Loving the Lexus
Celebrity road traffic lawyer Nick Freeman owns a Lexus SC430, so I can't be too rude about it. Suffice it to say, the Japanese convertible is a strikingly unoriginal design. The shape morphs an Audi TT with a Mercedes SL, retaining none of the modernism of the former, or the elegance of the latter. The SC430 also adheres to Lexus' well-established tradition of total brand anonymity: ensuring that no model looks even vaguely similar to any other model. As for the coupe's road manners, reviewers unanimously agree that the SC's suspension is harder than trigonometry— to no appreciable sporting effect. But I like the TV ad.
A man cruises deserted streets in a silver SC430. Denying British customers a chance to identify the strange-looking car's ethnicity, he motors into an empty Italian piazza. When he gets out of his £50,850 import to buy some flowers, swirling crowds appear. When re-enters his automotive sanctuary, the crowd disappears. With startling honesty, the tag line informs us "It's How it Makes You Feel Inside". Translation: We know this thing looks weird. Forgeddaboutit-san. See it from the driver's perspective. When you get behind the wheel of a meticulously crafted Lexus SC430, you'll feel safe, secure and, yes, happy. We build this car for you, not "them".
Sure, Lexus' ad agency could have made the point more clearly. The car should have sheltered our square-jawed hero from REAL urban stress. Let him negotiate a diversion, a licence-menacing speed camera, half-finished and abandoned road works (editing out the suspension crashes), white van man, and a scruffy scrote threatening to dowse the windscreen with filthy suds. Let him emerge to a traffic warden, a Big Issue salesman making passive/aggressive eye contact, and a flower seller who sighs sarcastically when the driver tenders a fifty. Set the whole thing to Anthony Newley's sickeningly catchy classic "Make the World Go Away". Even the Metropolitan police would be tempted to add the SC430 to their fleet.
The Japanese were seriously misguided to believe that snobby English understatement somehow protects their ongoing upmarket brand aspirations. Still, you've got to give them credit. Their timing is impeccable. I first encountered the Lexus ad on the same night the BBC aired a documentary on six down-and-outs who beat and robbed two young men, then threw their battered bodies into the Thames. Which was one day before a train carriage body-slammed Potters Bar. If Stephen "Can't Drive, Won't Drive" Byers wants to know why people don't want to leave their [non-chauffeured] cars for public transport, or if enthusiasts want to know why anyone would buy a two-door floaty-drifty barge instead of a proper sports car, well, there's your answer. As the marketing men will tell you, there's numbers in safety.
This vision of Lexus as nuclear bunker is both timely and defensible. Unlike the sprog protecting fordmondeo and immortal Hyundai range, Lexus provide the ergonomics and build quality to create the emotional responses their ads promise. Every part of every one of their machines has been meticulously engineered for visual and tactile reassurance. Vault-like door clunkery is a given. Try the a/c button. It responds with a solid click, a subtle beep and an instant yet measured rush of cold air. The radio has a large, non-fiddly volume knob; it rotates with infinite precision. Volkswagen asks us to wonder what the world would be like if everything worked like a Volkswagen. Lexus asks us, how it would feel? Damn fine, I'd say.
Sports car lovers take note: this is not irrelevant. The need for safety, serenity (focus, not boredom) and quality ergonomics is even greater in a high performance machine. So who has it? Porsche? Despite years of complaints about the quality of their switchgear, Stuttgart's switches are still only a small step above an American rental car. FordAston? The Vanquish is a truly magnificent beast, with Connelly craftsmanship aplenty, but the flimsy Mondeo-style key shows they've still don't have their piggies in a row. BMW? iDrive, you drive, what-the-Hell-do-I-do-now drive? Even the purists' M3 has gone button-crazy. Mercedes? The amount of wind noise in an SL500 is a tremendous leap backwards from the previous model's funereal hush. Audi? Close. Very close. Ferrari? Far. Very far.
In fact, there isn't a single sports car sold today whose major controls match the safe, accurate and pleasurable feedback of a Lexus. Pistonheads concentrate on steering, gear change and braking. Fair enough. But in the long term, Lexus is right. It's not only what the car does that's important; it's how it makes you feel about what it does. A machine's value will ultimately be determined by the emotional responses it creates. The Lexus SC430 may be ugly and ungainly, but anyone who truly enjoys driving can only hope the Japanese carcoon represents the future of performance motoring.
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