Two quite different concept cars caught my interest at the New York auto show in April. I thought both of them were surpassingly unattractive, but for completely opposing reasons. One of the concept cars was the Mercedes-Benz A-class, the other the Lexus LF-Gh seen here. The over-the-top Mercedes is bejeweled and glittery enough to embarrass a rap star whose Cadillac Escalade sports LED-lit "spinners," while the Lexus is subdued and restrained but inelegant. The contrast between them lies in execution. For all its ueber-bling and wildly excessive chrome detailing on the front end, the Mercedes enjoys absolutely flawless surface development. The Lexus does not.
The LF-Gh is inept in its surfacing and clumsy in its styling. If, as claimed at the show, this collection of awkward forms is the future of Lexus design, I fear that the U.S. market position of Toyota's luxury brand will be degraded, quite apart from its tsunami and management-complacency problems. The proportions are not too bad, although the front end looks very short for a car that is intended for a prestigious market position. It also looks like the designers were spooked by pedestrian-safety rules and puffed up the hood like a tin balloon to meet those requirements.
I have no doubt that future production models derived from this car will be beautifully made; that's what Lexus does better than almost any other company. Lexus offers handbuilt Bentley quality at Volkswagen (well, Audi) prices. But Bentleys are good-looking, as are Audis, for that matter. This latest Lexus, with its Darth Vader face and electric-shaver mesh (shades of the late-1960s Toyota Corona), plus the pinched-in hourglass shape of its Audi-like shield grille, is exceptionally unappealing. True, the stylists tried to make a winner by pulling in elements from Lexus's luxury-car rivals by adding LEDs in the headlamp clusters, a Hofmeister kink in the side glass profile, a rear deck like the BMW 7-series, and so on, but nothing here speaks of beauty, of elegance, or of strong identity. Turn the equation around: it's easy to see that Lexus has made its way mostly by copying others, but can you remotely imagine anyone wanting to copy this misbegotten design?
How did this happen? There are some very good designers working in the greater Toyota world, but there are also some tone-deaf, half-blind, and ridiculously timorous executives who have no business deciding on the final shapes of cars. Did the design team have some bad days? Were the most capable managers doing something else? Whatever the case, this is one concept car that I fervently hope was produced to assess public reaction, not just a slightly disguised teaser for a vehicle that is already committed to full production, because I'm pretty sure it would never assure full-capacity sales demand.
FRONT 3/4 VIEW
1. The puffy hood looks inflated, no doubt for pedestrian safety. Admirable but not attractive.
2. Distinctive, perhaps, but neither elegant nor beautiful, the Audi-like big black grille form looks like something more suitable to a locomotive than to a luxury car.
3. What is the purpose of these scoops? To cool the front tires? Certainly not for the brakes.
4. This fairly tight radius clearly derives from the upper edge of the headlamp opening, controlling the highlight along the front door.
5. Halfway through the rear door, the radius enlarges, and the surface inexplicably sags into the rear door handle.
6. This short vertical fence area begins from nothing on the front fender to join the A-pillar in an awkward intersection.
REAR 3/4 VIEW
7. This bizarre break in the sill line seems totally gratuitous, as though the designers felt the need to imitate BMW but didn't quite know how to do it.
8. More imitation-BMW surfacing, wherein the barely convex body side turns concave to provide a sharp edge at the bottom of the fender.
9. Integrated exhaust ports are nicely handled, but lead into...
10. ...a convoluted transverse feature that is neither a diffuser nor a bumper.
11. High deck-lid spoiler frames the Lexus logo nicely but forces a strange taillight shape, complete with a tiny spike pointing at a diagonal surface change.
12. Surely it wasn't necessary to so blatantly pick a BMW identity cue, but this isn't the first Lexus we've seen it on.
13. Three round elements recall recent Alfa Romeos.
14. And LED dots inevitably make one think of Audi, which was the first to use what is now a common feature.
15. This excrescence points to the bottom of the grille section.
16. And these points, the culmination of a number of lines and surfaces, aim at the Lexus badge.
17. This upper part of the grille texture resembles nothing so much as the head of an electric shaver. Note the change of surface and texture across a line derived from the corner scoops.
18. Remember when Infiniti was severely criticized for its huge badge? The idea seems finally to have found some committed enthusiasts in Lexus's design department.