March 7th, 2005
What the 2006
Lexus IS is, and isn't
The beginnings of a more focused,
homogeneous, unique approach
2006 IS – launched in
Geneva last week as a sign of intent to
BMW’s E90 3 series
Lexus GS 2006
2006 Lexus GS
midsize-luxury car to the
entry-level sports sedan hints at Lexus' strategy.
The IS is the second car to feature the L-Finesse design
language, and both cars are clearly cut from the same cloth, but the GS
is more geometric; more conser-vative (in a way that midsize luxury
buyers have been known to appreciate).
It is, interestingly enough, the reverse of BMW's strategy (the
2006 E90 3er
being widely acknowledged as more conser-vative than the
2004 E60 5er).
Then again, the 3er sports sedan, in whose segment the IS plays,
is BMW's icon; its Heartland car in terms of both sales and
image. Lexus started in 1989 with a luxury car (the
We find the
hood particularly interesting: a clamshell affair that curbs at the
grille and does not quite extend from the headlamps where you might
expect. Beyond the hood, the flanks bulge outwardly, lending the car a
muscular stance that, viewed from dead-on front, is attractively
assertive. To reign this in, the grille's furthermost lines are canted
inward from the headlamps, and the grille itself features vertical
Think of the 'fattening' effect, on a person, of wearing a
horizontally-striped T-shirt. Here, the vertical slats do exactly the
opposite, even as the body itself extends horizontally. The contrast is
a pleasing one; indeed, Lexus is finding the sophistication inherent in
For the first time ever
on a Lexus, the surfacing is a talking point. Look at the base of the
windshield, where the corners converge over the hood (an L-shape,
This car plays, convexly and concavely, with light
We find it intriguing
that Lexus has taken its former weakness - flanks too bland to fit the
rest of the car - and turned it into a feature (i.e: the flanks
are now designed to be slab-sided)
Lexus GS 2006
Note the more coiled rear
stance of the IS, with respect to the GS.
"The upward slant of
the lower rear corner of the back door is a welcome change from the
straight-bottomed Hofmeister kink pioneered by BMW and so frequently
copied by other carmakers,"
suggests Joaquin Ruhi, Jr., Editor of
My.IS. We agree
The weakness of the
surfacing on the vertical panels, however, makes the rear end the
weakest part of the design.
The relatively slim tail-lights and large bumper make for large expanses
of metal – metal which has not been given the same intricate treatment
as, say, the hood (or, indeed, the trunk, with its smoothly curvaceous
integration with the C-pillar and flanks)
The intriguing lower
valence panel, which houses the two tail-pipes, indicates what could
Inside, we see more signs
of a Lexus moving to diverge itself from the competitors in this
category, rather than benchmark them.
While BMW’s E90 3
series has moved
toward a simplicity that pays homage to the spartanly Germanic cockpits
of its iconic predecessors,
is lavish, yet sporty.
Things are less characterful in here than is the competition - less
identifiable - but this may well come with time. Note, for instance,
the inverted L-shapes in the door panels
The chronographs are
gone. This car has matured.
has lost a little of its focus in this transition to the
second-generation, but it no longer attempts to emulate the focus of
someone else's icon, either
Leonardo Fioravanti -
behind the L-Finesse design strategy...
... including the 2006
LF-A Concept, shown
in Detroit this past January.
We commend Lexus for signs of a renewed focus on aerodynamics
(once its core value).
Having called on the brand for just this focus, we also note with some
satisfaction that the LF-A Concept, which perhaps best exemplifies
Lexus’ resurgent attention to aerodynamics, was preview-ed in Europe to great
2006 IS -
and, in particular, the higher-powered
variant - will debut for North America at the New York International
Auto Show on March 23rd
We firmly believe that this industry, in going forward, would do well to look
back occasionally. This belief manifests itself in our continued focus on history and
heritage, an attempt to place contemporary models in context. Lexus' comments
in Geneva last week, made by Toyota Motor Corporation Design Head Wahei Hirai,
were thus of particular interest to us:
will refocus Lexus design based on two factors that define both the future
and history of the Lexus brand."
Those two factors (apparently,
"the leading edge" and
depth of finesse") lead us into a separate, yet related, area of regular
interest on these pages: design.
By corollary, we also take avid interest in aerodynamics. Our September '04 Lexus article,
'Lexus: in the Lap of
Latent Luxury,' called on Lexus to return to this realm, a key tenet of
Chief Engineer Ichiro Suzuki when the first Lexus - the
was launched in 1989.
Vehicle dynamics is a common topic of discussion around here. In the performance
luxury, sport sedan category best exemplified by BMW since the
of 1968, the
must certainly focus on this aspect.
Thus, on the eve of a lengthy piece on the
2006 BMW 3 series
which we hope to produce later this week, and noting the substantial airplay
that our last Lexus article enjoyed, an involved look at the new 3-box
sports sedan Lexus traveled all the way to Geneva to launch seems appropriate.
Besides, to hear Lexus tell it, 2005 is a turning point. Its first diesel, the
is launching in Europe this year. In the same spirit of efficiency, if with
different execution, two hybrids will be fielded under
the Lexus brand – the
crossover and the
midsize-luxury sedan – both of which
are due at the New York International Auto Show
later this month.
This summer, Lexus finally moves to establish its label at home. 150 Lexus
dealerships across Japan will represent Toyota’s upscale brand, which until now
has seen no reason to affix its Circle-L badge to domestically-sold,
We chastised Lexus last September for being so scarred by the rise of the yen in
the mid-90s that it lost its former potential in a sea of rebadged Toyotas. The
LX450 sport-utility-vehicle was perhaps the nadir.
Whereas once upon a time Ichiro Suzuki believed that Toyota’s design ability and
tooling were not good enough for Lexus, the upscale division now only
peripherally differentiates itself. That might be enough for the American market,
which is used to expediently-created SUVs such as
Cadillac’s Escalade and
Infiniti’s QX56, but this is not a strategy of which anyone
but a bean-counter would be proud.
The bean-counters must be starting to show concern, however. Lexus now sells
more trucks than it does cars. Meanwhile, the doomsayers chant about how gas
prices will never again see the $20-$30/ barrel days of just recently; GM
discounts its SUVs heavily, and the question on every analyst's lips is just how
much more pressure the American SUV buyer might need to trade downward.
At the same time, Lexus sales in Europe – although up – have never been anything
to shout about. Indeed, 2004 saw Lexus move almost fifteen times as many
vehicles in the U.S. as in Europe. Lexus' European volume was 3% of
Mercedes-Benz’s. As Toyota makes more of an effort on the Continent, its upscale
division needs a more identifiable focus if it wishes to become a more respected
brand (an aspect which has regularly been of concern to well-heeled European
Newer cars, and more of them, would help too.
So, in Detroit this past January, Lexus launched its first new car since
September 2001: the midsize-luxury 2006 GS. It is Lexus' first production car to
feature its new design language, briefly referencing the quad-lamp, outgoing GS
in its front fascia yet employing both more tension and more cohesion than we
have seen in a Lexus vehicle since the
Moreover, the cohesion (which is perhaps
what Lexus means when it refers to seamless anticipation) is not derived
from blandness – but, rather, what could justifiably be called a more sophisticated
This past week, at the 2005 Geneva International Motor Show, Lexus launched the
its entry-level, rear-wheel-drive, near-luxury sports sedan. 3.5 inches longer,
and almost 3 inches wider than its predecessor (with the wheelbase taking up 2.3
inches of that extra length), this is the second car to feature Lexus’ new
That design language, developed in the public eye with the showing of the
LF-X; 2004 LF-C, and
2005 LF-A Concepts
over the past two years, is dubbed L-Finesse. The move makes Lexus the
first Japanese company we can remember to give its design strategy a name -
and it is part of a trend we expect to see more of in the future. AutoSpies
Editor Donald Buffamanti suggested to us in Detroit that BMW’s Chris Bangle has
"rock stars" and, certainly, the continued discussion
of design has raised the visibility (and, as The Detroit News recently
reported, salaries) of automobile designers.
Yet the Bangle-inspired discussion has also centered on controversy. To
understand just how vitriolic the commentary has become, note this tidbit
received by our colleagues over at AutoSpies this past weekend:
is responsible for the (2006 BMW 3 series’) cut-lines from the headlights to the
top of the wheel-wells should taken behind the barn and hit with a shovel."
This creates an
opportunity for Lexus. As we suggested in September, the key here - as for any
company in any segment - is to develop an identity that diverges from the
generic branch (in this case, the luxury market).
Think of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, for
instance, which are rarely cross-shopped against each other (and more rarely still in
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said at last year’s Paris Auto Show that the exterior
was the primary point of appeal – the bait. Lexus appears to understand this
concept, suggesting recently that it strived for
Japanese hospitality wherein the anticipation of an event is fundamental to its
The anticipation, in this
case, is the look of the car - the aura.
So, in striving to diverge from the
segment and develop a more distinctive identity, it would behoove Lexus to
develop a design language that is unique - yet, at the same time, perhaps one
that is less challenging than BMW's. Has this brief been filled?
speaks of L-Finesse as being more contemporary, and more dynamic, than
its design efforts in the past. Dynamism, for Lexus,
comes from the visual contrast between two factors:
Simplicity (or, as Lexus qualifies it,
simplicity, in design? It might be details - such as headlamps - whose outlines
are visible. It could be an assortment of cues that each have their place, with
clearly defined beginning and endpoints. It may describe details whose forms are
geometrically simple - constant-radii circles and equilateral triangles - and,
of course, these might vary from the perfect form to varying degrees while still
2006 Lexus IS features all
of these, in some measure - yet goes some way to play this simplicity against
more complex, if nuanced, surfacing.
We find the hood particularly interesting: a clamshell affair that curbs at the grille and does not quite
extend from the headlamps where you might expect. Beyond the hood, the flanks bulge outwardly, lending the car a muscular
stance that, viewed from dead-on front, is attractively assertive. To reign this
in, the grille's furthermost lines are canted inward from the headlamps, and the
grille itself features vertical slats. Think of the 'fattening' effect, on a
person, of wearing a horizontally-striped T-shirt. Here, the vertical slats do
exactly the opposite, even as the body itself extends horizontally. The contrast
is a pleasing one; indeed, Lexus is finding the sophistication inherent in
Yet there is a more traditional form of dynamism in the new
too. Note the
low positioning of the grille, relative to the headlights. This serves to make
the grille a reference point – a static point – from which the body lines
emanate and 'move' as light plays across them. The entry-level,
grille is positioned lower, too – but note that the cut-lines above an
headlights are blandly parallel to the headlights themselves. In the new
the headlights diverge from the surfacing of the hood. There is more
sophistication here than Lexus has tried before.
For the first time ever on a Lexus, the surfacing is a talking point. Look at
the base of the windshield, where the corners converge over the hood (an L-shape,
perhaps?) This car plays, convexly and concavely, with light. Only the vertical
surfaces – bumpers and flanks - recall the low-effort surfacing of the past.
Indeed, flank design has been an Achilles Heel of Japanese design since time
immemorial; as we once suggested, cut the front and rear fascias from a slew of
Japanese mainstreamers, and it would be impossible to tell the carcasses apart
from each other. It must be said, however, that things are better here than they
were. We find it intriguing that Lexus has taken its former weakness – flanks
too bland to fit the rest of the car – and turned it into a feature (i.e:
the flanks are now designed to be slab-sided).
The weakness of the surfacing on the vertical panels, however, makes the rear
end the weakest part of the design. The relatively slim tail-lights and large
bumper make for large expanses of metal – metal which has not been given the
same intricate treatment as, say, the hood (or, indeed, the trunk, with its
smoothly curvaceous integration with the C-pillar and flanks). The intriguing
lower valence panel, which houses the two tail-pipes, indicates what could have
That our greatest problems with the
lie with its door mirrors speaks volumes for the progress Lexus has made. Yet
those mirrors are, quite simply, atrociously cumbersome. Surely, both in the
interests of aesthetics and of wind noise (which is traditionally - today, at
least - greatest between the mirror and the side glass), it is worth putting the
car back in the wind tunnel and correcting this! It is unclear with which
combine harvester the obviously ill-fitting mirrors are shared, but such an
afterthought does not belong on a luxury car – or any car that aspires toward
inherent design at every point of its product development process.
In form, the new
is less easily-comprehensible than the old car was, but still reasonably
unchallenging to take in at a glance, and recall. Rather than toy with the form
of the car, as BMW’s Chris Bangle is fond of doing, Lexus toys with the details,
and plays subtly with the surfacing. We suspect that, for some, the pleasantly
lucid form will be more appealing than a visual challenge – yet one might expect
enthusiasts to enjoy analyzing the details, too, for there is a good deal more
intricacy here than might first meet the eye (rear fascia apart).
Indeed, the Lexus enthusiast crowd can be pleased, for although the new
less iconic than the old one, it is not pulling elements from someone else’s
icon, either. All the while, it is still identifiable as an
(even as the
itself endured some brickbats, for being
something of an
E36 3 series
copy in its proportions and surfacing). This is a first-generation
detailed under a razor, one whose proportions have been stretched; surfacing
judged under a magnifying glass, and form refined in a wind tunnel. It is the
attention-to-detail that Lexus has always promised us – but, this time, with the
product, rather than merely the organization.
Attention-to-detail across the board (i.e: homogeneous design) requires
greater effort from the outset and, if the strategy is to create a relatively
unchallenging vehicle, the process of homogeneous design is still an involved
one. For instance, the L badge is a relatively simple element – yet note
that the interior door handles resemble an inverted L in form. The front
fascia is choc-a-bloc with L forms, both obvious (to ensure instant
identity) and subtle (to keep the car fresh for a longer period). This concept
of deliberate, yet nuanced, touches which are based on a desire to make a single,
all-of-a-piece automobile - rather than a car-by-committee - is new territory
for Lexus fans.
Where did this pleasantly surprising understanding of the nuanced world of
branding come from? After all, the commercial success of the Japanese has
regularly tempered by derision from some enthusiast corners, with
(often valid) accusations of being derivative. The Japanese have certainly had a
relatively uninspired approach to branding, preferring to derive their brands
almost exclusively from today's customer desires rather than to try their luck on the market with
approach befitting tomorrow. Indeed, Lexus itself
sending a group of Toyota designers and engineers to California to watch (and
photograph!) luxury car owners using their cars, as Jonathan Mahler chronicles
at length in The Lexus Story (Melcher Media, 2004).
So, what gives? Why have we been able to write so many words on a Lexus design?
As noted earlier, L-Finesse is the first-ever label for a design
language from a Japanese company. The name is also suggestive of the initials of
one Leonardo Fioravanti, something that may well be a coincidence (as Lexus
tells us), but for a little tidbit - a quote from Fioravanti himself -
published in Automotive News Europe recently:
any freelance designer, by contract I cannot comment on a specific project. But
I cannot deny I’ve been working for the Toyota Motor group in recent years."
‘Lexus steers in a new direction,’ The New Zealand Herald,
Lexus and Fioravanti are open about the fact that Fioravanti’s hand penned the
shown in Detroit, although the remaining extent of his involvement is difficult
to ascertain. For certain is that the triangular and trapezoidal shapes of the
details in the
front and rear fascias are a clear mark of Fioravanti.
when Fioravanti Design set up shop in 1987 as an architectural practice, its
work was largely based in Tokyo. The company emphasizes that it views
"awareness of the past"
as critical to future innovation.
Milan-born, 67-year-old Fioravanti has been linked with Toyota since 1999.
Design circles has suggested the connection before L-Finesse became a
talking point, noting the resemblance between his
1998 F100 Concept
Fioravanti, now the CEO of Fioravanti Design (http://www.fioravanti.it),
was Pininfarina’s chief designer for 24 years before joining Ferrari. Like Chris
Bangle, he spent time at Fiat Auto.
Besides the contrasts and parallels of L-Finesse with Bangle and flame-surfacing, there is a further comparison which intrigues us. It also
concerns the 3-box, sport sedan class, and is another tale of intriguing
connection between a Japanese manufacturer and an Italian design house.
U.S. readers will surely remember
Datsun 510, the car which put Datsun on the map in America. How many,
however, might know from whence that car came? Author Jonathan Mantle provides
the answer in his excellent, industry-politics-minded book,
the engine, suspension layout, and chassis of the German BMW 1600, with a body
designed by the Italian firm Pininfarina, assembled by Japanese workers, the
Datsun 510 (Bluebird in Japan) was multinational in engineering and design."
Car Wars, Jonathan Mantle (Arcade, 1995)
Mantle adds, ominously, that
"Datsun’s contract with Pininfarina demanded that
Pininfarina keep silent about designing the body of the 510."
Compare and contrast this with Fioravanti's quote!
This entertaining parallel, spanning almost forty years, aside, it is not the
first time that Toyota has been linked with an Italian design house. The
GS300, one of our favorite Lexi,
was penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign.
Shifting gears to the mechanical side, the
is based on the platform underpinning the
It enjoys a double-wishbone front suspension, teamed with a multi-link rear
suspension for the upward-sloping roll axis typical of a rear-wheel-drive car.
We are a touch disappointed in the change from the inline-6 engine to a V6 but –
although we're not sure what prompted the switch – a 50/50 static weight
distribution is thus retained.
Lexus touts a new electric steering system. Hood, and front and rear suspensions,
are aluminum, Lexus apparently taking a leaf out of BMW’s book in using aluminum
only to affect weight distribution, rather than as an all-out effort to drop
absolute curb weight. A full 10 airbags are expected, standard, including
first-in-segment double knee airbags. Further emphasis on safety continues with
the radar-controlled Pre-Crash Safety (PCS) system; Adaptive Cruise
Control (ACC), and Intelligent Adaptive Front Lighting
Two variants of the
will be available, globally: a 201hp @ 6,400rpm, 184lb-ft @ 3,800rpm
with a direct-injection 2.5-liter V6, and an
3.5-liter direct-injection V6. Details on the IS350 are sketchy, ahead of a
North American launch at the New York International Auto Show on March 23rd,
and a more in-depth technical analysis will follow on these pages when more is
which weighs 1485kg (70kg heavier than an
'06 BMW 325i)
manages 0-60mph in 8 seconds and attains a 137mph top speed.
For Europe, the
features the first diesel engine ever installed in a Lexus: a common-rail,
177hp, 295lb-ft 2.2-liter four-cylinder. The gasoline engines will be available
with six-speed manual or six-speed sequential gearboxes; the diesel, with a
manual only, reflecting its European bent (and, perhaps, a realistic attitude at
Lexus about where to invest its money).
Back when Chris Bangle’s
7 series was launched in 2001, he
pleaded with the media to give the company time to launch follow-ups. The rest
of the range, he suggested, would give the
7er more context. Bangle was
right in that the resolutely uppity lines of the
do make more sense when parked next to a
5er. Yet the most interesting aspect of Bangle’s
design strategy to us is that it has generated considerable concern over what
the next BMW will look like. In 2002, it was the Z4; in 2003, the
6 series; in 2004, the
and this year, the
Conversely, we doubt that too many were worried about what the
might look like. Certainly, now that the similarity with the midsize
has been affirmed, one can predict with relative certainty how the
flagship might present itself.
In its design strategy, Lexus has placed itself squarely between Audi and
BMW; neither as focused on the peripheral as Audi, nor as willing as BMW to
branch its design language to suit the bookends of different model sizes
and types. We called Audi’s 2005 A6
an Oldsmobimmer last year
for its peripherally large grille, and it was
as much a comment on the media as on Audi; the focus on these grilles is
disingenuous, given that little else about Audi’s design language has changed to
match. Audi has gone from Aerodynamic to Bauhaus to Emotive
in the space of two decades; meanwhile, Lexus has put at least as much thought
into how its own brand fits in the more overt design trend of late.
is readily understandable, like previous Lexi – but it does
reward second, third, and fourth glances. Lexus enthusiasts across the Internet
(particularly on the excellent My.IS
community, active since 1999 and formerly IS300.net) appear to be reveling in this. Intensively studying this Lexus is
more rewarding than has previously been the case.
the question we posed in the title, then, the new
more visual intricacy than any Lexi of the past. They are more unique, with
respect to their competitors. They are not entirely in-house designs, but they
may engender a better in-house understanding of design. In this regard, Lexus is
on the road to developing better cars - more focused cars... cars that
are the sign of one person's near-maniacal devotion (as the
was of Ichiro Suzuki's), rather than merely fitting a particular market by
benchmarking the leader. This is not quite the all-out focus on aerodynamics
that we had hoped for, but it is certainly a start; a beginning toward a more
focused, homogeneous, unique approach.
sales in Europe, in 2005, to 15,000 from 7,200 last year; the
might do that, but it is not a car that will worry the
in its home market just yet. What the
might do in the U.S. is another matter, and we're looking forward to seeing it
in New York.