Can a car manufacturer come of age? Lexus’s European boss seems to think so.
“We’re 25 years old now,” says Alain Uyttenhoven, “and I’d call that the end of puberty. We’re about to become a grown-up company.”
That new-found maturity manifested itself at the recent Geneva motor show with the LF-SA, a diminutive small crossover concept that drew as much criticism for its overt, complex, fussy styling as it did praise for boldness.
Lexus sources, Uyttenhoven included, are at pains to state that the show car, a four-seater smaller than a Mini, is not about to appear in a showroom any time soon. And yet its very existence gives a pointer to Lexus’s new approach, particularly to the European market.
Whisper it, but Toyota’s luxury arm has realised not merely that it can take risks, but that it really ought to.
“When we started 25 years ago, the references were all about status in the luxury car market, and we have tried for some time to somehow be like the others,” says Uyttenhoven, who brought product management experience with Daimler and Opel to Toyota Europe before rising up to Lexus’s top European post just over a year ago.
“What we’ve decided is that because we are the challenger, we have to be different. We have to be distinctive, be bold and produce cars that don’t look like the other offerings in the segment. What we know, from customer clinics, is that our design polarises at the moment. And we want that.
“Take the NX. It’s probably our most polarising model, but we have 80% conquest with it, and people say they’re coming to the car because of the design. And that’s the point: design is one of the main reasons why people switch from one brand to another.
“In the past we have been the champions of loyalty, but if we want to grow – and we have this objective of 100,000 sales in Europe – then we’ll have to get customers from other people. That’s why we’re happy with the new design direction. In customer clinics, we see that 60% of the people say, ‘Wow!’ and 30% to 40% of them say, ‘That’s not for me’. And we’re fine with that. We’re not chasing 50% market share; our aspirations at the moment are in single-digit percentages of the premium market. We have time to grow.”
There’s certainly plenty of scope for sales gains. Lexus should sell just over 60,000 cars in Europe in 2015, a third of them the new NX crossover, so that 100,000 goal is still some way off. Even if the target is reached, it’ll still be less than a fifth of the brand’s total output – proof of how firmly its roots are cemented in the US market. Further Europe-focused models, such as the NX, will be required.
That’s likely to mean that even if a production car based on the LF-SA does arrive (and it would be safe to assume that it will happen by 2020), it is unlikely to be the only addition to the range. A range-topping GT is just as likely and considerably more advanced in planning. “I believe there will always be a group of people who are looking at gran turismo types of cars,” says Uyttenhoven.
“And I believe it can fit into the Lexus range. If you look at the price of the LFA [Lexus’s V10 supercar], it was at the high end of the market. We were happy to have the car, of course, but while we sold every one we produced, we only made 500 units. I would say there are other segments where you can go with halo cars, with aspirational cars, and they don’t need to cost as much.”
What is clear is that the deliberately controversial design language is going to continue. Uyttenhoven won’t actually say which Lexus is coming next, but he does promise that it will have “the same polarising elements” as the NX.
“The danger is a design that is trying to please everybody,” he argues. “For some brands, not displeasing people is becoming more important than really pleasing a smaller group of people. We’d like to think that’s to our advantage.”