Payne Q&Auto: Lexus’s guru of Extreme Makeovers
When I tell Brian Bolain, marketing manager for Toyota’s Lexus luxury brand, that the new, radically-styled Lexus NX and Lexus RX utes are the most polarizing vehicles I have driven, he beams.
“Lexus is no longer just a rational brand,” he likes to say of its emotional “L-Finesse” styling.
Irrational? Emotional? Lexus? Those words once never appeared in the same sentence together, much less the same page. Introduced to the U.S. market in 1989, Lexus had its share of innovation – “with the RX we created an entire segment,” notes Bolain – but its reputation was built on appliance-like customer service and reliability. The result has been a fanatically loyal owner base that has made Lexus one of the Big Three in luxury sales along with the German titans, Mercedes and BMW.
But in the trendy, mercurial luxury market image is everything. Brands can’t rest on their laurels, and Bolain’s team sensed a shift in the wind.
“It’s not uncommon for owners to have had four or five RXs,” he says of the ute that debuted in 1998. “And they say (they) wouldn’t mind if there was a bit of the change. It’s kind of like eating the same meal every day. I’d really like the chicken instead of the fish today. I think that’s where we are with RX. It’s time to give them something more.”
I sat down with Bolain, 55, at RX’s Portland, Oregon media launch this month to talk spindle grilles, shoveled driveways and three-row seating.
Q: The NX was the first Lexus ute to get the spindle grille last year. How’s that working out?
Bolain: The NX is going great. We do about 4,000-4,5000 (sales) a month and that’s pretty much all we can get from the factory (Ed. note: NX built in Japan) because that segment is on fire. First time in my career I can remember one segment being in such high demand virtually everywhere in the world. Consumer acceptance is quite high — and we’ve got more feedback that owners of some of the German competitors would now consider NX because of F-Sport.
Q: My Lexus-owner friends rave about the owner experience. What’s different?
Bolain: From the beginning our tagline has been “The Pursuit of Perfection.” And our dealers adopted that as a personal mantra. It’s just going that extra mile. We could talk about . . . stories we hear about a sales person who - when somebody’s car had a flat tire - goes to get them. Or the sales person who shoveled someone’s driveway. Sales people who go far beyond “here’s my check and here’s your keys” to have a personal relationship with their buyers. That’s why we have the loyalty, because you get used to that and hate to give that up.
Q: Why not a turbo 2.0-liter for the U.S. market RX as in Japan and Europe?
Bolain: It could. Right now we’re just dipping our toe in the turbo waters. We just introduced it in NX. First turbo in our history. We’re just putting it in IS . . . and RC and we’re also putting it in GS. So we’re learning how acceptance goes. This market still desires to have a V6 engine - our gas prices are certainly lower than Europe and parts of Asia.
Q: What’s Lexus doing to advance beyond styling?
Bolain: We’re rounding out our lineup nicely not only in terms of product, but now in terms of engine choices. So that “personalizability” – I’m going to make up a word – means your Lexus isn’t the same as your neighbor’s.
Q: The two-row RX’s Toyota platform mate, the Highlander, has three row seating. Mainstream, mid-size ute buyers demand three rows, yet it’s rare in luxury mid-size. Why?
Bolain: As Baby Boomers became empty nesters, RX became a fantastic alternative for them. We now have a whole new generation of buyers coming into luxury at a fast rate – but they’re young families. So we’ve moved from Baby Boomer, empty-nesters buying this vehicle to the young family. We know there is a need for third row. Our dealers have made it very clear that if there was one wish they could have it would be a third row in the RX. So we took our truck-based, three-row, midsize, GX SUV (and repriced it) at $49,995 to test the waters. It used to sell 700-800 a month – we now sell 2,000-2,200 a month. So we’ve proven to ourselves that what we’ve heard is true. So next move for Lexus is to have a car-based SUV with three rows.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com and Twitter @HenryEPayne. Or see all his work at HenryPayne.com.