When Lexus debuted its spindle grille on the GS sedan and trademarked the design back in 2012, it was a sure sign the look was here to stay. It started making its way through the lineup, and now five model years later, it's on all Lexus vehicles. The one thing everyone can all agree on is, it's bold. And Lexus has doubled down on the design with the LF-1 Limitless Concept on display at the Detroit Auto Show.
Some people surely think nothing of the grille. Others have equated it to a cartoon character, a beard trimmer, or a baleen whale scooping up krill. In one harsh, perhaps apocryphal criticism, a design professor is said to have likened the spindle to the mouth of the titular hunter-alien in the "Predator" movies. In a much more admiring spacefaring comparison, our Antti Kautonen said the grille of the LF-1 Limited Concept mimics a "Star Wars" ship's shift into hyperspace. That's a fitting analogy for the stunning and futuristic LF-1, which might be the single most dramatically styled vehicle at the North American International Auto Show.
A couple of years ago, Toyota chief designer — and head of Lexus — Tokuo Fukuichi defended the spindle in a Reuters interview, saying "sexy" was a goal of the design, and dismissing complaints by saying, "Even polarizing designs, you get used to them after a while." That defense was "a while" — three years — after the new look caused an uproar at a 2012 Toyota stockholders' meeting, where some shareholders complained.
Now it has been a while longer, and a Lexus executive says the spindle grille has continued to divide Lexus customers. Jeff Bracken, Lexus group vice president and general manager, told Carbuzz on the sidelines of the Detroit show last week that longtime repeat customers still can't get their heads around whatever it is the car seems to be getting its mouth around.
"I'll be very transparent. It's our signature grille. Some of our models have a more expressive signature grille than others. The folks that look at it as somewhat polarizing would be, for the most part, the folks that have been with us since the beginning. In fact I'll take phone calls from some of these owners and will literally spend 45 minutes to an hour on the phone with me just expressing how disappointed they are," Bracken said.
Bracken has actually been saying almost the exact same things about the grille for years — both to upset customers and to automotive journalists — for example, to Forbes in 2014. But his mention of "I'll take calls" in this latest quote seems to indicate it's still going on.
"It gives me an opportunity to explain why we're going down this path," the site quotes Bracken as saying. "I understand your concern. It's a very purposeful and strategic move on our part. If we lose some of our traditional owners, it's unsettling for us but won't preclude us from moving down this path. We hope to gain more than we lose. We don't want to lose anybody, but ..."
Lexus' intent with the new design direction was to attract new customers as the luxury-buyer demographic started to skew younger.
"Our (previous) image had been that of a producer of high-quality luxury vehicles for years. But that wasn't enough to keep us relevant. It was important that we not only produced high-quality luxury vehicles but also that had to be edgy in terms of styling and cutting-edge technology."
And of course the grille looks better on some cars in the lineup — such as the overall gorgeous LC 500 (the multi-stage hybrid version is Autoblog's Technology of the Year car).
Did the design serve its intended purpose? Did Lexus "gain more than we lose"? Lexus sales in the United States grew by 40 percent between 2012 and their peak in 2015. But since then, sales have fallen by 11 percent. What we don't know — and perhaps only Lexus can — is, did some older customers disavow their loyalty to Lexus and buy a German luxury car? Were gains in new customers enough to justify any loss of old ones? Did customers, either gained or retained, buy a Lexus based on any number of good reasons — the brand's quality, features, technology, or the way it holds its value — while holding their nose about ... the nose?
Many bigger factors, including great deals on luxury cars coming off leases and Americans' fondness for pickups, have had an effect on the luxury brands. The overall slump in the sedan market, especially, and the rise in luxury SUV sales has Lexus looking to regain that lost ground by bringing an additional SUV into its lineup, so Jeff Bracken and other Lexus brass are eager to get the LF-1 into production. And for now, in concept form at least, the LF-1 has a spindle grille. So Bracken's phone might not stop ringing anytime soon, but Lexus might sell a lot of LF-1s regardless.
Material from Reuters was used in this report.