Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

First Impressions: Lexus gets it’s guppy on


In what seems to be a growing down-road-graphic trend (you’ve seen the Nissan Leaf, right?), the new £325, 000 Lexus LFA has splashed onto the intertubes wearing a face that would be right at home on the Great Barrier Reef.

First previewed as a concept a scarcely believable 4 years ago (that’s a long time from concept to production these days), the LFA represents the first foray into the supercar market for Toyota’s luxury brand. And to say that the collective reaction has been lukewarm would be an understatement of oceanic proportions.

From the ever-humourous @BreakingAuto‘s tweet that “CEO Akio Toyoda confirmed that the Lexus LFA’s ’45”-high-shoulder-line, 4″-tall-side-windows’ design theme won’t expand to other Toyotas.” to old aunty CAR coming right out and saying

“…this is not a £325k car. It doesn’t look like one, doesn’t accelerate like one and, whether Lexus likes it or not, it doesn’t have the badge or motorsport/supercar pedigree that many image-conscious supercar buyers demand.”

I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t the reception Toyota bosses were looking for.

What’s really interesting to me though, all questions of driving dynamics and brand prestige aside, is just how much the car has changed in the transition from concept wet dream to production damp squib.


When the Fioravanti-penned concept launched in 2005 (yes, Leonardo Fioravanti, he of many a lush Ferrari), we all waxed lyrical about how the designer had draped surfaces of such Zen-like simplicity and fluidity over a brutish, front-engined supercar package. Surface intersections were beautifully, crisply resolved and there was a harmony about the car that seemed so appropriate for the launch of Lexus’ L-Finesse design language. Complaints were mostly limited to the plain front face with it’s low-set mouth and lamps seemingly slapped on the awkward nose profile.


Looking back at photos of the 2005 car, what really surprises, however, is the graphical purity of the design, particularly in the DLO and around the combined tail-lamp/radiator outlets at the back of the car.


Probably realising that time-to-market was going to be a little longer than they’d hoped, Lexus pushed out an updated LFA in 2007 to keep the show crowds happy. Proportionally familiar but decidedly more flamboyant than the 2005 car, the LFA became a less brutalist beast displaying more fully blown surfaces with subtle bone lines replacing the razor edges of the previous iteration.


The graphic detailing of the design was also a significant departure, seeing the nicely integrated air intake aft of the b-pillar re-imagined as an exuberant wave, crashing through the previously clean DLO. At the rear, the tail lamps and vents became engulfed in a softer rear profile where before they’d punched clean through a particularly harsh interpretation of Mr. Kamm’s tail. The nose was lengthened to more realistically accomodate the V10 Toyota was developing for the car and, although still not beautiful, the DRG was thoroughly re-jigged to give it the facial character so lacking in the first car.


It’s now 2009 and, given that Toyota is only planning to produce 500 of these cars, it’s reasonable to expect that what was on show back in 2007, or and improvement thereof, could be faithfully translated into what will finally be delivered to customers in 2011.

It seems not.

I’ll preface this next bit by saying that, in a move that’s frustrating to designers but perhaps canny on Toyota’s behalf, all the press shots depict a white car, making evaluation of certain aspects of the design particularly challenging. Despite this I’ve spent long enough looking at the photos for my eyes to bleed and to have a fair inkling that I’m not too far from the mark with what I’m about to say. To steal the title from Sofia Coppola’s missive on westerners in Tokyo, a lot has been lost in translation


Where once there was a vivacious purity there is now confusion in the way the surfaces are composed, particularly through the top of the front fender through the shoulder line. Take a look at the images below and you might start to see what I mean.


Notice how the tension has gone from the key lines? In other photos, it appears that the surface intersections have been softened off to such an extent that the tension has also leaked away from the surfaces themselves. It’s an effect akin to witnessing a handsome, understated feller step out of hand-cut Brioni into something white from George by Asda.


The front end has transitioned from mute to menacing to mainstream with text-book gaping holes and a slit in the leading edge of the hood that, although present on the second concept, is so thoroughly owned by Porsche’s hotter 911s these days that it comes across as a bit me-too. The headlamps are underwhelming in the age of Audi’s R8 and also offer up a strange reference to the last Toyota Supra, something Lexus would surely have wanted to avoid. Indeed, looking at the front of the car, it seems as though L-Finesse has made way for L-Chav, totally unravelling the weave of restraint and weft of supercar that made the concepts so beguiling.

It’s at the back, however, that things have gone most awry. Once again, the lamps are disappointingly detail free for something so expensive and they no longer sweep cleanly over the rear haunch – as they did in 2005 – or sit, looking lusciously liquid, within the vent nacelles as they did in 2007. The thing that really jars, however, is the relationship of the lamps, vents and surrounding surfaces.


The 2005 car had enormous, dark grey vents in a fine mesh that created the appearance of a void, ensuring that they graphic didn’t overwhelm the purity of the surrounding surfacing. 2007 saw the vents finished in black and deeply inset becoming a surface in their own right, but as their size was reduced they didn’t upset the overall composition. Also evident was a subtle L motif that was a reference to the badge. So subtle in fact that you actually read it as a mesh first and only later noticed that the left vent, in the interests of symmetry, had the L reversed.


The 2011 car displays an awkward combination of the scaling of the 2005 vents and the colour of the 2007s, finished in eye-grabbing gloss for good measure. This time, the L motif is writ so large that the left-had vent has been rendered dyslexic and, in a bid to add more visual interest where none was needed, the vents are now punctured by… more vents (or at least they look like vents).


Running with the theme of vents, the pleasingly spare IP is punctuated with slim metal ones that work, visually at least, only when directing air straight ahead as any vertical deviation leaves them sitting mis-aligned. It’s a tiny thing, but I notice stuff like that.


If there’s one area of this car that has left me truly excited then it’s the digital instrument panel. It seems to be the first to allow the driver to customise not just the information displayed, but the graphics of the central dial itself. The changes are subtle – perhaps overly so given the latitude enabled by the technology -, moving from something Tag Heuer Grand Carerra-esque to a more spare Bell & Ross interpretation. Nonetheless, it’s an indication of where this exciting technological change could lead vehicle personalisation in an age where, outwardly, we are defined as much, if not more so, by the app icons on our iPhone’s home screen as we are by the cars we drive.


It may sound like I’m being unduly critical of the LFA but when Lexus wants to charge over £300,000 for a car that, judging by yesterdays twitter stream, is still seen overwhelmingly as a Toyota first and a Lexus second, you simply can not afford to put a foot wrong. Let’s not forget that for less money I could have either a Lamborghini Murcielago, two bog-standard Ferrari 458 Italias or, as @daveygjohnson helpfully pointed out, every single Citroen SM in the world. CAR has already damned the driving experience with faint praise and then did a little jig by playing the pedigree card, an issue that continues to dog the brand that didn’t exist before 1990. Exemplary design and faultless execution thereof was all the LFA had left to impress with. And this is before you look at the deeper issue of the world’s self-professed “green” carmaker producing a limited run V10 supercar during the biggest crisis of conscience and confidence the industry has yet faced. All of a sudden, the LFA is looking like a fish out of water.

Category: Branding, Car, Concept, Design, Design Strategy, Premium

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7 Responses

  1. Alex says:

    I think you’re right, they’ve overshot the mark with the price tag and it’s completely unwarranted given the immediate competition (hmmmm, a Ferrari 458 and a Gallardo in the garage, or a ‘rare’ Lexus…?).

    They would have been far wiser to try emulate Audi’s success and brand development enjoyed with the R8 than build an SLR-priced machine. After all, that’s their peer group, not ultra-car market. It’s likely that even the GT-R will kick this into touch.

    It’s a good thing they’ll only build 20(?) or so, I think they’ll have trouble selling them at £300k.

  2. admin says:

    Hey Alex, thanks for stopping by!

    If you think they’ll have trouble at 20, think about them selling the 500 they’re actually going to produce!

    An R8 like approach could have worked better for them, or even better yet, spend the development money on creating a proper green supercar that actually supports all the green rhetoric that Lexus has espoused in recent years. It would then have been a halo car that actually bore some relation to what they say they’re trying to achieve.

    Many of the major automotive sites are saying that the fact that it’s neither quick nor fast nor cheap is irrelevant because it’s a supercar you can use on a daily basis without a care for reliability. I seem to remember Honda did something similar with the NSX 20-odd years ago for *less* money than the opposition… certainly gives me pause for thought.

  3. Massimo says:

    And here we have another example of:
    “What should you not do” to ruin the already very little design that originally was there.

    I believe in fact, although your reconstruction of the several design phases is correct neither the 2 previous concepts were well executed. You actually mentioned why, but apparently could live with it.

    But is the position of the car that amaze me, this should have been the luxury/sport reply to something that in really should not be there.

    Competing with Ferrari, Lambo, etc, when you are not even Audi.

    Want confirmation of this please go to see the extremely BUDGET feeling that they have decide to use for their car configurator

    Not even a Nissan Micra as such low quality output.

    And the cost for each car is supposed to be 335 K EURO…at Toyota really think people are stupid…That’s staggering double figure respect Gallardo or 458…

    I would like to make people realize that all this, L-finesse and similar crap are just BIG B……T.

    As a designer point of view is dramatically sad,
    company as Toyota (even if successful on main stream) still do not understand the added value of design.

    Let’s be clear these are companies THAT ENGINEER CARS…They DON’T design THEM.

  4. admin says:

    Hi Max,

    At the end of the day I could live with the concepts because, in their context, they actually provided an interesting counterpoint to what was going on at other brands and, importantly, within Toyota/Lexus. They indicated that there were signs of life in the heart of the companies where the head rules supreme. Were they drop-dead gorgeous cars? No. But there was certainly more merit to them than the production car that was launched last week.

    Your point about the configurator is a fascinating one. Right after I got bored with the Lexus one (it took about 10 seconds. If you chose standard black, you can almost make the car disappear in side view!), I went and played with the beautiful one Ferrari has created for the 450. How long did that hold my attention? A good half an hour… For what it’s worth I ended up with a Blu Scozia exterior (a heritage colour from the 60s) sitting on standard silver rims over Sabbia hide with a Blu Scuro IP and carpets and a Sabbia alcantara headliner. Oh, I also selected Blu contrast stitching and a white rev counter. In other words, even though I’m not a Ferrari fan-boy and feel like a desperate wannabe when playing with configurators, the Ferrari one actually made me give a shit and engaged me to the point where I actually created my dream 458. A small demonstration, but a powerful one, no?

  5. Alex says:

    500? Jeez, that’s going to be a tough sell. Interesting point on the NSX too. I stil love those cars when I see one (surprisingly often in Oz). The LFA doesn’t come close (and, of course, no Senna to give feedback on the chassis and endorse the car itself).

    And I’m heading the the 458 builder right now.

  6. Massimo says:


    as a overall strategy of the launch of their new SUPER SPORT SUPER CAR…they have withdrawn from F1…

    what a timing…what a brand…

    where are these people taking their degrees, MBA’s and etc?

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