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Lexus IS350 Toyota Brings Its Upmarket Brand To Japan—Finally

Discussion in 'Toyota & Lexus' started by Daniel, May 24, 2006.

  1. Daniel

    Daniel Active Member

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    Apr 26, 2006
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    Toyota Brings Its Upmarket Brand To Japan—Finally

    Japan is the land of the brand. as we all know, the ugliest goods in the world make fortunes here because they are stamped with a famous name. Cars are no exception. BMW and Mercedes are de rigueur for successful boring people in Tokyo. But branding can work two ways. Turn off customers once and you can turn them off for life. Take, for example, the Ford Mustang, which went from being a boy racer icon in the ’60s to an effete runabout in the ’80s. Branding is important with cars because there is generally a high degree of customer loyalty, the ideal being to create a repeat customer who is willing to regularly renew (and hopefully upgrade) his or her ride, sticking to the same maker all the time.

    There is also the concept of brand extension, particularly when aiming an exclusive brand at the masses and hoping the masses move upmarket. In a way, the relationship between Lexus and Toyota is the reverse of that, in that the refined brand (Lexus) followed the everyman brand of Toyota. When Toyota launched its upscale Lexus brand in the US in 1989, the company said it was aiming at the ultimate in automotive craftsmanship (it used the tagline “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection”), and when it came close to doing so, the company basked in the reflected glory of its own child. Smart move.
    Curiously, the last place to see the Lexus moniker was Japan, where the Lexus models carried the Toyota name. But in August, Toyota brought its premium brand home, and Lexus cars are now marketed separately from Toyota. They even have an exclusive dealer network. It may seem like a somewhat belated marketing exercise, but introducing Lexus to Japan fills an important gap in making it a global and distinctive brand.
    While Lexus is better known for its excellent executive-style sedans (previously marketed here as the Celsior and Aristo), the brand is not all about size and big cigars. It also produces SUVs, and it’s been showing off concept cars. At the other end of the scale—well, slightly—Lexus is obviously keen to attack the mid-size market, as its new IS range shows. But while these “babies” may be classified as mid-size, they’re anything but middle-of-the-road.
    The ¥5 million IS350 is fitted with a 3.5-liter engine that cranks out a whopping 305 horsepower and takes the four-door sedan to 100kph in well under 6 seconds. It’s exceedingly quick, but you have to keep the wheels on the ground to make it so. And frankly, the handling of the IS350 leaves a lot to be desired. When it snowed during my test drive, the car was virtually undriveable (even though Tokyo’s taxis seemed to have few problems), and hard acceleration and cornering was not always easy to control, even on dry roads. I suspect the car may handle better with all the electronic safeguards turned off.

    Where the performance of the IS350 is mightily impressive is in the low rev range. While you can take the engine up to a generous 7,000rpm without any problem, even at very low revs the car pulls away magnificently, astonishingly even. Overtaking is a breeze. As is changing gears. The six-speed box operates as a full automatic or a semi-automatic, and while changing gears in some of its competitors can feel like going through a thunderstorm in a Cessna, the Lexus moves up and down with impressive fluidity. In fact, the semi-automatic setting was a joy to work with, a huge plus in a car that offers no alternative.
    The ride is unspectacular without being unpleasant (we don’t want cigar ash falling into our laps, do we?) and, together with the handling, marks the IS350 as a tourer rather than a sports car.
    The design is slightly more aggressive. It’s a sharp wedge with a pinched nose, cool wheels, fattish tires, two biggish exhausts and a shark’s fin on the roof. It’s yuppie-friendly (check out the pleasant interior—again, unspectacular, but well-appointed and inoffensive) and definitely won’t scare the neighbors.

    And that kind of sums the car up. It exists in BMW territory rather than competing, say, on Alfa Romeo’s turf. That’s why it belongs here in Japan, where guys with Louis Vuitton manbags won’t think twice about forking out ¥5 million for Japan’s top brand.

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