But in North America, by far the brand's biggest market, momentum has petered out. North American volume inched ahead just 0.4 percent to 323,654 vehicles in 2019, after declining each of the three previous years. Lexus' best year there was 2015, with sales of 367,734.
But Sato isn't worried about plateauing in North America. He says that is normal for a mature market. And in any case, he said, Lexus still expects steady, incremental growth long term.
The U.S. launch of the LC 500 Convertible this summer, for example, will help drive sales, he noted.
The bigger mission, he said, is generating more excitement around a brand known more for its bulletproof quality and silky-smooth drive than pulse-pumping performance.
Yoshihiro Sawa, Sato's predecessor as president of Lexus International, said at last fall's Tokyo Motor Show that he was unsatisfied with the premium marque's positioning as a small player on the world stage and one shackled to an aging customer base in the critical U.S. battleground.
Sato conceded that injecting more emotion is a big challenge, especially in an era of crossover craze.
One fix will be leveraging the F and F Sport performance lines, he said. He would like to extend F treatment to other nameplates. An F Sport grade is currently offered on everything but the LX SUV, but the top-shelf F designation is offered only on the RC coupe and GS sedan.
"We will enhance F model activities in the future," Sato said. "F will take the lead. Every other model gets some shower effect."
But for real change, Lexus will finally dive into electrification and autonomous driving, fields in which it has been considered somewhat of a latecomer. "Two change points are coming," Sato said. "One is electrification. The other is automated drive. These two elements are a big opportunity for us to express ourselves."
Although Lexus has big success selling hybrids, it has yet to offer a pure electric. That changes in the second half of 2020 when Lexus introduces an all-electric version of its compact UX crossover, the UX 300e. It will be sold in Europe, China and Japan, but not the U.S.
A dedicated EV platform will follow in the early 2020s on the way to Lexus offering an electrified version of every nameplate in its lineup by 2025. Lexus also will be looking at hydrogen fuel cells.
Lexus won't belabor the electric technology's low-emission environmental benefits, Sato said. Instead, the message will be about driving dynamics, comfort, quietude, luxury and response.
"If the question is eco or emotion, I choose emotion," Sato said.
"But emotion doesn't mean like a racing car — emotion means being aligned with your feeling. The car responds as you intend."