Akio Toyoda, CEO of both Toyota and Lexus, tells a story of how he has received letters that complain that the Lexus car brand is boring. This guy is the grandson of the company’s founder, which says something. Toyota runs in his family. More than that, it runs in his blood.
Akio says he “took them to heart,” and he’s “ensuring that the word ‘boring’ and Lexus’ will never occupy the same sentence very again.”
Truth be told, we’ve heard this rhetoric before – five years ago, to be exact, on the Pebble-Beach Concourse d’Elegance at the launch of another ‘boring’ Lexus, this time, the fourth-generation GS sedan. Back then, the occasion marked the new look of the spindle grille, fresh air intake design, and the very curves that make ‘Lexus’ synonymous with ‘luxury.’
The motor vehicle giant has enjoyed 11 years of market leadership in the United States, but then, just like now, there is evidence that points to Toyota fighting a losing battle against the Germans.
Germany is home to the Mercedez-Benz, Audi and BMW. Not only have they made better-looking cars, but their cars were more interesting and exciting to drive.
Don’t get me wrong here. Lexus is still the market leader in quality, gas efficiency, trunk space and all-around engineering qualities. But that didn’t matter anymore. Other, much cheaper vehicles were figuring out how to to it too, and all of a sudden, Lexus didn’t stand out anymore.
For Akio that wasn’t good enough.
Akio Toyoda is a race car driver. It’s not just in his family – it’s in his blood, remember? He knew that Lexus needed a jolt. He knew what Lexus needed. He wasn’t about to let his brand take second place to anybody without a fight.
In short, Lexus needed a car that wasn’t just synonymous with luxury but was fun to drive. Lexus engineers needed to give drivers a reason to smile. They’ve done it before; there’s no reason they can’t do it again.
Aiko charged Koji Sato, deputy chief engineer at Toyota, with the job. According to him, his speech five years ago on Pebble Beach merely marked a starting point for the company.
They both were thinking the same thing.
He wasn’t being charged with upgrading a car. He was being charged with making a whole new generation of Lexus.
Sato took this tall order to heart and realized that he needed something more than his current team could offer. He thought outside the box and looked beyond the borders of his corporate office for help. What he did was nothing short of revolutionary.
He hand-picked a team that would later become to be called his ‘irregular army.’ It consisted of a small group of race car drivers, journalists and car dealers.
For Lexus, the strategy was more than risky. It was more than bold. It was genius.
And, it was exactly what Sato was looking for.
Sato placed the entire company in jeopardy of exposing the entire project by doing this. The team persevered through every logistical difficulty an undertaking like this could have presented. The test team coordinated three unique driving events in the United States.
This was the beginning of the 2018 Lexus LC 500. This was the beginning of a whole new generation of Lexus.
The prototype has been created. It’s been driven. It was completely covered in disguise tape, with its interior panels draped in such a way as to keep the entire project under wraps. The vehicle was only a concept car, but it was driven in Rose Bowl Stadium of Pasadena, California.
It sports a 10-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. Its 5.0-liter, V-8 engine produces 467 horsepower at 7100 RPM and 389 pound-feet of torque at 4800 RPM. It makes 0-60 in 4.5 seconds flat.
In short, it is awesome. It is fun to drive. It put a smile the drivers’ faces.
Sato is pleased, but his work is far from over. “We have got the basics right,” says Sato, “but it’s the last 10 percent that is so difficult.”
The LC 500 is nearing the end of the engineering phase, and, as such, Sato’s ‘irregular army’ has disbanded by now. The engineering team has a lot on their hands this year. Aiko is scheduled to drive the vehicle in late February this year.
Let’s hope the boss likes it. We’re rooting for Sato.