand however, the anchor analogy can also have a regressive influence, dragging the marque backwards, preventing designers from updating or reinventing a set of visual cues which may over time have lost relevance.

It’s as yet unclear to what extent BMW’s masters have elected to jettison their design heritage, but recent ‘model actions’ have lent some compelling hints in this direction. Looking at the new 8-Series’ wholesale acquisition of stereotypical GT styling cues, a cynic might be tempted to suspect BMW’s designers have been down to their local Cues ‘R Us superstore and piled their shopping trolley with as much as it would bear.

As custodians of the marque, BMW has of course every right to do with it as they see fit. However, with a heritage spanning over half a century, it requires a deft touch to successfully dismantle it. But more to the point, it also requires something meaningful to put in its place.

(c) Auto-Didakt

Lexus on the other hand, suffers no such baggage. Created thirty years ago from a Toyota skunkworks programme, the most credible Japanese luxury car brand extant has no visual heritage to draw upon, allowing them considerable creative freedom. That they initially chose visual conformity was perhaps a consequence of an innate caution, given the quantum leap they were taking in 1988.

That they have since chosen a vastly more confrontational visual language is equally understandable, especially in light of the rather staid reputation they since acquired. It’s hardly a contentious statement to suggest that the latest Lexus design theme has been something of a visual affront. Perhaps the best one can say is that it carries the courage of its convictions.

At worst, it’s repellent, but not all cars bearing the L-Finesse roundel are cut from the same cloth. Take the 2017 LC coupé, Lexus’ current flagship. A full-sized luxury GT and the upcoming Achter’s natural rival. Based closely upon a 2014 concept from Toyota’s Californian design studio, the close-coupled 2+2, is aimed at coupés like the Mercedes SL / S-Class Coupé and Maserati GranTurismo.

Large GTs such as these provide a suitably generous canvas for designers to render their styling themes full expression, yet of late, creditable designs in this arena have been puzzlingly sparse. Yet I would contend that the LC is the most visually impressive exponent of the latterday GT breed, embodying Lexus’ current design themes, but embodying them in perhaps its most coherent manner.

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That is not to suggest that it is beautiful – you may well contend that it is ugly – but regardless of one’s view of it as an aesthetic object, the LC is supremely well executed. Characterised by relatively unadorned forms, interrupted by abrupt transitions and striking graphics, the Lexus is jarring, but these transitions are so well handled that combined with its short overhangs, superbly judged stance and tightly controlled proportions, the big (and rather portly) LC carries off an athleticism that BMW attempted and has abjectly failed to achieve.

What the LC offers and what its more storied rivals cannot, is a genuine sense of modernity. A car where heritage is irrelevant and where, instead of shamelessly appropriating from the grand turismo styling handbook, Lexus’ design team have furrowed their own stylistic path and created, I would argue (and will probably be flayed alive for doing so), the design-literate’s choice in this rarefied class.

One might argue that it’s a pity Lexus’ designers didn’t see fit to rein in some of the more needless detail design, particularly around the head and tail lamps, but I choose to see them instead as flourishes, in the manner perhaps of an ostentatious signature.

I’m interested less in how it compares on a dynamic or practical level to its European rivals – contemporary reports cite fine handling and performance (at least if the 5.0 litre V8 is specified). On the demerit side, confusing infotainment, a poor ride and a lack of interior space in its beautifully crafted interior are disappointments, but as an ownership proposition, it’s difficult to imagine it being a painful experience.

(c) Auto-Didakt

Bold, bracingly visceral in its visual audacity, yet somehow the LC doesn’t repel. Viewed purely as a piece of automotive sculpture, the Lexus is a blessed relief, visual nourishment in a landscape growing ever more barren and bereft of genuine advance. I could not bear to look upon a new 8-Series, let alone sit in one (and I rather doubt BMW will be offering). The LC however, I could stare at for hours and still find something new to enjoy.

Perhaps BMW is correct to cast aside its history. However it’s clear they lack the vision to successfully break with the past. Making a scholarly examination of this car’s design might however represent a good start.

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

With thanks to Kris Kubrick for selected images.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “A Cut Above”

  1. Is it odd to call this coupe a punk-rock design? It isn’t beautiful although I might change my mind in five years. We are down on BMW at the moment – fairly too yet I would like to say there is usually merit in their work, mixed up with mediocrity. BMW badly needs to listen to one of my inspiring tutorials on creativity. Lexus doesn’t need to. They really only need to calm down a bit.
    If BMW is interested, my rates are astronomical but worth it.

  2. It seems to be very difficult to give Japanese vehicles a visual identity of their own. They tried everything from US export Baroque to Euro bland with fundamental changes every couple of years.

    In the Seventies, Hans A. Muth created the first vehicles at all (Suzuki’s “Katana” bikes) that deliberately took their inspiration from Japan.
    Somehow they seem to take a lot of inspiration from Edo Samurai era like the Katana bikes or Mitsubishi’s radiator grille that is meant to look like a Kabuto Samurai helmet (the grille of this Lexus strongly reminds me of such a helmet or a Yoroi armor, too).
    Toyota gave us Totsuzen design with abrupt changes of lines like in origami and Mazda keeps telling us the sides of their cars look like whales – strange thing when in Japan whales are considered the ‘roaches of the oceans…

    1. Without wanting to be obscure, can I say that Japanese design does not need to look obviously like anything. Further, the whole idea of national or cultural traits expressed in forms is hard to support. I expect there are differernces. They are not easy to find and certainly the layman would smell bullnonsense were they to hear an explanation. From that point I am not bothered by Lexus´ all-over-the-place design and I might even say this car is the most Japanese thing they have ever done. It certainly would never come out of the US or Europe.
      Unusually the interior also looks habitable and appealing – not as appealing as I would like but a stumble in the right direction.
      On a more positive note, the European marques are not that far from doing decent work and some are already there. What is missing is decisiveness and clarity.

  3. I really appreciate that you chose to discuss Lexus and in particular the LC. It’s a striking design, one which works as a whole and as it passes you on the road – you can almost see the turmoil it causes in on-lookers driving other cars on motorways as one passes down the outside lane. There’s a visual shock to it which reminds me of the first time I saw Bangle’s 6 and 7 series, and neither were pretty but they both ended up creating a positive stir!

  4. Lexus and Honda have long since ceased worrying if consumers brainwashed into thinking that German cars are the be all and end all. Car magazine has forced Wurst and worse cars from the Fatherland down our throats for longer than those of us old enough care to remember. I have long mourned the dearth of elegant conveyances available for purchase if one is in the market for a superior motoring experience, but given the choice of langweilig vire turer von Deutschland or an individual, authentic and well engineered product from the land that brought warfare logic and the ultimate close shave, the Katana, I would go east.. actually, one CRX, one Civic and a Juke later I will do so again.

    1. The BMW … er… 2-series coupe is okay or do I mean the one that should be called the 3-series? I also quite like the smaller Benz two-doors but can’t be bothered to check the name.
      The Infiniti Q60 is fun though no less unsubtle than its German peers. It’s that or this Lexus. Or a GT86.

  5. Note to self.. trying to compose prose while eating Beaufort and drinking Saumur Champigny is not such a good idea. The flow suffers with the flow..
    I forgot to reference Bangle’s bungles.
    Regardless of whether or not I like what Christopher wrought during his spell at B.M.W. I can’t help but wish that he had stayed longer.
    A perverse wish perhaps, given the ballyHooydonck the current beasties from Bayern are creating. But perhaps not.
    It is one thing to be an Agent Provocateur, it is another thing entirely to see things through until you reach the other side of the inevitable chaos.
    B.M.W. managed to be the target that bigger companies aimed for when trying to perfect a sports saloon that none really hit. The ‘02 and the Datsun 510. The E21 3 series and the Alfa Romeo tipo 116 Giulietta. The Lexus IS 200 of 1998 and the E46 3 series. All these challengers had real merit, but the alchemy of the small B.M.W. hexed them all. And C.B. was at the helm for the E46, possibly the last elegant B.M.W. that we will ever see, especially in coupé or cabriolet forms. For me the cabriolet with the hardtop fitted REALLY nailed it.
    I cannot understand this one beauty blip among the bungles.
    Maybe it was signed off before he could mess it up, it came out in ‘97, some five years after he arrived. Or maybe it was his transition car, the lull before the storm.
    I hold C.B. entirely responsible for the design quagmire that we have at the moment. Melting cars designed to have mayfly lifespan levels of ephemeral appeal.
    I can’t help but feel that had C.B. been retained (sequestrated?) by B.M.W. that he would have eventually turned to formal elegance as a way of provoking stylists the world over once more.
    That he chose to leave mainstream design condemned the car to inhabit the realms of the freak show that it found itself in forever.
    The last gasp of elegance was provided, as Driven To Write pointed out to an audience that probably didn’t notice so baffled they were by the surrounding visual cacaphony, by my friend Fabio Filippini during his too-brief tenure at Pininfarina
    Fabio is of the old school where dues are paid to those who have gone before. Elegance matters. History is important.
    And even if the Lexus bests the B.M.W. on style, the victory is pyrrhic, for the spinning propellor is going nowhere. Fast.

    1. Rob: I think I’ll swerve discussions of the estimable Mr. Bangle for now and simply observe that it is perhaps Lexus who have shown to be his most ardent aficionados, and arguably at least, the most faithful practitioners of his ethos, in that they have grasped the baton and ran like hell with it. The results have been patchy, to say the least, but at best (as here) they are to these eyes at least, very good indeed.

      Fabio Fillippini is one of the lesser sung heroes of latterday automotive design. He is not however, entirely unsung. Not here anyway, as our guest writer Kris Kubrick pointed out earlier in the year in this fine piece…


  6. Excellent article-the Lexus is the most attractive and fresh sports car today – especially compared to a Bentley or a Maserati. If you want to combine modern architecture with a luxury car – it will be the Lexus, i would choose for this theme. Or an BMW I8….

  7. I’ve never seen this car on the road, and I find it very hard from the pictures to guess what impression it really makes. But I can see (and share) why people here like it. As for the adornments, especially around the lights: yes, it might be a bit too much, but I can accept them as flourishes, as mentioned by Eóin, and it’s even a bit like in my C6: simple, correct overall shapes plus that little extra you wouldn’t expect.

    I’m looking forward to seeing that car; I’m sure a visit to Zurich in the near future will grant me this pleasure.

    1. I don’t know if they (will) sell it here, but most of my Zurich visits are rewarded with unusual car sightings, especially if it’s the expensive variety.

  8. The main difference between this and the 8 series is depth.

    Like most around here, I dislike quite a few of the details incorporated in the Lexus, but that doesn’t change the fact that this car’s design process was driven by distinct ideas and a clear concept. The BMW, on the other hand, is obviously a committee car, and a sloppily executed one at that. You couldn’t accuse the Lexus of that deficit either.

  9. Eóin, I’m familiar with the article by Kris. I was delighted to see somebody else recognised Fabio’s talent.
    I am with Kris about the design depth found in the Lexus. The superfluous detailing doesn’t annoy because it is only detailing. It could have done without it, but in the current climate and from a lesser team it could have been far worse.
    The mass of the Lexus is well balanced and avoids being lumpen.
    I see shades of Samurai armour in the bold agression of the Lexus. The heritage Lexus embraces here is cultural and national. There is authenticity in this approach.
    « Flame Surfacing » always seemed like so much overdone meat.
    I think your article was spot-on by the way.
    Any time you want to talk about vainglorious design managers, after nigh-on thirty years designing..

  10. Never having seen one apart from these pictures, my thoughts turn to a Terminator. The LC appears to have sinew and muscular physique and attitude that positively screams domination over lesser beings. The rear lights are straight out of Skynet and no doubt it’s musculo-skeletal underpinnings are impervious to pain, weather or emotions. Is it lamentable to hope the original knocks the socks off inevitable sequels?

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