Lexus looks to expand lineup
Brand expects to get back in U.S. luxury sales race
Photo credit: JIM FRENAK
DETROIT -- After taking a tumble in 2011, Lexus is gearing up for a big year with nine new or updated products that it hopes will deliver a 21 percent sales surge and put the brand back in the hunt for the U.S. luxury sales crown.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s top-shelf brand is also eyeing an expanded lineup that could include a car-based, seven-seat people mover and fresh variants of its CT entry-level hatchback, as well as a sporty coupe drawing from the Lexus LF-LC hybrid concept unveiled at the Detroit auto show.
A phaseout of the low-end, slow-selling HS dedicated hybrid also could be down the road. And the brand gradually will shift from body-on-frame trucks to unibodies.
But one thing Lexus won't do is dip down-market into smaller segments.
Top executives who outlined the strategy to Automotive News say the goal is to enliven the brand, make it sportier and infuse it with emotion. Lexus surrendered its 11-year reign as the best-selling luxury brand in the United States last year. Japan's March 11 earthquake hurt sales by constraining production. But executives concede their traditionally staid lineup needs more allure.
Lexus is targeting a 21 percent sales increase in 2012, said Mark Templin, Lexus general manager. That would push U.S. sales to around 240,000 units, from 198,552 in 2011.
"We will grow more than any other luxury brand this year," Templin said on the sidelines of the show. "Our base plan is 240,000. But we think we can exceed that by a pretty good margin."
Karl Schlicht, the Japan-based global head of product planning and marketing, said this year's aggressive product rollout will put Lexus "back in the hunt" for the U.S. luxury sales title. Last year BMW took the title and Mercedes edged Lexus for second place.
Lexus will launch nine new or updated models this year, plus three F-Sport variations, Templin said. The rollout includes the redesign of four of Lexus' core sedan lines, starting with the GS 350 and GS 450h sport sedans arriving in February, followed by reworked versions of the ES 350, IS 250 and 350 and LS 460 and 600h. The LX SUV will also be refreshed this year.
Meanwhile, Lexus wants new segments to drive future growth.
Schlicht said the CT 200h, which arrived last summer, is ripe for new variants and that the brand also needs a sporty coupe. Meanwhile, his team is still weighing the launch of a seven-seat, car-based crossover, after years of study and several concepts.
Lexus previewed its future coupes with the LF-LC hybrid concept shown at the Detroit show. Schlicht put the price range of a possible production version between $100,000 and $130,000.
But there is ample room for other coupes below that, executives say.
Templin wants a coupe for the sector evacuated by the SC 430, which was priced around $70,000 before the car was killed in 2010.
Lexus' future will be shaped just as much by the segments in which it dials down.
First on the chopping block may be the HS. Sales of the hybrid, which was introduced in 2009, plunged 73 percent to 2,864 units last year.
"It's a car that doesn't necessarily fit the long-term needs of the brand in the U.S.," said Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.
Also watch for a shift toward unibody crossovers, from frame-based SUVs such as the LX and GX. Today's car-based trucks have sufficient towing power and don't need the heavy frames, Lentz said.
"By 2025, I think one can assume that most of the frame-based vehicles will be gone," he said.
Lexus also has no plans to dip below the CT 200h into smaller segments being explored by rivals such as Mercedes with the B class and BMW with the 1 series. Lexus doesn't need to go small because it can meet the government's corporate average fuel economy standards by averaging in mpg from the Toyota brand.
Lentz said: "I don't think we need to go below CT in terms of luxury content or in terms of price point."
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