The radically styled 2016 Lexus RX recently introduced at the New York International Auto Show is part of larger calculated risk by Lexus to appeal to a broader range of buyers than its traditional base. Built on value, quality and service, the Lexus franchise has never claimed to beat the cutting edge of design. However, that's changing. The ever-more-prominent spindle-shaped grille and bolder character lines of the new RX underscore the importance that Toyota's upscale division is placing on striking styling.

The shift to edgier styling is a huge bet, Jeff Bracken, group vice president and head of Lexus, admits. And he further admits that a few longtime Lexus fans are uncomfortable with the change. 

"It's been a double-edged sword," Bracken told us in an interview during the New York Auto Show. "I can tell you I have taken multiple calls from owners who have owned, six, seven and even eight Lexus vehicles, and they feel like we've gone too far. They're very passionate about it." 

But the shift is a gamble Lexus is willing to take. Bracken believes the division must continue to evolve if it wants to grow, and that evolution is to bolder exterior design.

"We know [the new design philosophy] can be polarizing and we know we can upset our real traditional owners," Bracken noted, "but if we don't do that, we can't open the minds or attract folks to us who would have never considered us. The downside of losing some of our loyal followers will be way offset by people who look at us because of that design."

The RX gamble

Lexus created and popularized the upscale crossover SUV segment with the RX. At a time when other brands were building entries based off traditional sport/utility vehicles or purpose-built platforms with hardcore off-road ability, Lexus took the unusual step of modifying a front-drive car platform to underpin a new, taller vehicle counting on the fact that people wanted the look, ride height and cargo capacity of an SUV, but weren't necessarily going to tackle the legendary Rubicon Trail in California's Sierra mountains. Offering the choice of front or all-wheel drive, the original RX proved to be a gamble that paid off and created a whole new segment of vehicles.

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Now, Lexus is again taking a chance with the RX, which happens to be the division's top volume vehicle accounting for 30 percent of the Lexus vehicles sold in the U.S.  (And it is also accounts for 60 percent of global RX sales.) With each new product launch starting with the GS, the spindle theme has become more pronounced and aggressive, rolling through the RC Coupe and the NX compact crossover SUV. Now with the 2016, the look is even bolder and melded with sharp character lines and a floating roof treatment, a look that is bound to evoke strong passions for and against.

"Akio Toyoda (chairman of Toyota Motor Corp.) is always pushing to wow the marketplace," Bracken said. "When you think about doing that with our number one volume vehicle, it is intimidating. But he wants us to think differently, to think 'wow.' Our current owners are 60 years old, but bringing in model variants like the [RX] F Sport will bring the age down 10 to 12 years. We are excited about the design of that vehicle."

Dynamics and safety 

Beyond the looks of the vehicle, Bracken said there is also a tremendous amount of attention being paid to vehicle dynamics, to give the vehicles a sportier feel to go along with the bolder looks. 

"In addition to reimagined styling, we reengineered the vehicle," he said, describing the 2016 RX. "We can't wait to get people in it to feel the driving dynamics."

As Lexus branches out into more expressive vehicles, it is also mindful of its core values of quality, dependability, high feature content and safety. Bracken touted the Lexus Safety System+ that integrates several of Lexus's existing active safety technologies in one package. Lexus Safety System+ bundles a Pre-Collision System, which helps prevent and mitigate collisions, Lane Departure Alert and Automatic High Beam control. The system will be offered as a low-cost option ranging from$500 to $635, starting with the 2016 Lexus RX and rolling out on four additional models during the rest of the year. 

"With the new LSS+ system, we offer drivers an added level of occupant safety in a conveniently bundled package that leverages some of the latest accident-prevention technology," Bracken said.  "We certainly expect the proliferation of these features to continue throughout the luxury vehicle market and our Lexus lineup as the industry remains steadfast in the pursuit of enhanced vehicle safety."



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