Lexus’s designs are polarising opinion. As European boss Alain Uyttenhoven reveals, that’s exactly what they should be doing

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 Miniis 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.”

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Our Verdict

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29 March 2015
Fine if you are coming from a low sales base like Lexus... a disaster if you chasing volume like Honda.

30 March 2015
winniethewoo wrote:

Fine if you are coming from a low sales base like Lexus... a disaster if you chasing volume like Honda.

Don't know what you mean. Lexus says they are now number 4 worldwide after Audi, BMW and Merc. Ahead of Volvo, Infiniti, Alfa, Porsche, Cadillac, Lincoln, etc. And they sell more cars in Europe than Jaguar does worldwide.

30 March 2015
soldi wrote:

... And they sell more cars in Europe than Jaguar does worldwide...

What are you on about? At 31,000, Lexus hardly sold more cars in Europe than Jaguar sold in Europe (29,000)...
Worldwide Jaguar sold 82,000, 60% up from 2011 - and that is before the XE and new XF were added in 2015. And before considering Land Rover, the SUV arm of JLR...

Worldwide in 2014 Lexus managed to stay ahead of JLR (just, 518,000 vs 463,000) but that is not going to last. Not with the new XE, XF and Discovery Sport added to continue the annual growth of 24% JLR has seen since 2011.

To clarify the scale of Lexus in Europe: the Rolls Royce Wraith outsold the Lexus LS 3:2...

31 March 2015
Grunt wrote:

At 31,000, Lexus hardly sold more cars in Europe than Jaguar sold in Europe (29,000)...

I think you must have forgotten that Europe is not just EU. Please add the other countries including Russia.

Grunt wrote:

that is before the XE and new XF were added in 2015

The figures were 2014, but anyway probably even more true so far this year as Jag has not yet sold any XEs, new XFs, etc. No point discussing what might or might not happen.

Grunt wrote:

And before considering Land Rover, the SUV arm of JLR...

Surely even you recognise that JLR is the holding company with 3 brands?

Grunt wrote:

Worldwide in 2014 Lexus managed to stay ahead of JLR

Yep, that's right - one brand outsold three others COMBINED. (Lexus > Jaguar + Land Rover + Range Rover) Good result for Lexus I'd say.

29 March 2015
Fine if you are coming from a low sales base like Lexus... a disaster if you chasing volume like Honda.

29 March 2015
I'm fine with challenging and quirky design (I've always liked the Juke, for example), but my problem with Lexus' direction is the reliance on the oversized front grille. For me, huge slabs of black plastic just look cheap, no matter how interesting the rest of the vehicle is. It seems to be something Toyota like at the moment, though, the facelift Yaris suffers with it too.

29 March 2015
"by those funny, little pastries you sometimes see in Master Chef. Makes our cars look tasty." And foolish may I add.

29 March 2015
The C4 Cactus it ain't. It's got a generic interior, and while the outside is at least distinctive it's not exactly adventurous.

If they bought the LF-SA into production then that would meet the brief but from the noises they're making it sounds like they'll be toning it down before production, so much for being bold.

p.s. LF-SA a small crossover?

I'm not sure I follow that logic. Unless they're going in the opposite direction and combining small car styling with off-road performance.

29 March 2015
I like distinctive designs but there's a massive difference between quirky, unusual, innovative but still cohesive designs (the Nissan Juke and Citroen C-Cactus are great examples) and the ugly, ill-proportioned, messy designs that Lexus are churning out at the moment. They won't stand the test of time and will be looked back on as (hopefully just) a blip in the brand's history.

29 March 2015
Dull, boring, same again design has become so commonplace in modern car design that people have become conditioned to expect it and uncomfortable with anything different. As a result most people will only buy boring and conventional so, car design has stagnated with most manufacturers scared to break the mould.


I'm a disillusioned former Citroëniste.


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