Lexus: Making Hybrids Desirable

First we saw the extrovert LF-LC at Detroit, and then Lexus introduced us to its relatively moderate sibling, the LF-CC, during the Paris Motor Show. Both hybrids are dazzling, brave and more than a little surprising from a company that not long ago sold cars than resembled a milk carton that had fallen on its side.

It’s fair to say then that Lexus, for so long the preserve of impressive but slightly staid looking machines, is undergoing something of a shift in design language at the moment.

The strikingly well-resolved LF-LC concept unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in January was touted by the company as the mouth-watering shape of things to come, Lexus stating that the design study for a hybrid 2+2 sports coupé was created to “explore the future of Lexus design.” Well-received by press and show-goers alike, it was reported following the show that the concept was being seriously considered for production by senior figures within Lexus.

The LF-LC carries echoes of the LFA supercar, particularly in its treatment of the taillight surrounds, roofline and trailing edge of the DLO, but it’s the frontal styling that is likely to have the biggest impact on future models. An indication of just how far that impact may extend was revealed at the Paris Motor Show in the guise of the LF-CC concept, a two-door coupé which effectively previews the next generation IS model due in 2013.

Some of the most striking elements of the LF-LC have been mapped over surprisingly faithfully, including the Nike-esque swoosh-shaped DRL units, diagonal intake ahead of the rear wheels and that grille treatment. It’s arguably less successful a design overall than the LF-LC, but sports car design language is inevitably tricky to translate to a car with more saloon-like dimensions. In particular, the more upright shape of the LF-CC’s nose means the grille becomes more domineering than that of the LF-LC. Indeed, where the LF-LC slides through the air, the LF-CC appears to wade through slightly more forcibly.

Dominating proceedings at the front, it’s hard to ignore the most exaggerated version yet of the company’s recently adopted spindle-shaped grille. Much of the car’s frontal design radiates from the grille’s border, with lines drawn from its upper corners reaching all the way back to the A-pillars.

In profile, a particularly memorable feature is the line drawn from the sill through the rear wheels right up to the taillight graphic, incorporating a fin-shaped air intake just aft of the doorline. At the rear, the triangular forms of the taillights and numberplate surround culminate in a point around the rear badge. Exterior designer Hidaeki Lida says the design is intended to emphasise the car’s rear wheel-drive powertrain.

Inside, the digital screen technology is split between an upper display area and lower touch screen section with controls sited close to the shift lever. To what extent this will be retained for the production IS remains to be seen, but many elements of the interior appear particularly production-ready, in particular the door inners complete with memory settings for seat positioning.

So which bits of the LF-CCs exterior will make production and which will be left on the cutting room floor? The eye-catching headlights, made up of three high-intensity LED projectors arranged in a row, are unlikely to reach showrooms owing to the complexities of production and the lack of covers making them difficult to keep clean. Recent spy shots of what appears to be a heavily-disguised four-door new IS test car show conventional covered light units. The concept’s jewel-like mirrors, whose fragile-looking supports echo the DRL swooshes, also appear to have been simplified on the test car. That gargantuan grille may perhaps be toned down slightly for road cars too, with the inclusion of a front numberplate also likely to relieve some of its impact.

The LF-CC’s hybrid powertrain, however, will make it onto the road. Lexus says the concept car’s arrangement of an Atkinson Cycle 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine coupled with a water-cooled electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery is destined for use in production models “in the near future”. Targeting an efficiency of more than 2bhp per gram of CO2, the drivetrain has shrunk in size compared with previous Lexus hybrid vehicles. The concept’s total power output is claimed at around 200bhp with less than 100g/km CO2 combined cycle emissions targeted. One can’t help but wonder what sort of impact such a premium, individual car yet with emissions comparable to a Fiat Panda would have on the executive market. Cat, pigeons, and so on.

And Lexus aren’t simply fighting on the emissions-front either. The company’s recent ‘L-Finesse’ design direction is an attempt to differentiate the brand visually from its Teutonic competitors and its natural rival, Infiniti, which made a splash itself earlier in the year with the Emerg-e range extender sports car study. Although it has been confirmed the Emerg-e won’t make production, Infiniti president Johan De Nysschen says the concept will heavily influence the brand’s future cars, both in terms of styling and powertrain technology.

The 2013 Lexus IS range will be launched in four-door saloon form initially, but a two-door coupé and convertible are mooted. It will be interesting to see how many of the concept’s design cues reach the showroom unscathed.

Manager of Lexus Design, Takeshi Tanabe, says of the LF-CC: “So far Lexus has established some reputation for smooth, high-quality cars, but maybe people would say some lack of emotion or special feeling. To establish that image we claim that there are three major ways: first is design; second would be driving dynamics; third is high technology such as hybrid. You can find those three elements in this vehicle.”

More elements you can find in recent Lexus cars include speakers manufactured from sustainable bamboo and something called NuLuxe – a seating material weighing half as much as leather which generates 65% fewer CO2 emissions during fabrication than comparable synthetic leathers.

Concepts such as Harald Belker’s Lexus Movie car and the LFA supercar prove that the brand has the potential to support exciting looking cars. If the company continues with its new-found confidence in design, it may silence the Alan Partridge jokes once and for all.

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