We often forget that Lexus is purely an American brand. Unlike competing vehicles from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Jaguar, Lexus vehicles until recently were not sold outside the U.S. and Canada. That's changing, because Toyota is moving Lexus onto the world stage, having recently launched the brand in Japan, Europe, and China. (Until this past summer, Lexus vehicles were sold in Japan as Toyotas, through Toyota dealerships.)
Stroll through upscale shopping districts in Tokyo like the Ginza or Roppongi Hills and the proliferation of Western luxury retailers such as Prada, Max Mara, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Kate Spade, and Marc Jacobs proves that the Japanese are obsessed with prestige brands. Toyota wants Lexus to be just as recognizable to moneyed buyers around the globe as these fashion houses are, so it's now paying far more attention to styling for its luxury nameplate than it ever has before. We saw the first signs of this long-overdue effort, which Lexus calls "L-Finesse," two years ago in the LF-S concept that became the new Lexus GS sedan. The IS sedan that debuted at last March's Geneva Motor Show and that is just now reaching dealerships in the States also clearly adheres to the same modern design philosophy as the GS.
That leaves only the flagship LS, the original and most important Lexus model, to put on the new family duds. Toyota insists that the LF-Sh hybrid concept unveiled here in Tokyo is only a concept, but since it obviously follows the same design ethos as the production GS and IS, albeit interpreted much more conservatively, we'd venture that it gives us a good look at what the next LS will look like in production. Although it's not as voluptuous as its smaller siblings, its extensive use of convex and concave surfaces is far more interesting to look at than its predecessor. We suspect that the next LS will go on sale for the 2007 model year, and we expect to see the production car at an auto show in the first half of 2006.
Given Lexus's recent efforts with the GS and the IS, both of which are much sportier than their predecessors, we'd expect the new LS to offer a more rewarding driving experience than the outgoing car, which quickly has become stale next to its more dynamic European competitors.
Since the LF-Sh concept has a V-8 hybrid powertrain, and since Toyota is introducing a hybrid version of the GS, called the GS450h, next spring, it's logical to expect a hybrid version of the LS as well, which likely will be called the LS600h. Toyota's hybrid efforts are now following two paths: Toyota hybrid vehicles will emphasize efficiency and fuel economy, while Lexus hybrids will concentrate more on performance than on ultimate fuel efficiency. All Lexus hybrid vehicles will become the top trim levels within their respective lineups. The LS600h, then, likely could rival competitors' twelve-cylinder models in performance while still being green enough to make its owners think they're not contributing to global warming.