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Gavin Green on Lexus's identity crisis in Europe
15 April 2011 09:16
In the red corner, there are the premium makers obsessed by speed and sport. And then, alone in the blue corner – or should it be the green corner? – there is Lexus.
The speed-’n’-sport bunch is led by BMW. It did not invent the breed. But it certainly popularised it. Its elevation to become the world’s most successful premium car company has encouraged all European – and many non-Euro – rivals to follow.
Audi has done this particularly successful (in Europe, it now outsells BMW). Mercedes, despite its hallowed pedigree for producing saloons and sports cars of superior manners, also embarked on BMW imitation before recent welcome efforts to regain its former nobility (the best example of its recovery is the fine new E-class, never mind the machete style).
Saab, of course, is a long-time player in the sports saloon sector, so you can’t blame it for continuing to ply its trade, no matter how unsatisfactory recent efforts. Alfa, equally, was doing sports saloons when BMW was making bubble cars.
Every premium maker is sports obsessed
Even Jaguar, once maker of the most-supple riding saloons in the world, now prioritises performance and sporty style. Outside Europe, Nissan’s Infiniti wing is unashamedly sports-biased. And when Cadillac – of all people – had its big Euro-push a few years back, its prime offering – the CTS-V – was more weaponry-on-wheels than posh boulevadier.
Only Lexus – if we exclude the stratospherically priced Rolls-Royces and Bentleys – prioritises quietness, refinement. luxury and comfort, in the middle-class premium sector. Or rather, it sometimes prioritises it.
Its sales are a joke. Last year, it shifted just over 16,000 cars in the whole of Europe. Compare that with BMW and Audi, both of which chalked up about 600,000.
But is this because Europeans want speed and sport, leavened with aggressive big-wheel style, rather than quietness and refinement? To some extent – rather incongruously, considering the state of our roads and the strict enforcement of our speed limits – we do. Equally, we Europeans are brand snobs. Lexus still sounds too much like an anonymous white good rather than a fast silver car.
Lexus: Right idea, wrong execution
Mostly, though, it is because Lexus has not done a good job delivering its key brand quality – to produce comfortable, refined and luxurious cars, grand tourers not road racers. The first LS400 saloon, of 1989, was a meritorious machine – superbly quiet and beautifully made, with hair-thick shutlines and the best music system on the market. It felt as much Swiss watch as four-door saloon. Its refinement made contemporary BMW and Mercedes sound like ageing Transit vans carrying bags of bolts. It was focused, its proposition as clear as its Nakamichi premium music.
Since then, things have gone fuzzy
I mostly blame marketing and engineering schizophrenia, not any lack of technical competence. Lexus overlords in Japan see the European market move to sports driving and motorway-missile-style. And they want a share of that action. Wiser voices, some in Britain, counsel individuality. You won’t beat BMW by copying. Infiniti is fast proving this. The result, so frequently, are cars that are neither especially sporty nor especially refined.
CT200h: The schizophrenic premium compact car
The new Lexus CT200h, which I recently drove, is further proof of this corporate schizophrenia.
I recall its global launch, at the Geneva show last year. It was positioned as the company’s compact sports premium hatch, hybrid power meets heated performance, BMW 1-series watch out. Yet, by the time UK sales commenced a year later, the ‘sports’ word was never mentioned. It’s now all about quietness.
I like the CT200h. It has much to recommend it. But its on-road behaviour is as schizophrenic as that earlier marketing message. At low speed, especially in full electric mode, it is blissfully silent. Even at low petrol revs, there is almost LS400 refinement. But once you work that four-cylinder engine, it whines and groans. A BMW at big revs sings. This car screams.
The cabin is well made, nicely appointed and comfortable, a good place to spend time. So far, so good. But the ride is stiff-legged and jarring, more sports than supple. It has fully independent suspension. Although this could mean that the suspension is fully independent from the cabin. It’s a bit like putting a chaise longue on a go kart.
Apart from the firm ride, this Lexus is otherwise about as sporty as Sir Alex leaving the dug-out and donning Wayne Rooney’s number 10 strip. What do you expect from a Prius-derived powertrain?
The CT200h ticks every low company car tax box and is naturally London congestion charge exempt. Few will desert their BMW for one. But plenty of people, I suspect, will buy this instead of a similar-money tarted Golf or Focus and be happy. (Not least, with the pleasing theatre that still accompanies driving a hybrid, and with Lexus’s vaunted reputation for customer service.)
But, as with so many other Lexi, the CT200h is an opportunity missed. There is surely room for a premium car company that delivers comfort, quietness and exemplary road manners, as all rivals continue their firm-riding BMW sports obsession. But until Lexus’s bosses align their thinking, and deliver their refinement-first promise, they will continue to be an irrelevance in the European premium car market.