I am baffled by Lexus because I’m English. We Brits don’t understand what Lexus is; never have done really. It’s the same throughout Europe. In the ‘90s when the brand arrived and kabooomed the entire US prestige car industry, we all just walked past the smattering of Lexus dealers over here and wondered what they sold inside them. Maybe expensive printers ?
The process of selling the Lexus dream of quality, residual value and refinement to us luddites is undergoing another push right now. I gather the NX is selling well and the little IS doesn’t do too badly, but compared to the vast volumes being shifted by the Germans, Lexus is a small-time player over here. It isn’t a failure, but it certainly isn’t the success the prestige arm of a company like Toyota should be. I genuinely believe that’s in part down to the fact that there were never any halo models – there was no eye-candy to draw the eyes from BMW’s M3 and Audi’s RS4. It would seem that around the middle of the last decade someone at Lexus thought the same, and it gave us the IS F.
It wasn’t quite as good as the Germans, but hey, it was a first attempt and that meant the next hot Lexus would be better and it was beautifully engineered anyway, so we could wait. Only we couldn’t because the banks ingested themselves and the world lost all of its money and fast cars were apparently dead. So there was no GS(space)F.
However, there was the secret Lexus Supercar that became the worst kept secret since time began. It became the LFA (was there a space, or a dash between the F and the A? I can’t recall.) This had all the makings of the most expensive piece of supercar folly as it arrived with a vast price tag and less outright performance than the much cheaper Ferrari 458, but those of us lucky enough to drive it were completely smitten. It was and is pure genius. Furthermore it was the perfect launch-pad for the creation of a line of fast Lexi to finally teach the Germans a thing-or-ten and, by inference, persuade a whole load of people on this side of the water that Lexus was the real deal in the mainstream market.
Only nothing came. And the LFA was placed on global promotional duty at every motor show. It would lurk on Lexus stands; a growling metaphor for what the company should be doing, but wasn’t. No new products followed the LFA for five years. The window for trading on the legacy of such brilliance was probably two, at best.
It looked like Lexus had missed a trick, but then we saw the Lexus RC F and immediately memories of the LFA cascaded back like it had never been away, which in fairness it hadn’t because it was still being rolled-out at every Auto show like some retired sportsman, and we had ourselves the first in a new generation of fast Lexi. Rejoice! A chance not to take obvious M and AMG route! Quasi-LFA styling! Loads of power! A normally aspirated V8! - which, hang on a minute, doesn’t look much different to the old ISF’s motor.
And then we saw the weight figure and then we drove it and I’m now a bit stuck in the third-person so will switch back to the first to say that I thought it was one of the most depressing drives of 2014. It’s not that the car was bad, it’s just that given the narrative and expectation built by what I’ve just described it was a complete anti-climax. On no grounds other than xenophobia, atmospheric fetishism and simply wanting to not see another one on the road could you advise someone to buy an RC F over an M3 or a C63. I hated that result.
A further kick in the spuds arrived a few days after driving the RC F when we were told that the GS F, the M5 rival, would have the same motor, which would make it around 100hp shy of the RS7/E63/M5 crew, which would be fine if it could weigh 3,8000 pounds, but it will weigh north of 4,000 pounds. Which isn’t much lighter than an E63.
It’s at this point purists will crow about power not being everything, but that’s hog-shit in fast-sedan town. You need brute power-to-weight, you need to bitch slap the M5 in that Motor Trend drag race video and I’m afraid the GS has already had its under-crackers removed and its cheeks reddened. I can’t remember a fast car in recent history that has been revealed with such a paucity of trouser sausage. It’s a bit embarrassing.
So what’s the strategy at Lexus F? I’m not sure I know. Is it to sell a series of cars that are just ten percent less exciting, capable and slower than the main opposition? Is there actually a strategy, and if so, surely someone has called an EGM to question the stacked vertical exhaust tips?
I often wonder if you can’t identify the entire psyche of a car company by looking at the finer details of its cars – those exhaust tips on the IS F and RC F bug the shit out of me. I think they look properly rubbish, but that is personal taste and I dress like a man who cannot see very well. But exhaust tips are like gypsies tea-leaves, much mystic information can be gleaned from their shape and distribution.
Perhaps this is actually a very clever and subtle positioning game by Lexus? It doesn’t think it can beat the big boys, it can just slip beneath them and trade on quality and intake noise and throttle response aaaaaand, nope, I’m not buying that either. This is the place for willy-waving, for swagger, for numbers. It needs to compete, slug it out toe-to-toe.
I sincerely hope Lexus F finds a direction, an image and a good foothold in the marketplace. I want them to succeed, but I find the brand launch confusing at the moment.
Illustration By Sam Woolley