CC Editorial: Lexus – What They’re Doing Right, What They’re Doing Wrong

Like you, I love classic cars. But I also follow industry news and trends and I have a passion for new luxury cars, even if I’ve yet to own one. Because of this, I thought I’d share with you my views on the state of various luxury brands. First up, Lexus.

Let’s talk first about what, in my eyes, Lexus is doing wrong.

They only just got a three-row crossover

For a company that invented the luxury crossover segment back in 1998, it took an astonishing 20 years for them to add a third row of seats. Sure, Lexus’ primary market – the US – has had the GX since 2003 but until the 2018 RX-L, they had no direct rival to cars like the Acura MDX, Volvo XC90 and Infiniti QX60. As for the RX-L, it’s a mostly competitive product but reviews indicate that third row is on the cramped side for its segment. Lexus merely lengthened the overhang of the RX by 4.3 inches, retaining the same 109.8-inch wheelbase. It’s not a perfect solution but at least it finally gives them an entrant in the segment.

Some of their models are getting old

The CT debuted in 2011 although it’s tipped to be replaced soon; it’s also been discontinued in the US. The LX dates back to 2007, although it’s had a multitude of refreshes. The GX debuted in 2009 and is the most tired-looking of this triad. Fortunately, American buyers don’t get the Toyota LandCruiser Prado which is the GX sans its posh trim. Its absence elevates the GX but this is still a vehicle that’s looking rather outdated up against rivals like the Range Rover Sport, even if it’s unique in retaining body-on-frame construction.

They need to invest more in the Chinese market

China has yet to overtake the US as Lexus’ biggest market and doesn’t assemble any models there, thus incurring hefty tariffs. However, Lexus sales continue to grow and the average Chinese Lexus owner is 35, a whopping 25 years younger than their American equivalent. The brand still outsells Infiniti, Acura, Volvo and Lincoln. Mercedes-Benz, however, remains the leading luxury automaker in China and outsells it 4-to-1.

Their infotainment system is awkward

Lexus persists with the same mouse-style controller in its Enform infotainment suite. From experience, it’s not completely horrible but it can be clunky and frustrating, especially compared to Mercedes’ COMAND. Critics continue to savage it but Lexus continues to use it.

They’re a bit slow in powertrain development

Lexus was a few years behind the Germans in offering a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, now standard in the IS, RC, GS, NX and RX, while the 2018 LS500 introduced Lexus’ first turbocharged V6, again a few years after the Germans.

There’s nothing wrong with Lexus’ core 3.5 V6 engine or the F cars’ rorty 5.0 V8, even though the Germans are often more powerful. But the Japanese brand’s smaller powertrain lineup meant they stuck with disappointing engines for too long, like the silky but slow 2.5 V6 and, in some markets, the 2.7 naturally-aspirated four (even in the RX).

They don’t have any BEVs or PHEVs

This is another baffling one considering Toyota’s history of hybrid innovation and considering how increasingly necessary electric vehicles are in the Chinese market. There’s no all-electric (BEV) Lexus yet in response to the enormously successful Tesla Model S; one is tipped to finally bow in 2020, well after Audi, Jaguar, Porsche and Mercedes BEVs have launched. Even more disappointing is the lack of a single plug-in hybrid (PHEV) when almost every other luxury brand has offered at least one, including BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Cadillac, Porsche and Volvo. Toyota even has a PHEV, the Prius Prime. Where’s the Lexus?

So, what are Lexus doing right?

They offer a huge variety of regular hybrids

No other brand has such a huge range of hybrid vehicles. In the US market, every single Lexus bar the IS, RC, GX and LX are available with a hybrid drivetrain; a hybrid GS was available but has just been discontinued. In other markets, there are hybrid IS and RC models available. Toyota was ahead of the curve with hybrids and Lexus has been no exception. While some other companies have discontinued slower-selling hybrid models, Lexus has persisted.

They’re more exciting than ever

Lexus came to acquire a rather conservative image and one of the oldest average buyer ages in the business. Well, they’ve sure shaken that off! The IS finally has a coupe derivative, the RC. Lexus now has tuned “F” variants of both the RC and GS. There’s also the F-Sport package available across the range, à la Mercedes’ AMG Line or BMW’s M Sport, which adds cosmetic enhancements and, in some instances, performance options like four-wheel-steering, sport-tuned adaptive suspension, upgraded brakes and limited-slip differentials.

That includes the ES

Even as Lexus introduced F and F-Sport models, however, they always had the rather stodgy ES muddling their brand image. The ES has long been one of Lexus’ strongest sellers and most profitable models but it’s had one of the oldest average buyer ages in the luxury market. With the 2019 ES, Lexus has finally given the sedan the makeover it needed to fit in with the rest of the brand. It looks like a shrunken version of the new LS and is also available now in sporty F-Sport trim. It’s still a plush, comfortable cruiser and not the first choice for a bout of canyon-carving – so, it’s still an ES, through and through – but it now has some more visual excitement.

They have a unified, attention-grabbing design language

Much has been said about Lexus’ design language on this website but the polarizing spindle grille and sharp creases have done nothing to hamper sales, Lexus’ sales trending up in key markets like the US, Europe and China. In the US, the brand is having its best sales in ten years. I know the new design language sure got my attention and there’s probably others like me out there. Isn’t it better to have people talking about you, even if it’s not always good?

They finally have a halo model

Sure, there was the limited-run LF A but that was 7 years ago. With the LC, Lexus has miraculously turned a concept car into a production car with virtually no changes. In photos and in person, the LC is absolutely stunning with its concept car looks.

It’s also beautiful inside.

The LC continues Lexus’ tradition of offering a hybrid option in almost all of their models. The LC500h’s 3.5 V6 and electric drivetrain, with a combined system total of 354 hp, is enough to get it to 60 mph in the same time as the LC500 and its 5.0 V8. Its combined fuel economy of 30 mpg is also extraordinary for such a seductive flagship coupe. Lexus may have been out of this segment for years but they’re back with a car that’s both tantalising and surprisingly on-brand.

There’s a new generation of the car that started it all

The LS is no longer the most relevant Lexus as smaller and more affordable Lexus models have slotted underneath it over the years. After years of subtle evolutionary styling changes, Lexus has taken the LS in a new direction. It’s slinkier and more aggressive and under the hood is a new, twin-turbo 3.5 V6.

The interior is also a dramatic change from the old LS460, Lexus taking some chances with new design elements like kiriko glass trim and striated door trims. It’s just as glitzy as the S-Class interior which, depending on which trim and lighting elements you choose, can look like a South Beach night club.

They’ve been consistently reliable and well-built

This doesn’t get enough attention. Lexus has long had a reputation for exceptional reliability and build quality and they’ve never let that slip. Lexus and Infiniti were the only luxury brands to have cars with a score of 5 out of 5 in JD Power’s 2018 Vehicle Dependability Study, which looks at reliability after three years of ownership. Lexus and parent brand Toyota also topped Consumer Reports’ and What Car’s 2017 reliability surveys. There’s myriad other accolades and findings I could cite that demonstrate Lexus’ exemplary reliability and quality.

They consistently have good resale value

As with their reliability and quality, Lexus’ vehicles have long had excellent resale value and consistently top the charts for best retained value after three years.

They’re keeping up with the market’s demand for crossovers

The RX remains the best-selling mid-size luxury crossover. The NX and UX tackle the compact and sub-compact crossover segments. All that’s missing is a full-size crossover (which is apparently in development) and some crossover coupes, à la the BMW X6.

If Lexus had a problem over the years, it was that its models lacked the excitement of German rivals even if they may have offered lower price tags and superior reliability and resale value. With its daring L-Finesse design language and growing lineup, Lexus may eventually be able to wrest the US luxury sales crown it lost to Mercedes-Benz in 2011. Their bigger priority, however, should be catching up in the Chinese market.

Lexus has, in my eyes, the best lineup they’ve ever had, chock full of desirable luxury vehicles. Now they just need to invest more in the Chinese market and in electric vehicles.

Related Reading:

Used Car Test Drive: 2014 Lexus IS250 – Beakzilla vs. King Maw, Part 2

CC Comparison: The Best And Wurst Alternatives – 2014 Lexus GS350 F-Sport