TOYOTA CITY, Japan -- Toshio Furutani, the straight-talking sales and marketing specialist who took over as Lexus' global chief last June, is turning his attention to a growing set of problems in the United States.
Furutani is struggling to preserve Lexus' title as the best-selling luxury import in the United States. But some analysts say his plans could take the brand too far downmarket.
The 56-year-old former head of Lexus' sales operations in Japan pledges to overhaul the brand by introducing smaller vehicles with lower sticker prices, adding more hybrids and moving away from stodgy sedans.
He also has been taking notes from Volkswagen AG on how to leverage shared platforms between premium and mass-market models.
And Furutani, who has held key jobs with Toyota in China, also is focusing on quality. Lexus' sterling reputation has been dented by last year's recall of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles -- Toyota Motor Corp.'s largest recall -- to address problems with unintended acceleration.
"In the past, the market was constantly expanding," Furutani said in an interview. "So the more we produced, the more we sold. That time is over. Customers' needs are changing. We are rescrutinizing each region's real needs."
Last year Lexus not only was hammered by the slump in high-end sales, but it fell into a neck-and-neck race with BMW for the No. 1 luxury import spot in the United States after outselling its archrival for 11 straight years.
BMW led during the first six months of the year, but Lexus clawed back into first place for the full year, winning the sales race 215,975 to 196,502. Still, the gap between the two luxury makers has narrowed considerably in recent years.
More troubling for Lexus is that it trails BMW in all-important purchase consideration by probable buyers.
According to Edmunds.com, BMW led for the first 11 months of 2009, and the margin has been getting wider. In November, BMW's consideration rate was 7.2 percent of all visitors to Edmunds.com -- the brand's highest level all year. Lexus' rate was 4.3 percent, its lowest level since January 2009.
"Lexus was really strong, but they've lost their footing," says Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. "BMW is the 'Ultimate Driving Machine.' We're not really sure what Lexus is."
According to Compete Inc., a Massachusetts research firm that studies online car shopping, Lexus fell behind Cadillac in consideration in November. It was the first time the GM brand had topped Lexus in the monthly survey since January 2008.
BMW consistently has been tops in the category among the major luxury import makes. Lexus and Mercedes had bounced back and forth been second and third in recent months -- until November.
"Lexus needs more shoppers," says Lincoln Merrihew, automotive director at Compete, which defines consideration as shoppers who configure vehicles online.