LOS ANGELES - Taking a page from its principal German rivals, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, Lexus Division will begin marketing higher performance 'L-Tuned' versions of the GS 300 and 400 sport sedans.
'Luxury buyers want everything - comfort, quiet, luxury but also performance. Some buyers want to stretch that performance a little further,' Bryan Bergsteinsson, Lexus Division general manager, said in an interview last week.
For now, the L-Tuned editions will be limited to the GS line and will not include engine performance upgrades. The changes, which will be dealer installed, include stiff Eibach springs, OZ wheels, limited-slip differentials, a more responsive power steering computer, sportier exhaust system and body cladding kits.
Changes for the RX 300 and upcoming IS 300 also are in the works.
'We're not trying to turn Lexus into BMW. But we want to develop our buyer base without abandoning our original attributes of quietness and refinement. This is more than a trim level, but we don't want to go as extreme as what BMW does with their M editions,' Bergsteinsson said.
In addition to having upgraded suspension, steering and handling, the BMW M3 offers 240 hp, compared with the base 328i, which has a 190-hp engine.
Similarly, Mercedes-Benz's performance subsidiary, AMG, squeezes 349 hp out of the Mercedes E55, compared with 275 hp in the base E430. AMG also helped Mercedes-Benz create the ML55, the fastest sport-utility on the market.
Available in May
The Lexus kits will cost up to $5,000, depending on how many different components are installed, and will be available in May. The hardest part will be installing the Eibach springs because that involves wheel alignment.
Bergsteinsson hopes future L-Tuned vehicles will include engine power boosts and sportier transmission gearing.
'Already, the GS 400 has 300 horsepower, so the next jump would be to 400 horsepower. But if you do that, there's a lot of chassis reworking required to handle that extra power, and that involves the factory,' Bergsteinsson said.
He added that would not happen before the 2002 calendar year.
There's a reason Bergsteinsson had to keep the factory out of the process, for now at least.
Initially, Lexus made the pitch for performance add-ons to Toyota Motor in Japan but was rebuffed by the bureaucracy.
'We had the support of the engineers in Japan, but the bean counters were tough,' Bergsteinsson said. 'Toyota Motor Corp. understands our position, but it's a matter of priorities and resources.'
Not content with that setback, Lexus performed an end run. It went to Toyota Racing Development, its U.S. racing division, which already makes performance kits for mainstream Toyota vehicles. After a summer of discussions, the limited initial release of L-Tuned parts was planned.
Bergsteinsson hopes an early success of the L-Tuned vehicles prompts Toyota Motor to allow more substantial assembly line changes. Bergsteinsson's first pick: a slick-handling IS 300 with a 260-hp V-6 engine, which would be a fair match for the BMW M3.
Dealers applauded the addition of more vehicle lines they can sell.
'It's good any time we get something new that drives traffic,' said Danny Davidson, owner of Lexus of Riverside (Calif.). 'We have already had a few performance-oriented Lexus buyers go out and do this on their own. Now we'll have something that will have a factory warranty on it.'
Bergsteinsson believes that L-Tuned vehicles eventually will account for 20 percent of Lexus sales. In contrast, AMG-tuned versions of Mercedes-Benz models represent between 1 and 2 percent of U.S. sales. BMW says the M3 is about 10 percent of 3-series sales, while the M5 is about 7.5 percent of 5-series sales.
To be sure, the premium on those vehicles over their base model is much higher than $5,000.
Mercedes-Benz and BMW are not the only upscale imports offering performance-tuned models. Acura has developed the Integra Type R and 3.2TL Type S. And Audi, Jaguar and Saab have limited-run performance versions over and above their traditional model lines.
But Bergsteinsson also realizes that not every Lexus vehicle needs to have an L-Tuned edition.
'It's not really relevant to an LS 430 buyer, and we won't do it on the ES 300,' he said. 'We need to be able to broaden our reach without alienating our traditional buyers.'