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Lexus makes its own way

Now capable of becoming a stand-alone car company; its road ahead is destined to be as a low-volume, premium-quality manufacturer. Nothing better illustrates this intention than Lexus's long-term forecast.

Lexus Australia boss John Roca says that by 2015 Lexus is expected to be selling 24,000 units a year in Australia while Toyota will be selling 300,000. Yet, he says, the profitability of both will be identical.

In Japan, at Tokyo Motor Show, Lexus showed how this seemingly unbalanced business strategy will work.

It unveiled a conceptual design of its next mid-size SUV, the RX350 and RX450 Hybrid, that hits showrooms in January 2009. Impressive in its muscular steel clothing, confronting grille and flattened roof line, Lexus says the final production version will have less masculine lines. It will carry over a version of the current 3.5-litre V6 petrol though add a hybrid model called the 450h.

It will remain a five-seater despite going up in size; the detractor being the styling that uses a stylish sloping rear hatch, which will not allow room for the third seat row.

It will also continue the Lexus theme of offering a hybrid model. In fact, half of the Lexus range is hybrid, by far the biggest ratio of any carmaker and that's set to continue.

“We want to attract a customer who is just as interested in owning a luxury car as in owning a green car,” says Lexus product manager Doug Soden. “Hybrid technology is expensive. Lexus, by virtue of its position in the premium price sector, has a lot more ability to put this technology into practice."

“That's very good for Lexus and its position in the market, but even better because it allows this technology to trickle down to lower-priced models in the future.”

Soden says Lexus had considered matching a diesel engine and an electric motor to make an even more economical package, but the cost is prohibitive.

“We see a lot more potential to improve the efficiency of a petrol engine than a diesel engine,” he says. “The price is also important. There is a point where people won't pay for green technology.”

Roca says hybrid models, which generally use a petrol engine working with an electric motor, make up a quarter of Lexus sales volumes in Australia. “We certainly didn't anticipate that when we first started with hybrids,” he says. “It's a big focus and we will add more."

“Lexus delivered its 1000th hybrid model in Australia last month. There's such a big awareness of hybrids and I think we have people such as Al Gore to thank for that. It has awakened in people a sensitive side."

“Some of them seek a car that can be both green and give driving satisfaction. Guilt-free performance, if you like.”

But Lexus hasn't totally abandoned its performance overtones. The IS-F sports sedan has made its third and possibly its last appearance at the Australian International Motor Show after almost a year on the circuit.

The V8-engined four-door, appearing to be born to rival the BMW M3 sedan and Audi RS4, hits Australia in the final quarter of 2008 with the possibility of a sub-$100,000 price tag.

It will be the first Lexus carrying the suffix "-F"; a letter used to signify performance, similar to BMWs use of the "M" and Audi's "R".

The chief engineer of the IS-F Yukihiko Yaguchi says although the car is based on the current Lexus IS250, more than 70 per cent of the car is different.

“There's a lot of fine-tuning,” he says. “It has a new sport engine. This is the only car to use this V8 engine. There is no manual gearbox, instead we have used an eight-speed automated double-clutch transmission controlled by paddle shifts on the steering wheel. These have a shift-up speed on 0.1 seconds."

“It is rear-drive because that is the way all sports cars should be. There are three levels of control of the electronic stability system: full, partial and completely off. So you can have a lot of fun with the power.”

While this IS-F model is confirmed, Lexus has delayed the release of its mid-engined Ferrari chaser, the LF-A. The 5-litre V10 punches out nearly 400kW and jumps to 100km/h from rest in an astonishing 3.9 seconds but even its impressive performance is not expected to be available until 2010.

Even then, with the chance of a $500,000 price tag, few if any are likely to be seen in Australia, especially if rumours of its hand-built production, which claim only 26 units a month are true.

“It's a long-term plan,” says Soden.

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