Can Lexus recapture the spirit of ’89?

SAN FRANCISCO — Lexus has a soft spot for its LS flagship sedan even though cars are on the outs and crossovers are all the rage.

The original LS established the brand in the U.S. and was a runaway hit, changing the dynamics of the luxury market.

Now, a new LS will hit showrooms early next year and Lexus hopes to rekindle some of the magic of the original, which was sprung on rivals at the 1989 Detroit auto show.

Back then, Lexus handed over the keys of the LS 400 to gushing automotive journalists at an event in San Francisco after the debut. This month, the automaker returned to the West Coast with the redesigned 2018 Lexus LS 500, which also debuted in Detroit.

The stakes were high 28 years ago: The original sedan would either go toe-to-toe with German and U.S. rivals or be a massive embarrassment.

And they are high today as Lexus tries to pivot from cushy, reliable cars and crossovers to more emotional, hard-charging vehicles that set the bar rather than resting on their laurels.

‘Push the limit’

You can hear it in the voices of the Japanese designers and engineers who were told that the fifth-generation LS had to be radically different from the previous generations, which had been left to drift for 11 years without a full redo, causing a slide in sales.

“When I started working on its development, I heard things like ‘Lexuses are boring to drive,'” said Toshio Asahi, chief engineer for the LS in Japan. “I wanted to eliminate that kind of talk, so I had many heated discussions with the engineers.”

One major challenge, Asahi told Automotive News, was developing a six-cylinder engine for the LS 500 that would surpass the smoothness and performance of the outgoing V-8.

“We really wanted to push the limit,” he said.

That also went for styling, inside and out, that captures a more homegrown aesthetic.

Lexus has thrown out the blocky, three-box look in favor of a low front end and a sloping rear that suggest a curvy coupe. The 2018 model is longer and wider with more prominent wheels than the outgoing model.

Inside, the leather stitching and asymmetrical details remind consumers of Japanese craftsmanship over the more clinical look of some competitors.

“People buy a new car and they want someone to notice,” said Brian Bolain, general manager for product and consumer marketing at Lexus. During focus groups, “what we heard from some of those people was just fatigue” from a segment that has become too cookie-cutter, he said.

Ambitious sales goal

Lexus expects to sell a thousand per month of the flagship sedan in the U.S., compared with just a few hundred of the current LS 460. That’s an ambitious goal given that annual U.S. sales of the LS haven’t topped 10,000 since 2013, or 12,000 since 2010.

The target audience for the LS is mostly men in their late 50s with a household income of more than $250,000. Many will be Lexus loyalists but up to 40 percent of sales are expected to be conquests.

Bolain thinks the sales projection is feasible, given there will be more variations of the LS 500 — from aggressively priced hybrids to upmarket F Sport models. Lexus wouldn’t say if there will be a top-performance F variant, but the automotive press is already speculating about it.

Natural competitors will be the big German luxury sport sedans. Comparably equipped, the LS costs thousands of dollars less, in addition to being a fresh face. The base LS will start at around $76,000, including shipping.

Beyond the U.S.

“The value equation worked for us when we launched the brand,” Bolain said. “I think we can do that again.”

While cars have fallen in popularity to crossovers — the Lexus RX is the brand’s best-selling nameplate — there is still a spot in America’s driveway for a luxury sedan, Lexus figures. “The question is: Why can’t we be that sedan?” Bolain said.

Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific, thinks Lexus was right to go in a different direction after letting the LS drift for so many years.

“They are one of the few brands that can write the rulebook of a flagship sedan,” he said.

At the same time, there are markets to conquer beyond the U.S., now that Lexus is sold in 90 countries.

“The long market for a vehicle like this where there’s a lot of attention paid to the interior is China,” he said.

The new one-size LS is actually longer than the stretched L version of the old sedan. Journalists in San Francisco were encouraged to experience the “executive package” with reclining and massaging seats for owners who prefer to ride in the back.

“In the Middle East,” Sullivan said, “they eat these things up.”

Tags:, ,