Chief de­signer of the new LS, Koichi Suga, of­fers some in­sights into how Lexus styles its cars.

Robb Report (Malaysia) - - The De­sign Is­sue - By DARYL LEE Photo ULI HECK­MANN

The lim­ited-run LFA su­per­car did much to quash the belief that Lexus is only in­ter­ested in cus­tomers who are rapidly age­ing busi­ness­men.

The fact that Lexus cars post- LFA were also styled with more panache and a new an­gu­lar styling lan­guage un­der­pinned by what the Ja­panese car­maker calls a “spin­dle grille” also helped. One of the peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for this de­sign revo­lu­tion is Koichi Suga, the lead de­signer of the fifth­gen­er­a­tion LS limou­sine, among oth­ers. Suga joined Toy­ota (the par­ent com­pany of Lexus) in 1988, roughly when the first-gen­er­a­tion LS made its de­but.

That model shocked the car world, mainly for how a Ja­panese car­maker – then seen only as ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing bud­get cars in the West – had the au­dac­ity to chal­lenge the Ger­mans in a seg­ment they all but dom­i­nated. The fourth-gen­er­a­tion LS, how­ever, was deeply un­der­whelm­ing, some­thing that can be squarely blamed on its in­cred­i­bly long 10-year life span, which be­gan in 2007. On the other hand, it did have qual­ity and crafts­man­ship, some­thing that has been the model’s, and in­deed, the brand’s watch­words ever since the be­gin­ning, though in to­day’s world, that’s not quite enough. Says Suga: “Other car­mak­ers have im­proved their qual­ity greatly due to modern man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques, so in some ways we have lost our great­est ad­van­tage.”

But it wasn’t just the me­chan­i­cals that needed up­dat­ing; the way it was styled also re­quired a sig­nif­i­cant re­think. Suga ac­knowl­edges that the av­er­age lux­ury car con­sumer to­day is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the same buyer three decades ago.

“Peo­ple thought that Lexus cars looked bor­ing. And the tastes of pre­mium car buy­ers are chang­ing. Pre­vi­ously, they wanted cars that were more for­mal-look­ing.”

He con­tin­ues: “To­day, they want a car to ex­press them­selves, so they want some­thing unique. There­fore, we needed to im­prove the emo­tional ap­peal of our cars and a few years ago, we moved in a more rad­i­cal di­rec­tion.”

Need­less to say, a rad­i­cal shift in de­sign di­rec­tion may not be uni­ver­sally wel­come, es­pe­cially since it might alien­ate brand loy­al­ists used to Lexus do­ing things a cer­tain way.

It’s some­thing Lexus is ex­tremely mind­ful of, says Suga.

“Lexus as­pires to be a dif­fer­ent, amaz­ing life­style brand, and if the LS re­mains a boxy limou­sine, it wouldn’t com­mu­ni­cate that mes­sage to cus­tomers. But we don’t want to give up our ap­peal to loyal LS cus­tomers, so we de­signed the LS in a way that doesn’t give up any­thing when it comes to its emo­tional ap­peal or its classy na­ture.”

And boxy the new LS isn’t. Its long bon­net, cab-rear­ward pro­file and fast­back- es­que D-pil­lars give it the im­pres­sion of a big four-door GT, not a flag­ship limou­sine.

Is it a bridge too far for Lexus, how­ever? I put it to Suga that one such ex­am­ple is its lat­est RX SUV, which in­ci­den­tally, is also a car he worked on.

While he ad­mits there are some who will think it’s over- styled

with its mul­ti­tude of lines and creases, he also says the de­ci­sion to do it was con­scious and de­lib­er­ate.

“We wanted to go in a very ag­gres­sive di­rec­tion with the car,” he says.

This is in spite of how Suga says the RX is one of the car­maker’s top-sell­ing mod­els. Lat­est fig­ures from the first half of 2017 showed that model alone ac­counted for a lit­tle un­der a third of the car­maker’s sales.

A risky move, then. And hardly one you’d ex­pect from a dull brand.

Push­ing the de­sign en­ve­lope is a phi­los­o­phy that Lexus, or at least Suga, holds dear.

It’s only a mat­ter of time when driver­less pods ar­rive, which will not only shift the bal­ance of how cars are en­gi­neered, but also styled. Where does de­sign be­long in a world where a driver’s seat, and in­deed steer­ing wheels, are su­per­flu­ous?

In the grim dark­ness of the fu­ture, can we all just look for­ward to be­ing driven around in amor­phous, eggshaped pods?

“It’s a ques­tion all car de­sign­ers are ask­ing them­selves right now, and they’re search­ing for an an­swer. And there are peo­ple who say that in the fu­ture car com­pa­nies will be­come pub­lic trans­port com­pa­nies, like trains of buses, which have a far lower com­mit­ment to style,” says Suga.

“But some­one will al­ways want to buy some­thing spe­cial and ex­clu­sive, es­pe­cially in the lux­ury mar­ket. So, some­one al­ways has to be think­ing about style,” he con­cludes. ≠

“We wanted to go in a very ag­gres­sive di­rec­tion.”

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