For Lexus, high-profile nose job brings new attitude
Spindle grille is symbol of effort to shake Lexus from design doldrums
A hot bikini-clad model in a Lexus ad? That would have been heresy until this year's push for a new, less stodgy image.
TOYOTA CITY, Japan -- If you saw a car with a double-kidney grille in your rearview mirror, chances are you would immediately recognize that car as a BMW.
But would you know you were looking at a Lexus if you saw its grille? Not exactly memorable, let alone iconic. Indeed, Lexus has long been criticized as a dowdy brand in need of a fresh face.
Now, as part of its biggest makeover in years, one that is more than sheet metal-deep, Lexus is rolling out what executives hope will be a breakthrough look: the Lexus "spindle grille."
There was no shortage of double takes when it was unveiled at the 2011 New York auto show on the Lexus LF-Gh concept. Descriptions pro and con ranged from fighter jet-inspired and Darth Vaderesque to reminiscent of the evil alien in the Predator movies. It was a brash, in-your-face break from Lexus-as-usual.
That's the point. Lexus is trying to cop some attitude as it seeks a higher sales altitude. The grille is a symbol of the wider metamorphosis that entails riskier styling, edgier marketing, more-responsive vehicles and cushier customer service.
"Customers want stronger character, a stronger expression of the premium brand," says Yo Hiruta, global design chief for Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus Division. "We decided to use the grille in that more powerful way."
He adds: "This a very, very important turning point."
While the grille may be cosmetic, it points to much deeper changes at Lexus.
Lexus' 11-year reign as the best-selling luxury brand in the United States ended last year. Japan's 2011 earthquake hurt sales by pinching production, but executives concede the brand's staid lineup needs more allure.
The new formula: sportier designs and more performance-oriented engineering. The brand is chasing younger customers and taking more risks.
Out is the old design-by-committee process. In is a willingness to push the envelope with more offbeat ideas.
For starters, Lexus finally has realized that sex sells. In February, it rolled out bikini-clad Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Tori Praver to pitch the GS. One ad spot features miniature Lexus cars rounding the curves of Praver's seductively sprawled body.
That ad followed Lexus' first Super Bowl commercial, a tribute to Jurassic Park that featured the GS, dubbed "The Beast," bursting from a iron cage.
"It's fair to say we are always experimenting, especially when we have a younger target audience in a new-generation model," said Karl Schlicht, the former global head of production planning and marketing for Lexus. Schlicht left that post this month to become the European head of marketing, sales and production planning for Lexus and Toyota.
In March, Lexus turned its attention to improving customer service, asking dealers to create two new positions: a vehicle-delivery specialist to introduce customers to their cars and go over the vehicle's features; and a vehicle technology specialist to be the go-to resource for customers with questions about all the onboard gadgetry, including Lexus' new infotainment system. Lexus has not offered any incentives for dealers to staff those positions or penalties for failing to do so.
Photo credit: HANS GREIMEL
In a nod to a more performance-oriented image, Lexus is expected to phase out the slow-selling HS hybrid sedan for North America. Production of that car for the United States ended last year, though it is still sold in the United States and Canada and will continue to be sold in other markets. The car was never an easy fit for Lexus' sportier identity.
Lexus has tried before to cultivate a high-performance reputation. In 2010 it rolled out the V-10, 552-hp LFA as a halo car. But its $375,000 sticker and global sales volumes of just 500 in total -- including 173 for the United States -- effectively divorce the sports car from the rest of the lineup.
The more mainstream IS-F also claims sports car DNA. But it has yet to emerge as the serious BMW M-series fighter that executives had hoped for.
More provocative styling, exemplified by the grille, is a cornerstone of the latest overhaul.
In production form, the spindle grille was toned down and launched in the GS sedan that hit U.S. showrooms in February. But executives say its spindle outline will gravitate toward the bold styling of the concept as it spreads across the lineup.
A more pronounced spindle appeared in the redesigned ES sedan at the New York auto show this month. It was featured in the LF-LC sports coupe concept unveiled at the Detroit show in January and will go into this year's facelifts of the LS and RX.
"The spindle grille motif is intended as a long-term brand cue," says Simon Humphries, Toyota's executive chief creative designer who coined the term "spindle grille." He sees the grille as a natural outgrowth of the "resolute" L-Finesse styling language that Lexus unveiled in 2005.
The grille's design language will change with the times, he says. "The proportions may become wider or narrower, it may be rounded or squared," he says. "But the fundamental bi-conic shape will remain apparent."
Lexus designers had been tinkering with the grille, gradually moving it lower and emphasizing the bottom aperture over the years. But Humphries and Kengo Matsumoto, Hiruta's predecessor as Lexus design chief, knew they needed something more. An hourglass shape eventually emerged in the Lexus CT hybrid hatchback, which hit U.S. showrooms last year.
The epiphany came while GS lead designer Katsuhiko Inatomi was playing with clay models of that car at the company's studio in Toyota City. On a whim, he tweaked the air intake to connect the lower and upper grilles in a boxlike frame.
"Simon took a peek and said, 'That's it! That's the spindle grille,' " Inatomi recalls.
While the grille looks sportier, it has a functional element as well. The exaggerated lips of the lower aperture channel air to help cool the front brakes.
Humphries says the spindle brings the flexibility to span a Lexus lineup running from sporty coupes to sedans and SUVs. "For example, we can create a more elegant grille if the break point" between the upper and lower portions of the grille, he says, "is lowered, or more aggressive if raised."
Yet simply jazzing up the grille does not guarantee flair and street cred. Plenty of carmakers have banked on flashy new grilles that flopped.
Subaru's aircraft-inspired propeller grille of the mid-2000s was widely panned. Same with Mazda's "smiley face" grille that appeared on the Mazda2 small car and Mazda3 sedan. Acura's metallic nose shield is derided by its critics as "the beak." And Lincoln has long grappled with getting a grille that works. Indeed, it is rare that any grille has the legs of BMW's, which dates to the 1930s.
Lexus' external styling, including the grille, wasn't so weak to begin with, says Imre Molnar, an auto design critic and dean of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. What Lexus really needs to focus on is making their interiors more refined, he says.
"I don't know that a grille in and of itself will do it," Molnar says of Lexus' shortcomings.
The spindle grille is "very contemporary and now, but you could argue it's fashionable," he said, implying that the design could look outdated too soon. "It may be raising expectations more than the form can actually deliver."
Lexus officials say perfecting interiors is high on their to-do list. They point to the elegant and high-tech cabin of the LF-LC concept, with its iPad inspired window and door controls, as a sign of what's to come.
The fact that Lexus could even risk floating the brash concept grille underscores an important change in attitude within the brand's design-review process.
Today's sign-off committee consists of just 10 people -- about a third of what it was just a couple of years ago. The slim-down aims to combat committee-think by seating a panel of styling experts, not the top-level executives who ruled previously.
"It used to be that design review was a majority vote," Hiruta says. Lexus "was trying to listen to as many voices as possible."
Tokuo Fukuichi, who leads global design at both Lexus and Toyota and is the force behind the changing mentality, described the shortcomings of the old system bluntly after taking the reins last year.
"It is unlikely you will create a failure," he said. "But it is also unlikely to deliver an epoch-making design."
You can reach Hans Greimel at email@example.com. -- Follow Hans on