The most difficult part about building a car for the future is not engineering. Given adequate resources and commitment, tackling a car's performance, quality and reliability issues really boils down to just a mechanical procedure— albeit extensive—where the goals are clearly understood and measured. It is a "hard" science challenge because it can be achieved with meticulous processes, checked off one by one. If a new car doesn't meet the criteria, go back and try again. Today, the car engineering development process has become so standardized that even the least expensive models are meeting impressive performance, quality and reliability benchmarks.
So what is the Holy Grail in building the car of the future?
It's all about styling—the soul of a car.
Styling is the "soft" science of trying to understand what connects with the always-evolving taste of the consumer. And because there are no clear pathways to find the answer, it is a far greater challenge to meet than engineering. No matter how sophisticated the car design process or how modern the tools, very few manufacturers can claim to execute styling successfully and consistently.
Since its birth in 1989, Lexus focus on the "hard" science of quality and reliability has been impressive. Even though it has some sporty models in its portfolio, the premium Japanese automaker is still mostly known for building luxury cars better known for quality than performance. On top of that, these products fall short in executing a styling language that appeals to the consumer's passion for automobiles—the "soft" science. Let's face it, buying a car is a very emotional decision. Ultimately, it is a personal statement expressed on the road. No matter how great a car performs, or how problem free it may be, looks count.a lot.
Lexus realizes the seriousness of its "boring car" reputation and is intent to change the course. On the eve of the 2012 North American International Auto Show, we had an exclusive, behind-the-scenes peek at the new Lexus LF-LC concept car, a core from which all future Lexus models may draw inspiration.
Kevin Hunter, president of Calty Design Research, noted that they were given a clean sheet of paper to design the LF-LC. The mission was to come up with a new 2+2 hybrid coupe concept to redefine Lexus' future design language. Only a few written attributes were given as criteria: avant-garde beauty, originality, driving joy and unequaled technology. No wonder the Calty team, including Ian Cartabiano (see Ampersand for interview) and Edward Lee for exterior, and William Chergosky and Ben Chang for interior, was excited to work on this rare project. In fact, the designers were also told specifically by the president and CEO of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, to make sure the concept must have the "wow" factor.
The work on the LF-LC began in May 2010. As with any car design, the folks at Calty looked for inspiration. And they found it in nature, in the form of a tree leaf for its complex shape but also its flexibility to be sculpted into various flowing forms. The result is the stunning LF-LC concept, a car that captures the simplicity and the smooth-flowing nature of a tree leaf; yet a more thorough look reveals an intricate network of details not unlike what you would discover when you examine that same leaf close up.
The face of LF-LC incorporates elements of the Lexus spindle grille that also appears on the recently introduced GS. Each L-shaped headlight contains three LED projectors that resemble forward-looking camera lenses. The pointed snout set off by large vertical air scoops that flank the grille, the ribbon-like fender surfaces bending and folding aft, are some of the elements of the strong front-end treatment. In profile, the LF-LC has a muscular lean-back stance delineated by a simple flowing roofline that's cantilevered at the A-pillar to give an airy feel to the passenger cabin. Large air scoops are nestled inside the wide rear fenders. And around the back, the Lexus spindle outline is repeated with bold character lines in the fascia, capped with taillights designed with depth to simulate the appearance of a jet engine with its afterburners on. Thin, vertical fog lamps fall from the edge of the taillights and nicely complement the stacked quad exhaust pipes.
Inside the LF-LC, the tumbling ribbon surface theme is seen again on the dash, surrounding the passengers on the door panels and down the center console. The front and the rear seats are highly sculpted and wrapped in rich smooth leather, their inner surfaces accentuated with suede and contrasting stitching. The steering wheel is race-inspired with integrated controls. The multi-layer digital instrument cluster houses an analog-style tachometer as well as transparent OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) displays that show other vital information. Two 12 3-in. LCD screens form the infotainment center, controlled by a touchscreen Techboard on the center console. On the Techboard, every action is duplicated and traced on the LCD screens so you won't have to look down and be distracted from driving. Behind the Techboard is a leather-skinned gear selector. Overall, the interior's leaf-like ribbon surfaces not only create an open cabin feel, but also wrap the driver and the passengers snugly in their respective spaces.
Will the LF-LC concept add the necessary "soft" science— the soul—to Lexus' future car design? Will it help Lexus stay competitive with premium European automakers? Maybe, if it is warmly received at Detroit and the design leads to consistency. Without this, Lexus can spoil its own chances.
Lexus has tried for a more distinctive look in the past— witness the first-generation SC coupe (1990s), the second generation GS sedan (mid-1990s to mid-2000s) and the recent LFA supercar. But when you look at the rest of the brand's lineup, namely the ES, IS, HS, RX, GX and LS, there are no strong styling statements made.
So the challenge for Lexus is not the lack of exciting new design ideas, but one of absolute commitment to execute the styling language consistently across the entire model line. Building a spectacular one-off LF-LC concept is impressive. But the real measure of success lies in the translation of the LF-LC's spirit and soul into all future Lexus models.
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Exclusive Behind the Doors at Calty
Any development work on a new car is a highly guarded secret for its manufacturer, especially when it comes to styling. That's why spy photos of cars— albeit camouflaged—testing on public roads and racetracks are always the hottest ticket in town. And so it is very unusual, and special, for Toyota to invite us behind closed doors for a peek at the upcoming Lexus LF-LC concept inside Calty Design Research, before its official appearance at the Detroit Auto Show.
Since its establishment in 1973, Calty has penned some of the more notable concepts and production Toyota and Lexus models. Road-going cars like the 1978 Celica, the 1991 SC400, the 2006 FJ Cruiser and the 2012 GS, and more recently concepts like the 2007 FT-HS and the 2009 Lexus LF-Ch, all came from this studio.
For the Lexus LF-LC, Calty went back to its roots, drawing the inspiration for a new-car concept from nature. When the designers found it in the tree leaf, they developed several proposals. And, in the style of American Idol, all the different ideas were presented to the entire Calty staff. The ones voted as the most popular were further refined through hours of more detailed sketches, computeraided drawings and three-dimensional models that culminated in the spectacular LF-LC. In fact, when we visited Calty it was also the first time that the designers had seen the car moving outdoors under its own power (electric) and painted in its auto show ruby-red color.
will agree that working at a design facility like Calty is a dream come true—where else can you go to work and be asked to design the most exciting car of the future?
** Lexus informed us that Calty influenced only the interior design of the new Lexus GS, and not the exterior. Also, even though the LF-LC Concept design opportunity was open to the entire Calty studio in American Idol style, there were no actual votes taken to pick the most popular one.