Akio Toyoda, grandson of Toyota’s founder Kiichiro Toyoda and the company’s president since 2009, looks like just another mild-mannered and media-trained automotive executive in a dark suit; the logical front man for an automaker historically known for dependable and reliable vehicles. Before his tenure, the stoic elegance of Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand, had segued into a banality that lacked a distinctive voice. But under Toyoda’s subdued demeanor lurks a deep passion for driving that has spearheaded Lexus’s recent rebirth, one first seen in concept vehicles such as the LF-CC, LF-LC and the limited edition six-figure supercar, the LFA, but now coming to market throughout the brand’s consumer models. Led by Toyoda’s hands-on approach to design and development, the 2014 fleet is oozing with a newfound funk.
The Lexus LF LC concept car
It all started twenty years ago, when a brave Toyota test driver confronted the company’s scion. “He said, ‘A person in your position not really knowing how to [test] drive, but saying this and that about the vehicle really causes difficulties for us,'” Toyoda recalls. “He wanted me to learn how to drive like him.” Toyoda agreed: It would take more than an MBA and good business sense for the company to compete internationally. Since then, he has racked up some serious time behind the wheel, first apprenticing with Toyota’s test drivers and eventually competing in several rally competitions and races, including the 24 Hours of Nurburgring in 2009 and 2013.
While having the crown prince zipping around a track at high speeds might have caused some anxiety back at corporate HQ, now that he’s in charge, Toyoda’s experience behind the wheel has given him the ability to participate in an important dialogue towards making better cars. “I’m not an engineer, but I wanted to have a common language between myself and the chief engineers,” he says. “I wanted to be a person that is ‘chef-entrepreneur,’ who can talk to the chef himself and say ‘this is the sort of taste I want to create.'”
Toyoda’s discerning palette now unapologetically guides what Toyota and its subsidiaries will be bringing to market. Meanwhile, he still looks to progress as a driver himself. “I personally still want to continue to grow,” he says. “Because unless I do that, our vehicles will not be able to grow.”
Inside the 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
During a test session at the historic Rockingham Raceway in North Carolina earlier this year, we had a chance to sample the spritely 2014 IS 350 F Sport. For the sake of comparison, we first took the 2013 IS model for a spin. The most striking difference between the two is how much more fun the 2014 is to drive. Overall, the 2014 is a more cohesive vehicle that feels far less blocky and modular than previous generations. But there’s tremendous attention to the details, too, with a batch of distinct refinements since the previous year. In the 2014, every small facet seems considered—like the LFA-inspired layout of the dash, the tuned suspension, or the leather racing seat that firmly holds you in place around a tight corner. Even in the entry-level IS, it’s evident the culture Toyoda has ushered in has given Lexus a polish that uses track time and driver feedback to shake down features that can’t be figured out on a computer screen.
The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
Achieving the balance between engineering and sensual appeal is the holy grail of any luxury maker. But Toyoda’s willingness to provoke for the sake of a better product has brought a much-needed counterpoint to Lexus’s waffling identity of recent past. Under his guidance, the company has taken a step closer to providing a distinctive taste that he hopes will appeal to, he says, the “true connoisseur, the gourmet, who knows what’s truly good and chooses Lexus as the car they want to drive.” (Next up for rebirth are the brand’s popular SUV crossovers, with last month’s debut of the LF-NX concept vehicle at the Frankfurt Auto show.) “What I feel using my right brain is what I want to see in Lexus,” he explains. “I want someone to see a Lexus and feel, ‘I want to drive this car.'”