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.