Chief executives aren’t normally as candid as Akio Toyoda was last week. At the launch of hot new Lexus LC 500 coupe at theDetroit Auto Show, the chief executive of Lexus and Toyota and grandson of the company’s founder, said that he’d received letters telling him that his Lexus luxury brand cars were dull and boring and that he agreed.
“I took them to heart,” said this tiny and forceful boss, “and I’m ensuring that the word ‘boring’ and ‘Lexus’ will never occupy the same sentence ever again.”
But boring has been an ongoing problem for Lexus. And for the last year I’ve been involved in trying to help solve it. Let me explain.
Akio has made his extraordinary “Lexus is Boring” speech before. That was five years ago on the windswept golf courses at the Pebble-Beach Concourse d’Elegance at the launch of the fourth-generation GS sedan. With its new-look spindle grille, basking-shark air intakes, and razor-edged curves, GS was the first of the new-look Lexus models, but Akio still wasn’t happy. In 2011, after 11 consecutive years of premium market leadership in America, Lexus had lost it to the Germans. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi didn’t just built better looking cars, but more interesting and more fun-to-drive cars.Lexus’ shtick of reliability, immaculate-quality, hybrid gas-efficiency, golf-bag trunk optimization, and specification-adjusted value didn’t cut it anymore. Akio, a keen race driver and petrolhead enthusiast, knew his cars needed a dynamic shot in the arm and a smoldering love affair with right-brain desirability. In short, he wanted Lexus engineers to build a car to bring a smile to drivers’ faces.
A tall order, then. And one which Koji Sato, deputy chief engineer on the LC had to consider carefully. As he says: “Akio’s Pebble Beach speech was the starting point; we’re not just making a coupe, we’re creating a new generation of Lexus.”
With such a brief, and Akio’s legendary peppery opinions in mind, Sato came up with a radical idea. Reckoning that sometime in-house teams can look so much in-house that they become blinkered, he decided he needed to open things up and recruit a team of outsiders. So, for the last year I, along with a small team of hand-picked journalists, race drivers, and keen-driving dealers, have been part of Sato-san’s ‘irregular army’.
Why me? It’s a good question. As Robert Tickner, general manager of product and marketing for Lexus in Europe teasingly put it, “We tried all the good people and they were all busy, so we ended up with you.”