It wouldn't be wrong to blame an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear disaster for the sales slump Lexus suffered in 2011.
Until those catastrophes crippled its supply chain, the Japanese company had earned best-selling-luxury-car honors for 11 consecutive years in the United States. Losing that title in the immediate aftermath of such devastation was no coincidence.
But in the face of obvious crisis, more subtle concerns about the brand's competitiveness hid under the radar.
"Lexus' troubles weren't just production-concentrated, they were in part fueled by the lineup, and how it aged compared to the competition," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry analysis for TrueCar.com.
Lexus has always boasted their quiet interiors. Throughout the lineup, Lexus had grown sedate on the exterior too. In the face of restyled competition, Lexus had become too easy to overlook. Before Lexus became the next Lincoln, the brand's executives launched a preemptive strike.
Overhaul Of Flagship LS Crucial To Future
Throughout 2012, an onslaught of revamped vehicles has rolled out of its factories. A redesigned mid-size GS launched in February. An overhauled crossover RX arrived in May. A revised ES hit showrooms in August. This month, the redesigned LS sedan enters the market, and it may be the most important of them all.
"The LS is the poster child for the new face of Lexus," Toprak said. "There's a lot of push behind it, and the upcoming models will take design cues from the LS. The direction of the LS and Lexus is that it's willing to take more chances."
At least in the early going, the lineup's overhaul has produced upbeat results.
In August, Lexus outsold Mercedes-Benz and BMW, the two competitors that vaulted ahead during last year's downturn. Through August, Lexus sales are up 24.8 percent over 2011, which outpaces the 11.6 percent growth seen in the overall luxury segment.
It still trails Mercedes-Benz and BMW in the overall hunt for the best-selling luxury car crown this year. For now, Lexus officials are coy about chasing that title. But as the brand tracks toward 250,000 vehicles sold in 2012, it's a goal that's more than background noise.
"If I had all these on January 1 plus good inventory, maybe it's be a different story," said Tim Morrison, the brand's vice president of sales and dealer development.
Whenever Lexus does publicly rejoin the race, its hopes will be pinned squarely on the LS. The eldest member of the Lexus lineup – it launched the brand in 1989 – arrives armed with seven model lines, about 3,000 new parts and a substantial marketing budget.
The most notable improvements in the redesigned Lexus aren't necessarily the attempts to liven up the design. They lie in the technology that potential buyers won't necessarily see upon first impression.
What We Like, Part I
Driving along a leafy, tree-lined street in the northern Detroit suburbs, there's a car stopped at a red light about a half block ahead. I do not brake. I don't even lift my foot in the direction of the brake.
Instead, the new adaptive cruise control system, officially dubbed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control on the Lexus, does the work. Using a radar, it spots the narrowing distance between us and smoothly brings the car to a complete halt.
It's a terrific, impressive and addicting feature that has significantly advanced from previous iterations. It could be – it should be – a key consideration for potential buyers.
On previous models, the adaptive cruise control could maintain vehicle-to-vehicle distances only while in motion. It disengaged at low speeds. Now, the adaptive cruise control can maintain separation while driving, and steadily bring it to a complete stop as needed.
As the car ahead eases past the stop sign, a quick press of the resume button gets the LS moving from a stop and back toward a pre-set cruising speed.
From an ease-of-driving standpoint, this version of adaptive cruise control is an ideal way to monitor speeds, maintain fuel economy and lessen the demands of driving. From a safety perspective, it's a safeguard against distracted driving.
Imagine: You're momentarily distracted by a glance at the autumn scenery outside your window. Or you're busy changing the radio station. A car brakes ahead. You don't notice.
Instead of causing one of the 2.5 million annual rear-end crashes in the U.S. – the most common type of auto accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – the car automatically averts a fender-bender. Or worse.
What We Like, Part II
The other big safety feature worth mentioning is the advanced pre-collision system that detects vehicles and pedestrians in the car's path. The system relies the millimeter-wave radar, near-infrared projectors and a stereo camera.
Like the adaptive cruise control, it's not the system's Lexus debut. But it has been enhanced over previous versions, specifically in its ability to better detect hazards in darkness and differentiate between moving and stationary objects.
Once the system has confirmed the likelihood of a collision, it activates a warning buzzer, an emergency steering assist to help improve driver response and provide air suspension to help control the front end in hard braking.
At speeds of 25 mph or less, the A-PCS brings the car to a complete halt and averts a collision. At higher speeds, it reduces the severity of a crash.
I didn't want to scare any unsuspecting pedestrians along the streets of suburban Detroit, so we left the A-PCS untested. Assuming it works as well as hyped, it is another key feature that should make the LS a frontrunner in the luxury sedan category.
The chief concern with the LS is its fuel economy. The models all vary slightly, but the EPA is generally pegging the LS at 16 miles per gallon in the city, 24 on the highway and 19 combined. (hybrid a noted exception).
When I test-drove the F-Sport model, this was accurate, as I earned 19.8 mpg combined. Even for a larger car, it's paltry fuel economy, especially when you consider the LS only sips premium fuel. With a 22.2-gallon tank to fill, a premium fill-up at $4 per gallon is going to cost a driver $88.80.
Even for luxury-car owners, doing that frequently is going to put a dent in the wallet.
Another quibble: Lexus executives dedicated an extensive portion of their presentation of the new LS to touting the vehicle's steering wheel. Made from Shimamoku wood, the wheel undergoes 67 different manufacturing processes over 38 days, before being deemed ready.
Focusing such attention, both in production and presentation, on a semi-synthetic-wood steering wheel seems, at best, overkill. At worst, the focus here distracts younger buyers – the ones Lexus seems so intent to attract – from spending time with more enticing selling points.
On the outside, the flagship LS sedan has been reformatted in an attempt to appeal to younger buyers, a common theme throughout the brand's lineup overhaul.
The seven LS models feature raised hood lines and hourglass-shaped grilles that emphasize a sleeker, bolder appearance. The signature LED headlamps complete the theme of the modernized front face.
The new LS has an "F-Sport" trim that bears its own mesh grille, fog lamps and bumper and rounded LED headlights. It rides 10 millimeters lower to the ground to lower the center of gravity and "emphasize presence," Lexus says in its marketing materials. It also features its own 19-inch aluminum wheels with a dark gray metallic finish.
What the F-Sport's creation represents is a clear nod toward the brand's desire to attract its next generation of buyers. "It's a little more performance, a little more power," Morrison said of the trim. "Everyone is looking for younger buyers."
It's an awkward dance for Lexus, on one hand touting its quiet ride to its over-50 customer base and on the other developing a sportier style. On most counts, it's a tiptoe the LS nonetheless gets right.
The changes are at once incremental enough to maintain loyal customers and noticeable enough to woo new buyers. Whether that translates into higher sales numbers remains anyone's guess. Pricing has yet to be announced, but there's nothing to suggest that Lexus doesn't belong where it's been for a decade – at or near the top.