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Asian Deluxe

The East proved long ago that it could compete in the luxury car market. Now it's intent on setting the pace
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

(continued from page 1)

buyers being priced out of the European market, Lexus launched the LS400, and Infiniti the Q45, at about $10,000 less than comparable European imports. They found an eager audience.

The Big Three seemed equally ripe for the picking. The domestic brands were paralyzed from the neck up, unwilling to take risks and unable to accept the changing definition of luxury that led to a steady exodus of once-loyal owners. Lexus and Infiniti wisely put an emphasis on service and "it made a world of difference," recalls Arthur Rose, a Detroit physician and longtime Cadillac buyer who traded in on a Lexus LS400 after his dealer failed to fix the never-ending problems with his old Seville.

Fifteen years later, Lexus and Infiniti continue to top the quality and customer satisfaction charts published by the widely respected California research firm J.D. Power & Associates. If anything, suggests J.D. Power analyst Joe Ivers, the Japanese could continue to gain ground on the Europeans, Mercedes in particular. The German marque's quality has been steadily slipping in recent years, and that's beginning to tarnish the Teutonic brand's own credibility.

Regular auto show-goers might experience a pang of recognition when they spot the latest update of the Lexus GS sedan. It's all new—but not. Decidedly different from its predecessor, the 2006 model is sleeker and softer-edged, with the gracefully sporty lines of a coupe, yet the functionality of a 4-door. Yet the redesigned GS made its first, thinly disguised appearance last year in the form of the LF-S concept car. The name was a giveaway—short for Lexus Future Sedan—as the new GS will debut with only a few subtle changes from that prototype.

The folks at Lexus talk about the future a lot these days, and probably for good reason, since it seems blindingly bright. In a development unimaginable just a decade ago, Toyota's upscale marque has captured luxury sales leadership in the United States four years running, with volume up 11 percent in 2003 alone.

Not bad for a brand many observers—even a few of its own executives—would describe as dull. Lexus engineers typically focus more on lowering passenger compartment noise levels than on cutting 0-60 times. Products like the flagship LS430 are certainly pleasing to the eye, but over the years, they've had a derivative look to them, a Japanese reinterpretation of last generation's Mercedes.

The new GS suggests that's about to change. "We're never going to be a horsepower company," cautions Dennis Clements, the division's general manager and group vice president, though performance is definitely rising on the engineering priority list.

You might also get a sense of déjà vu when you spot the brand's newest crossover/ute. At first glance, you might confuse it with the RX330, but the badge reads RX400H, Lexus shorthand for hybrid. The crossover integrates both a gasoline engine and an electric motor. By recapturing energy normally lost during braking and coasting, Toyota's synergy drive helps make the Prius hybrid one of the most fuel-efficient cars on the road. In the RX400H, the system has been recalibrated, and though it still enhances mileage, it also acts like an electric supercharger, making the crossover one of the fastest vehicles

in its class. Eventually, hybrid drives will be offered in most, if not all, Lexus vehicles, according to Clements, who suggested the technology is the equivalent of "having a soufflé without the calories."

Lackluster design is another issue Lexus intends to address. "We must be bold, confident and dynamic but at the same time unpretentious and sophisticated," Hideichi Misono, the senior general manager of Toyota's Global Design Center, said during a Detroit speech this January. That served as an explanation of the new Lexus styling theme, dubbed L-Finesse.

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