The Lexus IS-F isn’t just a car; it is a rolling brand-building exercise

June 12, 2008, 8:26 PM UTC
Fortune



Automobile companies invest billions of dollars in building and maintaining their brands – and that’s just the bill for the advertising.  It doesn’t include all the racing activities, charitable tie-ins, special events and so on.

The reason why this is so important is seen in the results of new study by the research firm TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence of New Jersey and the newly-formed Auto Futures Group.

It found that just a little thing like better fuel economy would make customers switch from traditional car companies like Mercedes, Honda (HMC) and Hyundai to non-traditional ones like General Electric, Dell and Google. There is no sign that any of these non-automotive companies is thinking about getting into the car business, but the news that they would have such an easy time winning buyers is enough to send shivers down the backs of the established players.

Enter the Lexus IS-F.  With sales of just 1,100 units since it was introduced a few months ago, the compact sport sedan hardly warrants a footnote in the business plan of Toyota’s Lexus, which has moved 116,548 cars and SUVs so far this year. And with a sticker price on my Mica Red tester of $62,160, the IS-F isn’t likely to move the needle any further.  Its fuel economy alone (16 mpg city; 23 highway) would keep it off most shopping lists.

The IS-F is all about pushing the Lexus image a little further in the direction of BMW, i.e., more performance.  In fact, the concept is almost a mirror image of BMW’s M3 – cramming a V-8 engine into a smallish body shell, fiddling with the surrounding components so that the impact is not too jarring, and putting the overpowered package on the road.

To my tastes, the IS-F succeeds brilliantly. For all of its tear-blurring performance – 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.6 seconds by one measure – the Lexus never feels less than perfectly modulated nor out of control.  Despite its obvious bias toward speed, all the controls and appointments have that exceptional feel and gloss that is expected of Lexus.  Particularly exemplary are the paddle-shifters that control the eight-speed transmission and perform their duties in fractions of second.

For all its conceptual and engineering excellence, the question remains whether the IS-F will succeed in its mission of enhancing the Lexus brand.  The answer, to my mind,  is yes and no.  Among those people who own a Lexus or might consider buying one, the IS-F adds a dimension to the brand’s personality that didn’t exist before.

But those in the German school – BMW M3, Audi S4, Mercedes AMG – aren’t likely to shift their allegiances in the near future.  It will take more than one exceptional car to shake their beliefs about engineering tradition and technology.  As for consumers who might consider a car carrying a GE, Dell or Google nameplate, the IS-F will never be on their radar screen.