What the “F” is going on with Lexus?



We speak to a Lexus insider about how the brand is letting its hair down. And how one man makes sure that your next Lexus is up to scratch.

SINGAPORE — In case you missed it, one of the stars at January’s Singapore Motor Show was the Lexus RC F, which turned out to be probably the fastest car launched at the event. And most likely the loudest, had the organisers allowed the Lexus people to turn the engine on.

And while the 5.0-litre V8 Lexus is a high-performance coupe on one level, it’s also a potent symbol of change for Japan’s leading luxury brand. The RC F is not just a new Lexus, in other words, but a strong signal that there is, well, a new Lexus taking form.

MORE: We’ve driven the RC F. It’s a blast!

“New Lexus” is, in fact, Kirk Edmondson’s shorthand for how the company is evolving. Currently the general manager of brand management for Lexus’ Asia-Pacific division, Edmondson has been involved with the brand right from its birth.

“‘Old Lexus’ was afraid of alienating people,” he tells CarBuyer. “The ‘new Lexus’ says we recognise we will alienate people, but by what we’re bringing to market there’s going to be a stronger engagement and stronger passion of those people who do choose us as a brand.”

The letter “F” is the clearest signal of how the brand is letting its hair down. It alludes to the Fuji Speedway that Toyota owns, and was applied to a Lexus car in 2006 with the IS F. “That was a skunkworks project that got the attention of our top management, says Edmondson of the 5.0-litre V8 car. “And as a result of that, this has been elevated to the whole F direction being an officially sponsored, fully funded aspect of the brand.”

The GS is the next car to get the V8 steroid treatment when the GS F goes on sale later this year, but all models are now available with racy “F Sport” options packs. Typical buyers of F Sport cars, says, Edmondson, are five to 10 years younger than the more traditional Lexus customer.

While “F” and “F Sport” models are expressions of the more playful side of Lexus, the brand itself has gotten more exuberant on the whole.

All this started in 2012. “Remember in early 2012 we presented the new face of Lexus with the GS,” says Klaus Redomske, the marketingd director of Borneo Motors Singapore. “We said this was the first new model not only to carry the new spindle grille but also to, in terms of design, performance, dynamics and so on, to really represent a change.”

A huge part of this push for change is being driven by the company’s top man.

“Our chief brand officer is some guy named Akio Toyoda, and he has a passion for performance,” Edmondson says. Toyoda, of course, is the current CEO and president of Toyota Motor Corporation, and a great-grandson of the company founder. You’re as likely to see press pics of Toyoda-san in racing overalls as in a suit.

The Big Boss has to personally approve every new Lexus before it goes on sale, explains Edmondson, and he readily sends engineers back to the drawing board if he doesn’t feel a new car is up to snuff.

The current GS was the first car to undergo Toyoda’s scrutiny, and also the first one to be sent back. “Earlier versions of that car, he drove and he said, ‘No, this isn’t ready.’ He’s the only one who can send somebody back late in the development process!” says Edmondson.

Toyoda ordered that its chassis be stiffened. That also meant changing the suspension to suit, but it ultimately improved steering precision and added refinement.

Ultimately, buyers seem to approve. Last year Lexus enjoyed record sales of around 572,000 cars globally. And that was 50,000 cars up on 2013, another record year.

While high-performance halo models like the RC F certainly haven’t hurt sales, the brand remains true to what has made it unique so far. Lexus is still the only carmaker to offer a hybrid version of every car it builds.

Yet, the brand is also ramping up production of its first turbocharged engine, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder that will make its debut in the NX here. Edmondson won’t say directly if it’s destined to power other models, but you can probably expect it to debut in the IS and GS.

“It certainly has the flexibility to be in more than one platform,” says Edmondson.

The turbo engine has actually been in development for nearly 10 years, and even then its launch was brought forward by a year when the chief engineer of the NX learnt about it and demanded it be ready in time for his new project.

He’s most likely not the only one who couldn’t wait. Torquey turbocharged engines have been available in rival German products for years now, and the new turbo could be just the thing to add spice across the Lexus line-up.

“We still believe in hybrids, which is about fuel efficiency and low emissions,” say Edmondson. “But we recognise that ‘fuel efficient and fun’ is important for an awful lot of other people, and that’s where that engine comes in.”

“Fun” — now there’s that letter “f” again.

about the author

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Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.