Given an unforeseen economic slump, an overblown unintended-acceleration drama and an unimaginable earthquake in Japan, it's clear that the recent wounds suffered by Lexus and its parent, Toyota, weren't all self-inflicted.
But while external factors and random disasters partly explain how Lexus lost its crown in 2011 — after 11 consecutive years as America's best-selling luxury nameplate — the brand's managers can't merely shake their fists at the heavens.
Well before the tsunami, what ailed Lexus (and Toyota) was the calm before the storm: a by-the-book conservatism shaded into complacency, seemingly born of the belief that bulletproof reliability would always carry the day and set these brands apart.
That quasi-religious belief, of course, helped Toyota to conquer the world. But as the company now recognizes, such a belief blinded it to customers' desire for cars that speak to the heart as well as the brain. That's especially true for models bought as a splurge. Zestier models from BMW and Mercedes have been dusting Lexus' sales even as Audi, once an underdog, has become the toast of industry tastemakers.
Akio Toyoda himself, the race-driving chairman who is a grandson of Toyota's founder, has vowed to restore passion to his brands, which Internet provocateurs have dismissed as "beige."
Toyoda formed a new Global Lexus Division, separate from Toyota, with handpicked leaders who report directly to him. And last August in Pebble Beach, Calif., Toyoda introduced the redesigned GS 350 sport sedan. He heralded the car's signature "spindle grille" — previewed on the outrageous LF-Ghc oncept car seen at the New York auto show last year — as "the new face of Lexus."
- The Associated Press' Ann Jobs compared the GS grille to a woman's corset, but also praised its power and performance. See story
Grimacing and glowering, it's a face that induced deja vu: Where had I seen that mug, and those mandibles, before?
Then it hit me: It was in the South American jungle, in '87. Toyoda may not realize it, but the new face of Lexus is a dead ringer for the Predator of sci-fi movie fame.
Toyoda has revealed that he initially opposed the styling, but he now thanks his team for fighting him until he gave the project a green light. And there's certainly no denying the passion of a creature, however repulsive it may appear, that skins its victims and keeps their skulls as trophies.
Yet the 2013 GS 350 isn't ugly, just mildly odd and alien, and you cannot order one in Slime Green. But because I enjoyed driving the car so much, I declared a truce with the styling. Still, I need to take issue with the huge gaps between the wheel wells and the tires that make the sport sedan appear less hunkered-down than it should.
More important, the fourth-generation GS is the most entertaining midrange Lexus sedan in memory.
Most unexpectedly, it defies the current midrange trend in which carmakers are prioritizing luxury over performance. Even the BMW 5 Series, the benchmark for action-oriented sedans, has gone softer; the latest model is built on the chassis of the larger 7 Series.
How's this for a Hollywood shocker: This Lexus not only has a more overtly aggressive demeanor than the 5 Series, the Audi A6 or the Mercedes E-Class, but its steering also feels more lively and connected.
Power is no issue. With 306 horses from a 3.5-liter direct-injection V-6, the rear-drive Lexus manages a 5.7-second sprint from 0 to 60 mph, the company says, in line with the car's main rivals. The all-wheel-drive model is just a bit slower, at 6 seconds.
Unlike BMW, Benz and Infiniti, Lexus won't offer a V-8 engine. Instead, the new GS 450h hybrid model will pair a 3.5-liter V-6 with an electric motor and battery for a total of 338 horsepower.
A six-speed transmission does give up one or two gears to its German competitors, although the GS still manages 19 mpg in city driving and 28 on the highway. The all-wheel-drive version is rated 2 mpg less on the freeway; the hybrid leads the lineup with a 29/34 mpg rating.
While most of my passengers were ambivalent or tactful about the exterior styling, the contemporary cabin drew universal applause. The interior feels spacious, yet intimate, with expensive-looking surfaces and a tasteful mix of modern and traditional elements.
Like its competitors, the Lexus seeks to justify its $50,000-ish price with what I'll call the disconnect of connectivity: The GS wants occupants to feel cocooned in safety and protected from distracted drivers. It has ubiquitous, watchful monitors for blind spots, for drifting out of the lane and for impending collisions. Yet Lexus also insists that technology will free its own drivers to be entertained and informed with no threat to others.
For Lexus, as with BMW's original, groundbreaking iDrive, the solution looks good on paper — except that you don't read the paper while you're driving. And in automotive terms, the GS' combination of a touchy joystick and a large 12.3-inch screen is like trying to paint an illuminated text while bouncing down a cobblestone street.
To prove it, I drove down my cobblestone Brooklyn street. Here and elsewhere, Lexus' leather-padded console joystick and wrist rest felt beautifully designed for a driver's hand. To help keep eyes on the road, Lexus developed a "snap to" function, a bit of haptic feedback through the joystick that draws the cursor to screen icons and freezes it there. And yes, it works fine when you're at the curb.
But when you're trying to make sense of New Jersey road signs, there are just too many icons, windows and choices, spread across that Pacific-sized screen like an archipelago. Your tiny boat, the onscreen cursor, has an annoying tendency to slip its moorings if you don't row it with precision. Having a left-handed passenger aboard works great, but the system requires too much of a driver's limited attention. Lexus, we await version 3.0.
The car's new smartphone-based Enform system does allow voice control of apps including Pandora Radio and Open Table's reservations system, or to check in on Facebook. But the dirty secret of voice commands, whether for phones or cars, is how rarely anyone actually uses them.
Using the Lexus Link system, I connected with a live operator who promptly sent navigation instructions into the car, letting me focus on the road.
That focus — we all remember driving, right? — is where the Lexus scored its best points, including some surprising aces. The GS isn't the fastest car in its class, and it can't claim a fancy dual-clutch transmission. But the car does something more important, something that's the antithesis of the usual Lexus. It loves to go fast, rather than isolate and hypnotize its occupants. The car remains whisper-quiet and comfortable, but it really encourages its driver to come out and play.
So play I did. Over an exhilarating four hours in rural Connecticut, I ended up getting just 17 mpg — a testament to how lustily I hammered the gas pedal. I did better on highways but still averaged only about 23 mpg. And with a smallish 17-gallon tank, that consumption resulted in a stingy driving range of barely 350 miles.
I tested the most performance-oriented GS, with the F Sport package that adds $5,695 to the $50,325 base price of the all-wheel-drive model. (The rear-drive GS starts at $47,775.) F Sport features include smoky graphite 19-inch alloy wheels, a driver-selectable suspension (including slick onscreen graphics that highlight components within an X-ray transparency of the car), a 16-way sport driver's seat, aluminum cabin trim, racier body panels and more.
If buyers do make peace with the new corporate look, the GS could end up being the Lexus analog to the BMW 7 Series that made the designer Chris Bangle a household name. That love-it-or-hate-it sedan outraged traditionalists in 2002. Yet looking back, that car presaged a bold new era at BMW and began a winning streak that carried the brand to the U.S. luxury-sales title for the first time in 2011.
Regarding their entire lineups, if Toyota and Lexus ever succeed in melding the emotional and practical sides of their brain, they may unleash a monster, like the fearsome Toyota of old, that could conquer America all over again.