The trip had been keeping the gaggle of foreign reporters that cover the Japanese auto beat awake for weeks.
“Are you going on THE TRIP???” “Yes. Did you hear Toyota is actually PAYING for flight and hotel?” “REALLY?” “I kid you not.” “NO WAY!”
Not prone to believing in miracles, I called Toyota to find out what flight and hotel to book. “Oh, no. We’ll take care of you.” Unheard of.
Usually austere, Toyota wanted the members of the media to smell a whiff of luxury, and invited a hand-picked group of reporters to Maui, Dubai, Saint Tropez, Kagoshima and Miyazaki.
There, the new Lexus GS lineup was made available for driving. On the island of Kyushu, the new product could be experienced with a little more flair than at its unveiling in Tokyo two weeks earlier. That event had been more in line with the no-frills Toyota we know to love. Even the GS 350 for the photo-op had been parked in the same spot where Toyota had shown the new Camry in September of 2011. As if someone wanted to subliminally rub it in that the Lexus and Camry tend to have a lot in common.
In Kagoshima, Lexus had a chance to showcase its independence.
That independence was just recently found. Germany’s Audi is the counterpiece to Lexus in the Volkswagen empire, and the major Lexus competitor in the market place. Audi is a successful global brand. Audi is an independent company with its own board. As part of Volkswagen’s Markentrennung (brand separation,) Audi has separate engineering, separate marketing, separate manufacturing, separate after sales, separate everything, down to a separate Audi bank. Audi reports to a small board at the Volkswagen Group, chaired by a former Audianer, Martin Winterkorn.
Lexus on the other hand had until recently been treated like a kept woman. Canadian Karl Schlicht, General Manager at Lexus and in charge of Lexus’ worldwide product and marketing planning division, explained to Automotive News at the Frankfurt Auto Show:
“Lexus never had a global leader at a senior level. We had six senior managing directors and executive vice presidents above us, all partly responsible, but never just overseeing Lexus.”
That changed. Now, Lexus is led by two managing officers, Kiyotaka Ise, and Kazuo Ohara. Ise is the engineer, Ohara is the sales and marketing man. Both report to Akio Toyoda, usually with Karl Schlicht in tow.
The Lexus brand is not as independent as Audi is, or even ever was. Many staff and line functions are shared. Lexus is basically an American brand that came “home” to Japan late. Lexus shook up the premium segment in America. However, it met with mixed success in the rest of the world. Despite its American roots, Lexus has only a small outpost in America that reports to Nagoya, where the Lexus HQ is located, explains Karl Schlicht during a multi-course dinner on the 42nd floor of the Grande Ocean Resort in Miyazaki.
At the same dinner, Schlicht dispels any notions of Lexus “doing an Infiniti” by leaving Japan. In November, Infiniti confirmed rumors that it will move its world HQ to Hong Kong. In April, Nissan’s luxury line will move into new digs in the Citi Tower in downtown Hong Kong. Lexus isn’t going anywhere, says Schlicht: “Marketing and engineering have to be in the same place. The hour drive from Nagoya to Toyota City already goes too far.”
The fledgling independence of Lexus is embodied in the face of Lexus` GS line. The so-called “spindle grille” is both a bow to Toyota’s heritage in weaving, and a signal that says “here comes a Lexus.” All future Lexus models will have this grille, in one way or the other. Before, you could easily confuse a Lexus in the rearview mirror with a Toyota, a car that does not possess much Überholprestige.
In the morning, at breakfast, we ask Kiyotaka Ise what took so long for Lexus to receive its own distinctive face. “It’s because I hadn’t been in charge,” says Ise.
Toyota Lexus paid for the trip. Stay tuned for the drive report.