Let’s get this part out of the way from the start: The new Lexus LS is a more buttoned-down, tauter handling large sedan than the outgoing car. And the new V-6 is ultra responsive, hauling the big LS to 60mph in 4.6 seconds. (The LS500h is only slightly slower, but actually quicker off the line thanks to the extra torque of its hybrid electric motor. Both models can be had as RWD or AWD).
No, neither model is meant to rival Mercedes’ AMG monsters, but then, at a starting price of $75,000, Lexus isn’t trying to play in that same elite sandbox. They’d much rather get back to selling upwards of 10,000 LS sedans in the U.S. per year, where they were before the Great Recession.
To grow the brand younger and at least partially push into a more athletic direction, they’re trying to make all their cars more engaging. A few years ago Akio Toyoda, the chairman of Lexus and Toyota, declared the carmakers would quit making “boring” cars and that was most recently illustrated when Lexus debuted the exceptionally capable LC sports car, and we expect to see at least a design study of the forthcoming sports car for more modest wallets, perhaps called the Supra, by the end of the year.
Meanwhile Lexus has a tough design challenge on its hands. Executives admitted to us recently that because the company was essentially invented from scratch in the 1980s with one goal in mind, showing that Toyota could create luxury cars of higher quality than those from German brands like Mercedes, Audi and BMW, they don’t have the same kind of heritage to fall back on that those stalwarts do. They’ve met and exceeded the Germans on quality. What they did not do was invent their own aesthetic. Nor did Lexus try to out-German-car the Germans. Now that Akio Toyoda wants cars that are more engaging to drive, they have to look engaging, too.
The effort starts with the grille. And as polarizing as Lexus's large grilles are, Suga says carmakers have been all too happy not to experiment with the faces of their brands. Now, because computer-aided design makes that possible, Lexus is pushing the most sculptural grille of any car on the road, inspired by the weave of a traditional Japanese tatami mat.
"Before the Lexus grille was just a bunch of horizontal bars, and it was hard to see the craftsmanship,” he says. With the new LS and the LS F-Sport (which gets a yet more complex grille) Suga says nobody will think the car is boring, even if at first the design is challenging.
Complimenting the grille, Suga and his team added L-shaped LCDs below the triple-headlamp array. It almost looks like heavy lower-lid eyeliner, but it unquestionably makes the front of the car more dynamic.
At the fender, Suga says he faced a challenge.
Some of what any car designer has to work with is fixed; it’s not just clay the designer can mold as he or she likes. Suga explains in the case of the Lexus LS the car shares its platform with the LC sports car, “and that car has a very low hood, but the wheels on the LS are taller.” Which means Suga was constrained on what work he could do at the front fenders, which is why although the wheel arches look as if they’re lower than the hood line, they actually arc nearer to an even height with the hood. Designers want that muscular look of a large wheel arch, but in the case of the LS Suga’s also working hard here to make the LS look “faster” than its size. So he says, for instance, for safety, the LS’s mirror is larger, so the driver can see blind spots more readily, so Suga and his team sharpened the shape of the mirror housing, rather than leaving it rounded, and made it two-tone, with black on top to absorb light and make it look smaller.
From the side Suga says making the LS look sporty, but not too sporty was one of his biggest challenges.
For one thing, he said the coupe-if-fication of so many luxury sedans is fine if you’re not going to have backseat passengers, but one of the options on the new LS is an airline seat that reclines and has a foot bolster that rises (even the front passenger seat collapses into itself, so that a very tall passenger could stretch out in the second row without being constrained). This car was designed for second-row passengers, not just drivers, so cutting the roofline at the rear door opening wasn’t an option.
Instead Suga adds an arrow-shaped piece of glass behind the rear windows, so he can still run the chrome accent into a point, and retain a “fast” greenhouse. You get the “coupe” effect, minus the cramped cabin that might otherwise create.
Inside, one option for the door panels is a kind of pleating technique used to make traditional Japanese shapes, like origami paper models, and if you choose wood paneling it’s not just laminated, but laser cut and then sandwiched into layers, so it looks like wood grain, but has more depth. Suga’s team also wanted to cut down what he feels is a flaw in too much cockpit design where LCD monitors have begun to dominate, like an old-school TV at the center of a living room. So the entire dash is stretched horizontally, with the monitor offset by thin metal bands that sweep across the entire front panel.
The net effect, both inside and out, is certainly unique, yet still very Lexus.
"Honestly speaking I don’t want to create something Japanese per se. We are looking for a Japanese sense of beauty, so we will be different from a German carmaker like a Porsche or something, but the goal isn’t to be Japanese. It’s so that buyers look at the car and say, ‘Ah, that’s something different.’ ”
Whether in fact Suga and Lexus have achieved that is going to be a work in progress. The quality of Lexus cars is a given. Pushing beyond quality and offering something lustworthy is where Lexus would like to get, but it’s going to take time. After all, as Lexus executives admit, their German rivals were barely getting there 40 years into their existence, and Lexus hasn’t actually been around that long.