LF-LC: This is where Lexus is moving...

By Guy Bird for CAR Magazine, Apr 2012

...Thank god for that!

The Honda NSX concept might have nicked the mainstream motoring headlines at the 2012 Detroit show – even though someone forgot to give it an interior – but after strolling round the show, all the designer chin-scratchers I spoke to knew which car had really stolen the show. That small scale vox pop was validated when the Lexus LF-LC went on to win ‘Best concept’ from the well-regarded Eyes On Design jury at the same Motor City event and also scooped the ‘People’s prize’ at the Chicago auto show a month later, confirming its approval from regular show-goers and cognoscenti alike. 

Back in late December 2011, early official digital renderings viewed ‘small’ on a computer screen revealed a promising design but one that looked a little generic. Another slick-looking red Lexus coupe – I get it – but where’s the new punchline? Seeing the car in the metal provided the answer loud and clear. In early January in Detroit, set against a fiery red backdrop the LF-LC in full scale revealed itself as a beautifully sculpted coupe with clearly finessed surfaces flowing seamlessly from back to front and lithe lines connecting them. Crisp metallic details sparkled in the spotlights, from the bold three-dimensional interpretation of Lexus’s new ‘spindle’ grille that first follows the line of the bonnet and then tucks in and bends downwards within its deep-set matte and shiny chrome surround, to the exposed triple front headlamps – like three machined aluminium Maglites shoved into the bodywork – nestling in a recess in each flank but highlighted by a swoop of liquid metal that appears to drip down to a dot-matrixed point at the start of each front wheel arch. 

There’s no dead-end detailing – unlike so many rushed concepts and compromised production cars whose lines start and finish in a seemingly random fashion – and the more you stare at the LF-LC’s curves, the more coherent it gets

Add in some Nike Swoosh-style metal accents – they’re actually ‘Ls’ for Lexus – flying out from the light clusters and perfectly following both the graphic lines of the lid of the car’s eyes and also the indent of the spindle grille mouth and you’ve got an incredible front face. Move round the car and the lines all join up and end logically in a lamp cluster here, or an air vent there and reflect and reinforce each other. There’s no dead-end detailing – unlike so many rushed concepts and compromised production cars whose lines start and finish in a seemingly random fashion – and the more you stare at the LF-LC’s curves, the more coherent it gets.

Open the door and sit in the interior and it’s just as good, better even. A heady visual mix of inter-wrapping surfaces is punctuated by high technology covered in all manner of different materials from rich dark brown leather to striking caramel suede door panels – with stitching that follows rather than fights the curves – plus bird’s eye maple-style inserts and carbon fibre-clad steering wheel details. The combination of colours and trim sounds like a recipe for disaster but somehow it seems to hold together beautifully – and is all the more original for it.

So where did all this creativity come from and how did they get it past Toyota’s traditionally conservative design police? The original brief for what became the LF-LC may have come from the Group’s Japanese design HQ but the execution was a job straight out of Calty, now based in Newport Beach, USA. Toyota overall, may be synonymous with dull design, but Calty – with its advanced design studio set up back in 1973 in California alongside its more recent US production-focused Michigan studio – has real and longstanding pedigree in both concept and production work. Take the one-volume future-facing ‘screen-saver-sided’ 2011 Toyota Fun-Vii mono-volume and the sleek 1991 Lexus Soarer (or SC400) coupe as bookends and you get a sense of the breadth of their talent (see our separate side box for more Calty hits).

Still, Calty’s president Kevin Hunter acknowledges that despite some high points Toyota and Lexus have had a poor reputation design-wise, especially in production form. So what’s changed? “I think it’s the attitude within Toyota,” he begins. “We’re getting into projects early now and working with engineers on vehicle architecture. We never did that before. Instead of being given a package and them saying, “now make it look pretty” it’s us saying “well here’s what you have to do to make it look stunning. You have to change the wheelbase, get a better stance, make this wider and shorten the front overhang.” And at the top we now have Akio Toyoda and everyone knows he’s a car enthusiast, he doesn’t want bland design and he understands driver engagement. So when you design driver-engaged cars they need to look like they are.’

We’re getting into projects early now and working with engineers on vehicle architecture. We never did that before. Instead of being given a package and them saying ‘now make it look pretty’ it’s us saying ‘well here’s what you have to do to make it look stunning’

There’s also a new overall design boss for Toyota, in Tokuo Fukuichi, who’s already publicly expressed a desire to give his satellite design operations more creative freedom and indeed intervened on this very concept to change its direction in a more dynamic and extreme way after taking the top job. As exterior designer Edward Lee candidly explains: ‘Before we had a more elegant direction for this car, but when Fukuichi-san joined we determined the car was 200mm too long and we wanted a really authentic sports coupe feeling so we tightened everything up. When we made it more elegant we lost a lot of the fresh feeling so we went back to one of the original sketches.’

One of those sketches was by 28-year old Lee, an ex-Audi designer whose credits include a sketch for the 2009 Audi A7 Sportback concept plus the interiors of the 2006 Roadjet as well as the excellent 2009 Lexus LF-Ch concept before it became the not so great production CT200h. Unfortunately getting him to expand on his obviously great talent is less fulfilling. Sticking like glue to the marketing line, he bangs on about ‘avant-garde beauty’, ‘fluid precision’, ‘emotional expressiveness’ and other such designer bum-fluff that I very much doubt had anything to do with his creative process. Once my eyebrows have furrowed as far as they can go, I cut to the chase…

(...To see the full story read CAR Magazine's May 2012 issue)


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