(Pocket-lint) - At the beginning of June 2019, Lexus invited us and a handful of others from across Europe to visit its homeland of Japan; to explore and drive its vehicle range, to traverse across a western portion of the country, navigating between its design HQ, paint and production lines, and to speak to company bosses and designers. It's the kind of open-door experience that – despite Japanese being incredibly hospitable – is a rare opportunity from typically protective companies guarding their IP.
Having accepted with open arms, on face value we wanted to use the opportunity to drive and critique the new Lexus UX 'baby SUV'. But having spent a whirlwind 36 hours immersed in Japanese culture and curiosity, Lexus' plans became more apparent: this luxury car company, which is 30 years old, is moving with the times and evolving beyond simple car-sales-by-numbers to be a more lifestyle-focused brand. Here's how, based on what we experienced, it's coming of age.
From straight-laced to spindle grille
While Lexus put its first production car, the LS, onto the roads way back in 1989, the brand has changed a lot over the decades (you only need to look at the pleated folds in the 2019 LS500's Executive interior, shown further below, to get a sense of what we mean). In 2006 the company introduced its L-Finesse design philosophy – being "deliberately daring and provocative" (but poorly received by critics) – with the evolution of that concept leading to the spindle-shaped grille design, first shown on the fourth-gen GS in 2012.
Say what you will of the spindle grille design from back then, but perseverance and evolution has paid off: today it is this shape which appears on all of Lexus' cars, acting as a symbol of the brand; a badge or emblem all of its own, if you will. Just as BMW is instantly recognisable from its kidney grille, or Porsche for its lights, Lexus has grown to be at-a-glance identifiable and distinctive. It's the kind of design that trickles into public consciousness whether you're into cars or not.
But it's only in the last couple of years that Lexus has really stepped up a gear, exploring new market segments. In particular it's been the 2017 release of the LC500 – a V8 supercar that genuinely feels special (ignoring the irksome in-car tech anyway) in a world full of same-old-same-old Jags and Porsches out on the roads – and a design that really speaks of the future. Especially when considering there's also a V6 hybrid option which you'll only see in this or the LS500h – and not any other vehicle anywhere in the world (not yet anyway – although Ferrari has something similar in the works, which is good company to be a step ahead).
Not that Lexus is stopping there: at the design centre we were able to get a close-up look at the LF-1 crossover concept, which hints at the future of what could come next – an all-electric crossover perhaps? (Lexus isn't saying, even its own website says it "could be" that, hybrid, alternative fuel and more. How coy.)
Attention to detail and respect for hand crafted
Inside most cars these days you'll find strips of plastic, perhaps some leather options and, increasingly, metal finishes are coming to the fore (Audi, for example, offers aluminium) for a contemporary look. Lexus is in a world of its own here, however, with the Executive trim of the LS500 the epitome of the company's vision. Its interior work is beautiful – we say that whether or not you like the plum colours or not (Lexus calls it Crimson) – for the laborious hand-work that goes into it alone.
Now, we've visited the Rolls-Royce factory in the south of England before and there's a gentleman there whose only job it is to hand-paint the logo onto the side of each vehicle. Slowly, perfectly, painstakingly. Knowing that kind of work goes into a car that costs a quarter of a million perhaps makes it less surprising – but no less awe-inspiring – so to see similar levels of craft going into the hand-made pleats, wood and glass work of a Lexus door panel's interiors is impressive indeed.
Keep in mind that each of those Crimson inlays is hand folded from a single four-metre sheet of material by takumi such as Yoko Shimuzu and her team, taking considerable time that they're output at a rate of 12 per day – enough for just three vehicles. It's like executive origami. The door handle surrounds are also made from glass that's based on a hand-etched specially-commissioned design by Yuko Shimizu, a Kyoto-based takumi. We don't really have such a profession here in the west: 'takumi' means 'artisan' through direct translation.
While on the surface there's often an assumption that everything these days is pumped out of a factory and pressed by machine, the glimpse into the hand-crafted work that goes on behind the scenes shows Lexus' respect for its cultural roots – and a genuine made-in-Japan process. After all, if you're a luxury brand and have the capability to explore these areas – even just as means to stand-out as a brand, irrelevant of how well critically received such designs will be – then it's a strong lesson in independence and point of difference against other makers.
State-of-the-art paint and production
On our second main day in Japan we drove to the Miyata manufacturing plant, near Kyushu, observing the paint and assembly lines. As with most modern production lines, the process is an automated line with dedicated workers for each section of production. Cars are produced based on customers' orders, so the sequence of colour, trim and extras will differ for each vehicle in the line's order. This is common practice among most automakers these days – we've seen the same at Porsche as one example – as it cuts down the number of parts required on site at any one time.
Where Lexus adds its own points of difference is with the minor details. Every rear hatch for the Lexus UX is made from resin for its lightweight quality, for example, but as this can differ slightly by a matter of millimetres or less – as can the main car chassis – each panel is computer measured and stored in the database, then paired with its most appropriate partner to ensure the most seamless finish and gap size.
There's even a dedicated team of workers who have the task of ensuring precise fit. They are trained to recognise gap differentiations under a millimetre (otherwise they can't work on the line that day) to ensure not only computer accuracy, but real-world accuracy.
The paint work is a combination of automated and hand finished, with 14 colours available to the line at any time. A downward projection of air avoids any contamination between one vehicle and the next, while workers finish interior coatings by hand to ensure a fully uniform coating. The finery in the metallic paint is of a smaller 'grain' than you'll find on many other vehicles – which may sound like something you'd never notice, but its one of those quiet aesthetic points that makes a great difference on close-up inspection in daylight. Another harkening to Japanese subtlety and attention.
Dealerships deliver on 'omotenashi' hospitality
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of all, for us at least, is the way the Japanese conduct business at their dealerships. Through a head office mandated redesign, dealers have been able – at their own cost – to refit their showrooms in the company's latest style, where spindle grille form can be seen in woodwork and beyond. The company says over 80 per cent of dealers in Japan have completed this transformation so far, with more to come.
But the keyword here is something we don't precisely do or perhaps even fully understand in the western world: 'omotenashi'. It defines the unique Japanese approach to hospitality. Far from this being a simple bow or greeting of respect, Lexus has melded technology into the concept, enabling a dealership to instantly identify and view customer files through licence plate recognition and, in some cases, facial recognition. That may come across as sounding nothing but bizarre to a European or US customer, where various rules and regulations would likely prevent such practice, but in Japan it's not seen this way at all: it's seen as liberating, from both dealer and customer point of view.
When a customer comes into a dealership – whether that's for a test drive, a service, or even just because they're passing and want a refreshment in the appointed lounge area – all the staff will already have access to their file, to know to greet them by name. Such files can be updated with notes, whether it's their favourite drink or other disclosed information. It's not information sourced by means other than through conversation, however, so while it may sound like surveillance central, the idea is to deliver the most personal service. A real eye-opening experience that just wouldn't work in many other parts of the world, yet which does here.
Beyond cars: Bars, bags and bistros
These dealerships have also been designed to go beyond just being sales rooms – an increasing trend for many brands around the world – with offerings of lounges, crèches, and even miniature stores within. Yep, Lexus isn't just selling cars: it's selling socks, handbags and more besides, all as part of Lexus Collection.
This shift away from being little more than a car retailer is further epitomised with the Lexus Meets shopping complex and Lexus Intersect dining and bar meeting space in Japan's Tokyo. While these spaces aren't about cars – at least not directly – they embody the brand in roundabout ways, establishing that lifestyle desire for Lexus as a company and for customers alike. The Bistro at Intersect uses menus clad in the same leather as the LFA supercar; the basement features the same wood panels as found in select Lexus car trim; even the building's shape in inspired by the very thing that has come to represent the brand: the spindle grille.
So whether it's technologically advanced hospitality, car interiors with respect to hand-craft and heritage, or the focus on post-sales and customer comfort in its concept stores, 30 years into its life Lexus isn't having a mid-life crisis.
And we get the feeling this is just the beginning: when Lexus moves big in the luxury crossover and electric vehicle space, updates its in-car tech, and implements some of these concept ideas elsewhere in popular regions (such as the UK and US), it'll be the footing for the next 30 years of brand evolution, into even more established and respected old age. Which will be fascinating to watch unfold.