Words by Adil Jal Darukhanawala
Photographs by Gaurav S. Thombre
The “will it, won’t it” saga concerning the advent of Lexus in India finally saw closure last month when the luxury arm of Toyota finally made its national debut at a swanky reveal in New Delhi. What it masked was “why did it do so now” but Lexus had the answer pat. Said old India hand Akitoshi Takemura (formerly spearheading Toyota Kirloskar’s marketing and strategy functions) and now Sr. President of Lexus India, “We preferred to wait, observe, learn & prepare for the move into the premium luxury automotive space in India. It has always been a step-by-step approach for us as it’s the Toyota way and we will move in just that very fashion in the months ahead.”
Takemura san is the perfect man to usher Lexus into India and even he acknowledged that taking the first step was indeed a long drawn out affair. However what isn’t to be faulted is that Lexus starts from day one with a strong three-model line-up in India, more to emphasise the understated elegance cum outstanding engineering of the brand than just stand out and suggest it wants to take the entrenched German luxury brigade head on! And even here Lexus has clearly done its homework in identifying where it will hunt its customers: from within the German ranks, but without any hard sell.
Lexus is of the opinion that its buyers would already be owning at least four to five cars in the household, they are already aware of brand Lexus and what it embodies thereby adding to the personal fleet by selling off one or the other car – of course a German model! – for one of the trio introduced by Lexus. It may sound far-fetched but think about it objectively and you can understand both the logic and the choice of models selected for this high profile set.
When Eiji Toyoda mandated his design and engineering teams in the 1980s to begin work on creating a car better than any in the premium luxury end of the market, the automotive world looked on in disbelief! And to do luxury, he even mandated an all-new brand that while packing in typical Toyota strengths also added flair and luxury hitherto not the preserve of the Japanese giant. While external design might have aped certain teutonic brands there was no denying the engineering and technology behind the driveline and the chassis of the LS 400. If anything, Lexus set a fantastic new standard of refinement that worried the Germans but not as much as it scared the living daylights out of the Americans. No wonder then, that Lexus gained acceptance quickly in the US and its staid design didn’t get compromised there.
Of course over the past two decades, we have seen Lexus evolve in almost every aspect of the automobile and while luxury remains the core standpoint, it has added even more engineering largesse and evolved a whole new design language as well to its repertoire, which to some extent is still way too quirky for European consumption. And when you lay your eyes on the launch trio for India, it will bear me out on this count. Mind you there is nothing wrong in being different and it is this line of thought that is so refreshingly welcome in a sea of teutonic techno machines plus one Brit aristocrat with proven sporting pedigree. And it is precisely this character trait that Lexus is pushing to the hilt with one sedan in the form of the ES 300h, one rocking crossover in the form of the RX 450h and a gargantuan flagship SUV in the form of the mighty LX 450d priced from a measly Rs 56 lakhs for the sedan before you double that up for the RX 450h and then double that some more for the god awesomely huge behemoth that is the LX 450d.
I for one would love to see how this pricing dynamic prevails as we move along, but now back to the trio which we got to drive and experience fleetingly in the tight and twisty roads around Ooty and Coonoor for barely a handful of hours. But then being Lexus the arrangements were mega conducive for experiencing the all-new Japanese luxury species in a habitat that they would be happy performing with metronomic zeal day in and day out.
Starting out with the RX 450h, I can say that this was my top car – stylishly aggressive, with strong presence and character, yet roomy and capable in almost all spheres of the game. Among the trio, this is the only model to be offered in two different trim and equipment versions, the first being the F-Sport model (at Rs 1.09 crores, ex-showroom Delhi) while the other is the Luxury trim version (which is pegged at Rs 1.07 crores, ex-showroom Delhi). Both models get the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine with an electric motor for hybrid assist. Effecting the transmission of power (combined output is a claimed 308 horses) in this all-wheel drive configuration is a multi-step CVT gearbox that marries the IC and electric propulsion with nary a hitch or snatch. This seamless progression as you go up the cogs is one of the most endearing elements to the real world performance of the new Lexus RX 450h.
I had the F-Sport version which hints at the more urbane set with ample goodies to set the pulse racing. The interiors are sporting yet plush, the array of instrumentation is comprehensive and by and large it is of a decent size that is not too daunting for many to weave in and out of our famed door handle to door handle traffic.
The RX 450h runs on 20-inch alloys wrapped with some serious spec rubber that is in sync with the F-Sport moniker. The real thrust behind justifying the F-Sport badging is the sporty suspension tune which is precise and also helpful when motoring briskly but slow speed ride quality is crashy which is to be expected even though the air suspension does try its best to damp the ride whenever the vehicle hits the rough stuff.
What does stand out for many, apart from the distinctive style is the superlative Mark Levinson audio system that impresses not just with its awesome power, but its tonal values mark it out as probably the best I have ever experienced in an automobile sold in the country. And the same system, or an even more powerful version of it also makes its presence in the huge cavernous cabin of the mighty LX 450d as well.
Coming to the mighty LX 450d this might seem as if it has been based on the very impressive Toyota Land Cruiser Amazon and yes while it does share the basic monocoque and a few body parts with it, almost 70 per cent of the vehicle is different so there you have it. The Land Cruiser is one of the most phenomenally competent four-wheel drive vehicles available on the plant but the LX 450d takes that theme to an unbelieveably new high with oodles of luxury and capability plus refinement that many would give an arm and a leg to own. Of course, all that means is one has to also spend a small fortune for this beast which sports a sticker tag of Rs 2.32 crore, ex-showroom Delhi and this is where I think Lexus will have its work cut out but more on that later.
Unlike the other two cars, this is the only diesel offering with a Lexus-massaged 4.5-litre V8 with double overhead cams working four valves per cylinder. While max power from this ultra-refined oil burner is a decent 261bhp (at 3400rpm) it is the 650Nm of torque that does all the talking! This is spread from as low as 1600rpm and goes all the way to 2600rpm meaning that this mighty heavy beast can haul and how!
Driving the LX 450d is all about finesse and precision because it is huge (1980mm wide, 1865mm tall and 5080mm long) but the driving position is amenable to steer and guide this beast in a Savile Row suit through the toughest of terrain or the narrowest of gullies and yet not whip up a sweat or get its pilot hot under his proverbial collar.
And on to the ES 300h sedan, again a hybrid and again one which shows it is based on the latest Camry platform but like the LS 450d, has near to 70 per cent all-new parts to make that big leap away from Toyota’s signature best-seller. That is aid the engine which is pretty similar to the Camry but again typical Lexus engineering has given it even more refinement. The hybrid works very efficiently and the electric motor at low speeds when called on to assist the petrol engine makes one marvel at the well-matched components that combine brilliantly to offer a ride and a drive that is sheer refined luxury.
This mighty engine gets top notch gear in terms of the transmission (a 6-speed automatic), permanent four-wheel drive that also includes a torque-sensing central diff (which can be locked should you need to in certain driving conditions) and an outstanding air suspension that can be tailored for ride height by its pilot should it be needed. There is no denying that this is one helluva SUV that has the wherewithal to power up to the Himalayas and conquer them if need be but it would be a brave soul to push a beast that would cost near to Rs 3 crores to such a chore.
Don’t expect this car to be a fire-breather nor one to impress the enthusiast in you. It goes about its job in an understated and unhurried way but has the vital response ready should you need it sometimes. I did find the ES 300h rather underwhelming but then that was because I spent just about half an hour with it due to a paucity of time. In fact trying to make sense of three fine cars within four hours is not enough to make sense of it. So for a truly objective drive story we will wait for a car to be with us for a handful of days before we can deliver a comprehensive assessment of the same.
Brings me then to the same old thing about pricing and positioning even if it is a different character take, in the premium luxury segment. The RX 450h is my pick of the trio but its pricing is way off the scale, the only saving grace being that it shades the Jeep offering mightily. But jokes aside, Lexus has its work cut out but I do know that the Japanese trait of getting stuck in and performing is something that cannot ever be discounted. So in case you are bored of the European fare and want to incorporate Japanese to your motoring taste buds then nothing comes close to Lexus. But is that the only reason to buy these? Time will tell but I can foresee that like Toyota, Lexus will take its time and make this project succeed.
We drove the new Lexus NX 300h recently. Read our review here.