How do you develop a new generation of one of the biggest-selling entry lux vehicles on the market—the global market? That was a challenge faced by Toshio Ashai and his team as they created the sixth generation Lexus ES.
When you put 4,000 miles on a car and are paying attention to the car as you travel—“paying attention to every inch of the car”—you probably know, well before the odo reads 4K, what’s good about the car, what’s OK about the car, and what’s in need of, well, improvement.
When that car happens to be the second-largest-selling vehicle in the brand’s lineup—and has been for the previous five generations of the vehicle, has been essentially since the start of the brand itself—and you are the chief engineer of the car, you are really paying attention to every inch.
When you spend time traveling to homes and dealerships in the U.S. and China, finding out what people think about the car you are charged with engineering anew, knowing full well that there are strong competitors in the segment, knowing that the economic landscape has had a significant change within the past few years, you focus your attention on what matters.
And so Toshio Asahi worked to develop the sixth-generation Lexus ES.
“I didn’t set out just to develop a new ES, but the best ES ever,” he says.
And there is a special resonance regarding Asahi and the ES.
Asahi joined Toyota Motor Corp. in 1991. He received his degree from Ehime University on the island of Shikoku (the smallest of the four major Japanese islands) in electrical engineering. When undergoing train-ing in a Toyota factory (yes, learning about how the things that are designed and engineered are made is considered to be reasonable even for graduate engineers) he saw a second-generation (1992 to ’96) ES 300. And it was then that he decided that one day he wanted to be a chief engineer for a vehicle.
“Sixteen years later,” he says, “I made it.”
So it isn’t surprising that he says the mindset of what he and his team set out to achieve included the concept, “World-class quality is only attainable if you refuse to compromise.”
A word about the word world. As in the “world-class” in that phrase. The word is bandied about by people for products that don’t even have a passport. But in the context of the 2013 ES it is meaningful and it matters. A lot. According to Andrew Kirby, general manager, Lexus Product & Marketing Planning Div., the Nagoya-based organization that is meant to help guide the Lexus brand throughout the major markets in the world by leveraging resources and knowhow, the initial global ES sales should be about 50% in the U.S. and 30% in China. What’s more, the ES is being offered in both left- and right-hand steering configurations, recognizing that there are places in the world where people drive on opposite sides of the white line.
It’s a little thing, perhaps. Something that may not be noticed all that much. Something that is becoming more com-mon not only in upscale vehicles, but is working its way to the middle, as well.
It is stitching on the instrument panel.
Not surprisingly, the ES 350 has it.
But there is something different about it. Those stitches are made by hand. Well, there are sewing machines involved. (Remember that Toyota Motor Corp. had its start within Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, so there is more than a passing familiarity with handling fabrics and sewing machines.) This sewing isn’t done by conventional line workers. Rather, there are 12 specially trained individuals, takumi, in Japanese parlance, who do the sewing of the instrument panel. According to Kevin Pratt of Lexus College, making the cut as a takumi takes more than ordinary manual dexterity. Pratt shows an origami cat’s head. He suggests trying to fold one in 90 seconds. That would be manageable once one knew how to do it. But then he points out that to be a takumi qualified for the sewing task, it is necessary for them to fold the cat’s head one handed—and using their non-dominant hand.
Maybe this is an element of the interior that people won’t notice. (After all, there is an optional HDD navigation system with an eight-inch screen, Lexus Enform system with App Suite (Bing, iHeartRadio, OpenTable . . .), an available 15-speaker 835-Watt Mark Levinson audio system, and other interior amenities.) But this is the sort of thing that makes the ES a little different. A little special. A little less machine-like.
The sheet metal is different. The car is edgier in design than the model it replaces. Its lines—as well as some aero elements, like stabilizing fins on the doorframe covers and rear taillamps that create vortices to pull the air toward the body, underbody covers and airfoil fins—result in a coefficient of drag (Cd) of 0.27, which is better than the 2012 model, which has a
The new gen is a bit bigger, as well:
In terms of curb weight, the 2013 model is lighter than its predecessor: 3,549 lb. compared with 3,605 lb. One large contributor to this mass reduction is the extensive use of high tensile-strength steels, which also contributes to increased body rigidity.
The most notable part of the increase in size is really found in the interior, as there is an increase from 95.4-ft3 in the last-generation model to 100.1 ft3 in the new one. (Remember the Chinese market? Mark Templin, Lexus group vice president and general manager, says that by and large, the Chinese market is quite similar to markets in the West as regards what they’re looking for in cars with one exception being that they like larger back seats given that oftentimes the owner is back there and there is a driver up front. He says that this holds in Russia and the Middle East, as well.)
Under the hood of the 2013 ES 350, there is the same 268-hp, 3.5-liter DOHC V6 cylinder engine that is found in the 2012 model. The same six-speed automatic transmission is used, as well. However, due to improvements (e.g., aero, mass), there is better estimated fuel efficiency for the 2013 model: 21/31/24 mpg city/highway/combined vs. 19/28/22 mpg.
But that’s the ES 350.
There is a second 2013 ES model. The first ES hybrid. It is the ES 300h. It features a 156-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine and a hybrid system that deploys a permanent magnet AC synchronous motor, continuously variable transmission, and nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The total system has 200 hp. Its estimated fuel economy is 40/39/39 mpg.
(This is the same hybrid setup as in the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid. And while the Camry and the ES have long been platform mates, that is not the case with the 2013 ES. This one shares a platform with the forthcoming Toyota Avalon.)
Mark Templin says that they’re expecting as many as 25% of the ES models sold will be hybrids. Given rising gas prices (it should be noted that the ES 350 and ES 300h both use regular unleaded), he thinks that the premium for the hybrid will be “easy to pencil” by consumers.
Consider: there are more than a million ES models on the road today. And that’s what Toshio Asahi and his team had to better. “Through a lot of hard work and creativity,” he said, “we made our dream a reality.” Like all good designers and engineers do.