Lexus Turns Heads as Toyoda Pushes for Performance

A California police officer pulled in front of Paul Dergarabedian’s 467-horsepower Lexus RC F last month, asked him to roll down the window and had an unusual query.

“Have you opened it up yet?” the cop asked Dergarabedian. The media industry analyst has a theory for why the Mercedes-Benz AMG performance cars he owned before never provoked such a reaction from bystanders. “I don’t think anyone expects this from Lexus,” Dergarabedian, 53, said by phone from his home in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb.

As Toyota President Akio Toyoda today lays out Toyota Motor Corp.’s motorsports plans for the year -- including Lexus’s foray on global racing circuits -- the addition of sportier cars to its once-staid luxury lineup is already drawing younger buyers and boosting sales of higher-priced models. Lexus is now pushing suppliers to ramp up output of sport seats and mesh grilles to meet demand, and pressing on with even more in-your-face designs in spite of pushback from brand loyalists with more traditional tastes.

Lexus’s F Sport trim vehicles are drawing customers five to 12 years younger than buyers of the equivalent base models, Executive Vice President Mark Templin said. Each F Sport model added to the Lexus lineup has exceeded the company’s sales expectations, with the IS F Sport approaching half of total IS deliveries in some markets, he said.

Styling Direction

“We were in a meeting and Akio Toyoda said wow, if F Sport’s become the main car, maybe we need to be more aggressive with our styling than we have been over the last couple of years,” Templin said on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show this month. “We’ve been really bold with where we’ve gone, and some people thought we were crazy.”

Toyoda, 58, has taken a hands-on approach to infusing Toyota’s 25-year-old luxury brand with more excitement. He hands out two business cards: one for his position as company president, the other identifying him as Lexus’s chief branding officer and master driver.

“It has been said Lexus was a good quality car but not emotional,” Toyoda said during an interview in November at Lexus Intersect, an event space in Tokyo’s fashionable Aoyama District. “My role and what I’m doing is adding the coolness and the emotion to the brand.”

Lexus plans to add to its lineup in the fourth quarter the high-performance GS F mid-size sedan, which will join the RC F coupe introduced late 2014. Toyota expects to sell about 1,600 of the GS F sedans annually, Jeff Bracken, U.S. general sales manager for Lexus, said at the Detroit show.

Spindle Grilles

Changes to Lexus cars’ looks have upset some customers. Bracken said he’s fielded 45-minute phone calls with Lexus buyers who oppose the spindle grilles that have become a hallmark of the brand’s styling since the company redesigned the GS in 2011.

“While I might not be able to turn them and we may have to kind of agree to disagree, at the end of the day we’re OK with that,” Bracken said in an interview. “That polarizing effect is, candidly, part of the strategy. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be able to bring folks to the brand that haven’t been considering us before.”

In addition to debuting GS F in Detroit, Bracken showed a RC F GT3 concept that he said signaled Lexus’s first global racing effort. Starting this year in Europe and in the U.S. in 2016, the brand plans to build on its existing presence in Japan’s series.

Toyoda has said motorsports will trickle down and inform development of the company’s cars. Dergarabedian, who bought his RC F in November, said he fibbed to the police officer who stopped him last month by assuring him he’d only open up the throttle on a race track.

“It used to be that Lexus automobiles were not known for getting your pulse pounding,” he said. “But when you have brands like AMG at Mercedes out there, the M Series BMWs, you have to have some element of that to give your line credibility. The roots of why people love cars -- especially in southern California, where I live -- is the V-8 muscle car.”

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