Grilled: Lexus seeks design edge over premium rivals

Sat Apr 18, 2015 2:27am EDT
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By Norihiko Shirouzu

BEIJING (Reuters) - Big may be beautiful, but Toyota Motor Corp's (7203.T: Quote) global design chief is betting that edgy is the way to go for the Japanese automaker's premium Lexus brand, specifically its signature 'spindle grille' design.

    Tokuo Fukuichi, who is also Lexus' global chief, says the design shock-therapy gives the brand - and conservative Toyota more broadly - the stand-out face it previously lacked.

    While some industry rivals and design experts say the jagged-edged, trapezoid grille is downright ugly, 63-year-old Fukuichi stands by the drastic makeover, saying it will give Lexus a "unique" edge over German rivals BMW (BMWG.DE: Quote), Audi (VOWG_p.DE: Quote) and Mercedes-Benz (DAIGn.DE: Quote) particularly in competitive emerging markets such as China, where buyers will pay more for a car that stands out from the crowd.

Fukuichi, who was brought back to Toyota from a subsidiary in 2011 and as he was recovering from cancer, says Toyota for too long designed cars by committee – often of several dozen people. "The upshot was styling conservatism which everybody tolerated, but nobody was passionately in love with. We tried to please 10 out of 10 people. Now we're trying to please one of 10 people out there with Lexus."

"When CEO Akio Toyoda asked me to come back, he told me he wanted to make our cars cool. That meant he thought our cars weren't sexy," Fukuichi added, explaining his introduction back then of the head-turning grille.

In an interview ahead of next week's Shanghai autoshow, Fukuichi said Lexus was still not at "a gold medal winning level on the global stage," versus leading German brands and the likes of Jaguar (TAMO.NS: Quote), Maserati (FCHA.MI: Quote) and Aston Martin.

FLAWED MOVIE STAR   Continued...