It’s a balmy December morning. I’m standing in an L.A. photo studio and bearing witness to the Lexus LF-1 concept. This is the first time anyone has seen the tangible, functional, completed evidence of Toyota’s styling team’s efforts since it returned from the specialty-car fabricators at Sivax.
For more than a year, the 11-member Calty team pored over sketches, renderings, scale models, paint samples, interior fabrics and materials, and a full-size clay model. Now, with their collective work effort starkly posed in front of them, the group is speaking in hushed, almost reverential tones.
Suddenly, in a fit of enthusiasm, Ian Cartabiano, Calty’s chief designer and the overseer of the exterior design of the LF-1, spontaneously grabs my shoulders and gives them a manly shake.
“It’s so hot. It’s so hot. Look how hot it is,” he exclaims. He is quite literally hopping up and down, unable to contain his elation.
The normally composed Cartabiano is justifiably adrenalized. To call the LF-1 merely a departure for the traditionally conservative Lexus brand would be an emphatic minimization. The look of the LF-1 is more athletic and dramatic than the current LS and LC but has none of the gratuitous wackiness of RX and NX. The bold styling represents Lexus’ new design direction—which the automaker describes as “brave, courageous, provocative, and imaginative.”
So let’s get to the critical question: Just how realistic is this concept?
There are fanciful but impractical concept cars built to stir the creative and strategic juices within a car company but that won’t (or can’t) be suitable for production. Some small element of the design might surface on a showroom vehicle in a decade or so.
Then there are concept cars with more production intent. Their design might stretch the public’s idea of the brand, but they’re meant to give a tantalizing taste of what is to come in the near term.
The Lexus LF-1—to be unveiled at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit—most definitely is grounded in realism.
“This will not be a stretch to build,” Calty president Kevin Hunter says. “The reality is, we could use this in our lineup right now. This is a category we’re desperate to be in. So why waste time?”
This is a startlingly straightforward answer from an automaker whose communications typically traffic in nuance. In short: If you like it, Lexus will build it.
The LF-1 indicates that Lexus is changing to meet consumer preferences. No longer is a sedan or coupe perceived as the logical starting point for a flagship. Given the soaring demand for SUVs and crossovers, it is clear that Lexus is presenting the LF-1 as the luxury brand’s new elite vehicle.
You read that right: A production LF-1 could supplant (or supplement) the LS as Lexus’ top dog.
Using Toyota’s GA-L platform—which also underpins the flagship LS sedan and LC coupe—as its base, the LF-1 design interprets a sports car through an SUV lens. Granted, Lexus is not alone with this creative brief, but the LF-1 might be the most imaginative iteration to date.
Traditionally, to create a sporty vibe for a crossover, designers have aggressively sloped the roofline downward as it carries past the B-pillar, severely hindering headroom and ingress/egress for passengers. But that look is already played out.
Instead, the LF-1 maintains a consistent roofline without looking like a box on wheels. To provide performance credentials, the LF-1 carries a stretched hood and a long dash-to-axle ratio. The proportions have the sleekness of a raised wagon, more than a squished crossover. If it sat any lower, it could almost be mistaken for a hopped-up station wagon.
The production version of the LF-1 will benefit from the flexibility of the GA-L platform; the LF-1’s wheelbase and overall length splits the dimensions of the LS and LC. It’s 3.0 inches taller and 3.5 inches wider than the LS, too. The platform also allows the LF-1 to carry 8.5 inches of ground clearance. Its structure is versatile enough to accommodate gasoline, hybrid, electric, and fuel cell powertrains.
Some rumors had pegged the LF-1 as a three-row crossover, but Hunter believes a two-row flagship makes for “a more personal driving experience.”
“Lexus doesn’t have 100 years of heritage and baggage to deal with,” Hunter quips, throwing some shade at the competition. “As a young brand, it’s better to change and shift gears to satisfy market needs.”
Although it’s the stuff of motivational posters, Lexus designers were urged to accomplish the mission of “transforming function into emotion, performance into passion, technology into imagination.”
“We wanted to redefine the Lexus design language,” Cartabiano says. “We wanted something organic and sharp—a flowing, beautiful structure controlled by edges, not just edge, edge, edge. ”
Anyone who has seen Lexus’ angular production crossovers of late—such as the NX or UX—can immediately understand Cartabiano’s thoughts on the evolution of the brand’s design.
One key indicator of the new look is the flare that grabs the LF-1’s front wheel. The fender construction, as the A-pillar dives into and away from the hoodline, is intricate and complicated. If this vehicle indeed goes to production, a battalion of manufacturing engineers will curse Calty’s name. But the structure is a thing of beauty, one giant scalloped arc and muscular swoop that leads all the way down the body side.
As sketches evolved into early-stage scale models, an additional rib resided below the flare, low down on the doors. But the doors then had an alternating round-flat-round-flat shape that was too busy, Cartabiano says. The LF-1 called for simplicity without looking slab-sided.
The wheel flare and body side designs went through myriad iterations during their creation. “Some of the early models were not sophisticated or premium-looking,” Hunter notes in his typical deadpan delivery, right in front of the design team. “Ouch,” Cartabiano says.
Hunter continues in order to salve the burn: “Then it became more fluid, more harmonized. A new space. It was a cool sketch, but getting it to the finishing point is another thing. It was a roller coaster of pain and suffering.”
Speaking of pain and suffering, perhaps the most polarizing aspect of Lexus’ design of the past decade is the brand’s signature spindle grille—dubbed “Predator” by critics who call out the Schwarzenegger alien movie as a reference. And don’t the Calty designers know it. Part of the problem is that, in past applications, the grille has looked tacked on, almost a graphical afterthought.
During the LF-1’s design development, Lexus chief branding officer Tokuo Fukuichi and Lexus International president Yoshihiro Sawa challenged the Calty designers to define what the grille really meant to the brand. This led to a month of resketching the upper half of the spindle in various proportions in order to determine how the spindle would integrate with the LF-1’s headlights and hood.
The final creation is a hood with severe cutouts that feed directly into the grille and make it appear to be an integrated part of the vehicle’s structure. In the final design, the grille almost vanishes, looking more like negative space between floating front fenders. As for the grille pattern itself and the Lexus badge’s location in it, Cartabiano described it as having the appearance of a magnet dropped into a pile of metal filings.
A stylish touch, which might not reach production, is the glass roof that appears to flow all the way through the tailgate hatch. There’s a separation to the glass, of course, so the tailgate can open. But instead of a solid roofline connecting the D-pillars over the roof, sheetmetal wings splay off the hatchback. Even that decision—whether the wings should follow the roofline or descend to follow the angle of the D-pillar—was the subject of extensive rendering and modeling.
The placement of the Lexus badge below the hatch-opening split rather than above it was the subject of lengthy debate. The look provides a clean line across the back of the vehicle, but the badge is located lower than some might be accustomed to.
There are many height and mass issues to consider when designing an SUV, Cartabiano says. The placement of the taillamps can alter the perception of an off-road vehicle versus a pretend off-road vehicle. By designing a sporty vehicle, the location and shape of the taillamps must be as sleek as the rest of the car.
Then there’s the paint, which must be seen to be believed. It’s a copper-meets-rose-gold that was custom developed by Calty. The full-size clay model was the test palette for an eye-fuzzing patchwork of shades, hues, and variations of metallic, satin, chromatic, and gloss finishes.
Coming up with a paint color took the most time—literally, months—of any part of the concept, Hunter says. “I can’t remember this much debate on color on any other car we’ve done.” And although a satin look would pop from certain angles, Hunter says it would go “completely dead” as the color and reflectivity changed from another angle.
Wendy Lee, Calty’s chief designer for color and trim, says the final version allows light to be diffused and reflected, as if off the ocean. “It gives it a mystical, exotic, romantic feel.”
When vehicles are designed for production, the exterior styling usually remains relatively static between concept and final vehicle. But the interiors can include wild reaches of the imagination. We can only guess which of these LF-1 ideas might reach production.
The front seats have been designed to appreciate the different mindsets of their occupants. The driver’s seat and surrounding area is cockpitlike, immediate, serious, and engaged with “compressed energy,” says Ben Chang, the LF-1’s chief interior designer. Even the center console and infotainment system are canted toward the driver—as they would be in an exotic sports car. Meanwhile, the passenger seat is spacious, restful, and relaxed.
Chang uses the Japanese word omotenashi, which translates into “anticipating the needs of your guest,” to describe the feeling Calty wanted from the LF-1 interior. It also happens to be a national slogan for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As Hunter puts it, “Everything revolves around the user experience.”
Such hospitality is apparent as the driver approaches the vehicle and the front fascia engages in an LED lightshow that flows like lava. Then, as the driver enters the vehicle, a galaxy of pinprick stars illuminates and flows through the center console and door panels.
Calty designers created an array of sizes, shapes, patterns, and light diffusions for the pinprick holes in order to find the right balance of mystical and welcoming, Lee says. Meanwhile, the undersides of major interior surfaces illuminate with ambient sublighting shaded in “Lexus Blue”—a cobaltish color between violet and blue.
But if Lexus really wants to be hospitable, it needs to update its much-derided touchpad infotainment interface. In this case, the LF-1 uses a simplified tracer with numerous shortcuts to decrease the amount of driver distraction.
The LF-1 back seat features captain’s chairs identical in comfort and style to those up front—as well as similar infotainment controls. Two in back could be a production option, but it seems pretty obvious that a three-seat bench would be the main build.
How soon can we expect to see the LF-1 on the road?
“We need this. Sooner would be better,” Hunter says. “There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. It helps when you have a design target.”
The LF-LC concept coupe from 2012 was planned as a design exercise, nothing more. After a rapturous reception in Detroit, Toyota’s board moved to turn the concept into reality. But it took four years from its Detroit unveiling to reach Job 1 production. After all, you can only move so fast when you are starting with a fantasy—especially one with dimensions nowhere near what would be required for the production version.
By contrast, nearly everything about the LF-1 was designed with production in mind.
The GA-L platform allows for multiple powertrain options—though likely rolled out in stages rather than simultaneously. GA-L also was created to be compliant with self-driving, either with the Guardian or Chauffeur self-driving systems being developed by Toyota’s advanced research team. A lidar provision is built into the headlight system.
Cartabiano says that even the bumper lines were conceived for production engineering purposes. The door latch mechanism is pulled straight from the LC coupe. “We even used Michelin 22-inch production tires.”
Some intricacies—such as the side-view cameras projecting images onto the fully digital instrument cluster—are for concept, not production. Other ideas: To make more room in the center console, the actuators for park, reverse, and drive are located at the base of the steering wheel hub. And activating Sport mode or various AWD modes can be accomplished with gesture control rather than having to push a button.
Although none of the Calty executives would give an explicit time frame, given past Toyota and Lexus product cadences, there is a strong chance the LF-1 could be a reality as soon as 2021—if Toyota’s board hits the “go” button. Given the LF-1’s status as a counterpart flagship to the LS and LC, pricing would likely start around $75,000.
“If the reaction is positive,” Hunter says, “we could move this into the Lexus production design system right away.”