Lexus to offer 9 hybrid lines by 2014

williamsen-2The Center for Automotive Research (CAR), defined by Wikipedia as “a nonprofit research organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan that conducts research, forecasts trends, develops new methodologies, and advises on public policy” is probably best known among industry geeks like yours truly for its annual Management Briefing Seminars, “an annual gathering of more than 900 auto industry, academic and government leaders addressing critical issues and emerging trends in an inviting atmosphere designed to build relationships” (again, per Wikipedia). Although dismissed by Autoextremist Peter DeLorenzo in his Tuesday 6 August 2013 Rants as “a self-important event that provides a forum for people from the auto industry who talk too much without really having anything substantive to say (that is full of) searing hot air generated by all of the pontificating going on”, it will, on occasion, produce interesting revelations of substance. Case in point: an address during this year’s Designing for Technology session at the Management Briefing Seminars by national manager of strategic education support for Lexus International Paul Williamsen (pictured above).

If Mr. Williamsen’s name sounds familiar, it’s because it was he who provided us with definitive information (not to mention a very handy rendering) on the Aisin AZ6-derived TL70 manual transmission that graces the Subaru BRZ and its Toyota-badged stablemates back in April 2012. As reported by Christie Schweinsberg of WardsAuto, Paul Williamsen noted that

Lexus…now is planning to offer nine hybrid nameplates worldwide in 2014, rather than the eight models it said were planned during last year’s New York auto show…

Lexus already offers the hybrid ES, as well as hybrid versions of its IS, GS and LS sedans and RX cross/utility vehicle. The brand also sells the CT 200h dedicated hybrid.

Lexus offers a total of nine nameplates across its range, but it’s unlikely the GX and LX SUVs in their current form would receive hybrid variants, as such versions of competing models have not sold well.

General Motors is blaming poor sales for the phaseout of its Cadillac Escalade SUV hybrid after the ’13 model year. WardsAuto engine-installation data shows just 3% of all Escalades built for the ’12 model year were hybrids

Agreed on the 6 hybrid lines noted above and the high unlikelihood of GX and LX hybrids appearing next year (especially after the collapse of the Ford/Toyota truck hybrid collaboration), but what are the other 3 hybrid lines available by the end of calendar year 2014? Surprisingly enough, Ms. Schweinsberg, a well-regarded journalist whose review of the 2nd-gen Lexus IS won a Detroit Press Club Foundation International Wheels Award in the General Interest Magazine/Special Interest Publication Product Review category in 2006, dropped the ball here, vaguely suggesting that

Lexus’ still-to-be-named hybrids could be all-new models, such as a production version of the LF-LC concept from the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A Lexus official confirmed to WardsAuto in March the vehicle was bound for showrooms to satisfy consumer demand.

Other media reports have said the Lexus LF-CC concept is marked to become a production model, with a variation of the GS 300h hybrid’s powertrain.

Nay on the first one (we don’t see a production version of LF-LC debuting next year), yay on the second (but we know it will bear the RC moniker in production). In fact, press reports have suggested that the RC 350 and a companion RC 300h (or, possibly, RC 450h) will debut at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show in late November of this year, followed by a V8 RC F in January 2014 at the Detroit Auto Show. The eighth Lexus hybrid? The trademarked NX 300h, the RAV4-derived sub-RX Lexus crossover that is rumored to appear as an LF-NX concept predictor at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, followed by the production version debut at the March 2014 Geneva Motor Show. And the ninth and final Lexus hybrid? The not-so-new HS 250h which, although discontinued in North America, carries on in Japan, complete with spindle grill mid-life facelift.

An expanded motorsports role for Lexus?
Beyond the “guess the 9 hybrids” riddle and a recap of recent new artistic and media initiatives, what this author sees as, by far, the most significant and far-reaching comments by Mr. Williamsen are that

He also hints Lexus will be expanding its role within motorsports, citing the 2012 and 2013 entries of the IS-F in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb challenge as a good sign that racing will become a bigger part of Lexus’ future.

“In the premium luxury segment, there is a strong motivation among buyers to pay attention to performance,” Williamsen says, noting greater motorsports participation could be an important selling tool for distributors and dealers.

Amen and hallelujah to that, but what form would this initiative take? And what series to compete in? Discussing where Lexus has been in the past in motorsports and where it could go in the future sounds like an article that could easily eclipse our last major treatise on the subject, the 3743-word Toyota returns to Le Mans and World Endurance Racing! as the longest article ever to appear on Kaizen Factor. Thus, we’ll leave that discussion for another day…

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Is Toyota working on a manual transmission hybrid powertrain for a Prius Sport Coupe?

Although, to date, Toyota has only confirmed Prius Alpha/v/+, Plug-In and upcoming Prius c additions to the growing Prius family, rumors have been reported over the past couple of years of a Sport Coupe Prius as a later derivative, and the fanciful rendering above (from Japan’s Holiday Auto) certainly bears a Lexus LFA-meets-7th-generation Toyota Celica mashup feel to it. To date, these rumors have been met by this author with a “meh” and a shrug, writing off the very notion of a Prius Sport Coupe as a secretary’s chick car for Southern California tree huggers.

Although Lexus certainly proved that even front-wheel-drive hybrid chassis could be made into somewhat entertaining handlers with the CT and even HS models, a CVT (continuously variable) transmission often emerges as the weak link in the fun-to-drive chain. After all, attempts to add to the CT 200h’s enthusiast cred via a “manual” mode and paddle shifters for the CVT ended up with disappointed engineers deeming it not worthy for export, relegating it to a Japanese Domestic Market option with hopes for future improvement. In a recent report by Japan-based Australian journalist Peter Lyon which appeared in both a recent print edition of Evo magazine and on Motor Trend‘s website, however, Lyon paints a picture of a far more enthusiast-friendly Prius Sport Coupe. A passage from the article states that

One of the highlights of this coupe will be the option of a manual transmission that Toyota is developing for hybrids at the Higashi-Fuji proving ground near Mt. Fuji. That manual gearbox will be bolted to the company’s next-generation hybrid system with plug-in capability, a system that will be completely new and not inherited from the Prius.

While this reflexively brings on cheers and hurrahs from the row-your-own, Save the Manuals! crowd, this author nevertheless is somewhat skeptical. After all, Honda’s CR-Z hybrid 2-seater, available with a manual transmission, has met with both tepid reviews and sales. Granted, Toyota’s Hybrid System Drive is miles ahead of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist in terms of both refinement and fuel economy, and a manual Toyota HSD powertrain sounds intriguing, but still…

Regardless of transmission, one would imagine a Prius Sport Coupe as a front-wheel-drive derivative of Toyota’s MC platform architecture, just like the Prius 5-door hatchbacks, Toyota Avensis, Lexus HS… and the Scion tC coupe. With the upcoming Scion FR-S rear-wheel-drive sports coupe coming in less than a year, there is serious potential for cannibalization with tC, and updating the front-wheel-drive tC as a Toyota-badged hybrid sounds like a logical solution to this issue. Yet, Lyon suggests this is not the case. Instead,

Our spies tell us that the sports coupe will employ a rear-drive platform and will incorporate the plug-in hybrid unit with lightweight Li-ion batteries that generate significantly more power than the current Prius

Thus, he suggests that a Prius Sport Coupe would, instead, be one more possible FT-86 derivative. Again, this is something we would love to see, yet can’t help but feel skeptical about.

As Toyota further extends its Japan shutdown, a picture emerges on which models will run out first

To hardly anyone’s surprise, Toyota has announced yet another extension of its vehicle-production halt at all plants in Japan (including subsidiary vehicle manufacturers) until at least Saturday 26 March (a previously-scheduled Saturday production day), as reported on Toyota’s USA and Global Newsrooms. This newly extended shutdown brings the estimated loss of production units to about 140,000 since the earthquakes and tsunami struck. About 60% of those vehicles, or 84,000, would have been export bound. This was followed by cautionary warnings of likely production interruptions in North America of indeterminate location or duration. A Reuters article, citing Toyota spokesman Craig Mullenbach, suggests that the company’s San Antonio, Texas plant that builds slow-selling Tacoma and Tundra pickup trucks is the likeliest North American production facility to be idled.

In better news, the previously-announced resumption of replacement parts production on Thursday 17 March and of parts for overseas production facilities on Monday 21 March was reaffirmed, along with word that all 13 North American vehicle and engine plants are, for now, running normally, although overtime has been curtailed to conserve parts that come from suppliers in Japan.

Meanwhile, a story from the British-based (and limited access) just-auto.com site brings us an update from Toyota Kirloskar Motor (TKM), Toyota’s importer, assembler and distributor in India. Sandeep Singh, TKM’s deputy managing director informs us that most parts are sourced from from Thailand and Indonesia and there would be no immediate threat to the Indian operations as stocks for the current month are sufficient and components ordered earlier are also on the way. Still, he cautiously adds that “We are still assessing the situation and would likely be in a better position to comment on that in the next few days”.

Also reporting updates is the Guangzhou Toyota operation in south China via a Reuters story. The company states that, given 90%-95% Chinese content of locally-built Toyota Camrys plus current stocks of Japanese-sourced parts, they should be fine until mid-April. The article also estimates that current inventory of Lexus vehicles in China is sufficient to sustain sales for two months.

A recent iteration of the Toyota USA Newsroom’s earthquake and tsunami statement ends by saying that “Regarding dealerships in the U.S., inventories remain generally good”. While that may certainly be the case at present, most pundits think that by the time April ends, the situation may be very different, especially insofar as Toyota and Lexus models sourced from Japan. The uncertainty and pessimism hinges around two basic facts. For one, while the majority of Toyota factories and their larger (Tier 1) suppliers are based around the Tokyo and Toyota City areas that are hundreds of miles from the major earthquake and tsunami epicenter, that is not necessarily the case with smaller, almost mom-and-pop Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers and machine shops. Depending on the vehicle and who you listen to, a modern car has somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 individual parts, and if even one of them is missing, you certainly can’t produce the vehicle. Honda and Nissan have reported difficulties or an outright inability to contact over 40 of these small suppliers, and it’s most likely that Toyota is in this same situation. The second issue, as Michael Smitka, professor of economics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia said in a Bloomberg article, “You can’t get trucks in and out of the area affected by the disaster. In some cases, a road or bridge may be open, but with only one lane available. Are you going to try to put through a shipment of machinery at the expense of getting through a shipment of food?” Oh, and don’t forget to add the disruption added by rolling power blackouts due to the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant drama.

Although predicting the future supply situation of any given vehicle is an imprecise guessing game, two articles provide valuable data that sheds a faint light on the subject, not just for Toyota but for Japan’s major automakers. The first of these was written by Bill Visnic of Edmunds AutoObserver, and was already cited as a source for our recent Subaru update. The second is a study by Hans Greimel of Automotive News of the 20 top-selling Japan-built models sold in the United States and their recent sales numbers. Combining data from these two sources, plus a sprinkling of information from other articles allows us to compile this cautious and admittedly hazy snapshot of what to expect supply-and-demand-wise from a number of imported-from-Japan Toyota and Lexus models in the coming months:

Toyota Prius
With 140,928 units sold in 2010, plus a further 24,174 units in January and February 2011, the Prius is currently Toyota’s best-selling Japanese import vehicle in the United States. Given its rise in popularity concurrent with the rise in gasoline prices, it is often cited alongside the Nissan Leaf and Honda Fit as one of the three vehicles most threatened by low supply and high demand, a situation further exacerbated by one of three Toyota/Panasonic Primearth EV battery-making facilities being among the most affected by the Japanese natural disasters.

A report from Edmunds AutoObserver from Monday 21 March affirms that consideration of the Prius among online shoppers is up more than 30% since the beginning of the year, triple the 11% increase in consideration of all hybrids and of all small cars in general, with one Pennsylvania dealer reporting a quadrupling of interest. Yet, at this point, supply still seems reasonable (with California’s Longo Toyota reporting about a 30-day supply) and there are few if any reports of over-MSRP selling. Some dealers are selling Prii at MSRP, while Tony Gmitrovic of Elmhurst Toyota in the suburban Chicago, Illinois area reports that “while Prius hybrids are still going out the door at below MSRP, instead of at $700 to $800 below we’re seeing them go at $400 to $500 under.” Two days later, the Detroit Free Press quoted TrueCar.com‘s Jesse Toprak as stating that, “American consumers are paying at least $2,000 more for a Toyota Prius than they would have paid before the crisis began… Prius went from selling about $300 under invoice three weeks ago to selling right at the MSRP since the earthquake.”

This may be a short-lived situation, however, as the Toyota USA Newsroom has just announced that on Monday 28 March Toyota will restart production of the Prius at the Tsutsumi plant in Toyota City.

The Prius’ larger Prius v/Prius+ sibling’s launch in Japan, originally slated for late April, has become the first new model debut postponement as a result of the Japanese earthquakes, a fact announced via a Toyota USA Newsroom press release. Seemingly unaffected, at this point, are the late summer 2011 U.S. release of Prius v and the “first half of 2012″ on-sale date for Prius+ in Europe.

Toyota RAV4
Given that the RAV4 has been made in Canada since 4 November 2008, it may seem odd to see it listed here. A glance at Toyota’s February 2011 sales chart, however, reveals that just over 23% of RAV4s sold in the U.S. thus far in 2011 are imported from Japan. It remains to be seen if the Canadian plant has the capacity to take up the slack from Japan, or if, to the contrary, a lack of parts will also bring Canada to a halt. We should also note that the current RAV4 is due for a next-generation makeover no later than the 2013 model year.

Lexus ES
Perennially Lexus’ best-selling car (as opposed to crossover SUV), the ES is cited by Edmunds AutoObserver as being among the company’s models most at risk of low supplies by the industry’s Days to Turn metric. Defined as the average number of days vehicles were in dealer inventory before being sold during the month(s) indicated, the ES’s 26-day supply for February 2011 and a probably lower-than-average additional supply for March may translate into serious shortages as soon as mid-April.

The fact that the current Lexus ES isn’t even offered in either the Japanese Domestic Market nor in Europe, with the bulk of its production destined for North America, as well as its strong under-the-skin kinship with the made-in-America Toyota Camry, and it is little surprise that every time a fiscal or political U.S./Japan crisis flares up, rumors start to run amok regarding North American Lexus ES production. The great Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 may well be the tipping point that finally makes this happen.

Toyota 4Runner
With all the talk of the traditional body-on-frame, truck-based SUV such as the 4Runner being an endangered species, it comes as something of a surprise to see it appear so prominently on these lists. Yet, with a notable sales upturn for the 5th-generation model that debuted for the 2010 model year, the 4Runner is #10 among the top 20 best-selling Japanese-built vehicles in the U.S., and its 35-day supply on February 2011 implies that getting one after late April could be a dicey proposition.

Toyota Yaris
Predictions surrounding the Toyota Yaris are probably the most complex and convoluted you’ll find in this article. Edmunds AutoObserver informs us that the current Yaris Days To Turn figure in the U.S. is well over 100 days, thus hinting that current inventory won’t sell out until as late as July. Things are not that simple, however, as another spike in gasoline prices as a side-effect of the current war in Libya (or further spread of Middle East unrest) coupled with dwindling Prius stocks could well drive renewed demand for one of the U.S. market’s most fuel-economical non-hybrid vehicles.

Also, the current, 2nd-generation Yaris is winding down its last model year, and its 3rd-generation successor went on sale in Japan in late December 2010, as well as appearing as a Yaris HSD Hybrid concept for Europe at this month’s Geneva Auto Show. With the Prius v/Prius+ Japanese launch already delayed, the same fate may well behold the 3rd-generation Yaris launch outside Japan. Even worse for the U.S. market, the bulk of current Yaris sedan production (also sold as Toyota Belta or Vios in other markets), as well as 3rd-generation Yaris for North America and the Middle East is or would be served from the Central Motor Company facility in Miyagi prefecture, near Sendai, ground zero for the tsunami of Wednesday 9 March. While the plant is located back near the mountains, away from the shoreline where the tsunami made landfall, and reported damage to its wall and some pipes but no major structural or equipment problems, the state of its nearby infrastructure imply that this may well be Toyota’s last Japanese plant to reach any semblance of normal production. Toyota is surely brainstorming alternatives, and radical possibilities include sourcing Yaris production for North America from Europe’s Valenciennes, France plant or even this author’s suggestion that Yaris be built in Mexico.

Toyota Corolla
Another unexpected entry in the list is the Toyota Corolla. Its situation is much like that of the RAV4 mentioned earlier, with Canadian output supplemented by Japan-built vehicles that comprised just over 24% of U.S. Corolla sales. Again, it remains to be seen to what extent the Canadian plant has the capacity to take up the slack from Japan, or if a lack of parts will eventually bring Canada to a halt. Probably mitigating the Corolla situation, however, is on-again construction of Toyota’s Blue Springs, Mississippi factory, tentatively slated to begin production of the Corolla this coming fall.

Lexus IS
The overall 15th best-selling Japanese-built vehicle in the U.S. for 2010, Lexus’ smallest rear-wheel-drive sports sedan line currently has a 31-day Days To Turn figure in the U.S. for the IS 250, a bit over the ES’s 26-day figure. Thus, Lexus ISs could start becoming scarce by the end of April.

Lexus RX
You may be forgiven for wondering why Hans Griemel’s Automotive News article ranks the Lexus RX below its ES and IS stablemates as the 19th-best-selling Japanese vehicle imported into the United States for 2010 (and outside the top 20 for 2011) when it is, in fact, the marque’s best-selling vehicle here. The answer, again, is the same as for the Toyota RAV4 and Corolla: a mix of Canadian and Japanese sourcing. The latter comprises 30% of all Lexus RXs sold in the U.S., including all hybrid RX 450h models.

Does Lexus have the capability of sourcing RX Hybrids from North America as well? Tentatively, yes, but the logistics may not be all that easy, given that only the Cambridge, Ontario plant is geared to Lexus levels of fit-and-finish and quality, while only Kentucky has hybrid powertrain assembly expertise with the Camry.

Lexus LX
Although a niche, low-volume model, Lexus’ top-of-the-line SUV currently has but a 26-day supply on hand at dealers as of February 2011, just like its ES sibling. This implies that stocks could begin running seriously low as soon as mid-April. It would be interesting to see how that figure compares to the very similar Toyota Land Cruiser.

Lexus LS
The luxury carmaker’s flagship sedan, the Lexus LS, though far from being the marque’s volume leader, currently reports a 34 Days to Turn inventory, which probably means meager selection at U.S. Lexus dealers by the time the end of April rolls around.

Lexus CT
The Japanese natural disasters couldn’t have come at a worse time vis-à-vis the launch of Lexus’ newest volume model line, the premium compact hybrid CT. With the bulk of Lexus’ advertising and marketing initiatives for 2011 (some of them quite unorthodox and youth-oriented) directed towards the CT 200h, many feared that it would all become a monumentally wasted effort. Indeed, anecdotal evidence coming out of California already conveys tight CT supplies for the demand that’s out there. Fortunately, The Lexus CT is one of a trio of vehicles (along with the Toyota Prius and another Lexus that we’ll discuss shortly) that will see a resumption of production in Japan on Monday 28 March. Thus, Lexus’ Kyushu plant joins the Toyota Tsutsumi plant in Toyota City as the only two of the automaker’s facilities producing vehicles in the motherland.

Frankly, it makes all the sense in the world for Lexus to put its current diminished resources behind CT. After all, this is the vehicle that is expected to exponentially increase the marque’s sales in Europe, and interest in North America has also been heightened by the recent runup in gasoline prices.

Lexus HS
Toyota’s decision to prioritize Japanese production of Prius and Lexus CT, as noted earlier, is a sound one that may well be described as a no-brainer. Much more puzzling, however, is awarding this vaunted status to Lexus’ HS 250h. After all, this is a model that isn’t offered in Europe, was ultimately turned down by Australia and has sold well below expectations in North America. Granted, it’s Lexus’ best-selling model in the Japanese Domestic Market, but who in Japan would currently have their mind on car-shopping? Yet, the fact that it is built alongside the Lexus CT in Kyushu, its degree of platform and component commonality with Prius and CT, plus a possible decent supply of parts probably made a case for its inclusion in the upcoming reopening of Japanese production. Hopefully, parts inventories and logistics permitting, the Kyushu plant is flexible enough to adjust CT vs HS production. Or, perhaps, HS will finally begin to gain some sales traction in the U.S. It may already be doing so in California, at any rate.

Photo Credits:
Photo 1:
Bertel Schmitt – The Truth About Cars
Other Photos: Toyota USA Newsroom

Photo Journal – 2010 Lexus HS250h – Silver Opal Mica

January 21, 2010 – Hello Someday! The HS250h is Lexus’ first dedicated hybrid and their first hybrid starting at $34k. I had an opportunity to spend some time with a Silver Opal Mica HS250h Base model. I did get a chance to experience the HS in it’s true form. No Mark Levinson, no park assist, no back up camera, no heated seats and no HID! But don’t be fooled. Just because this car was absent of the Lexus options we’re used to doesn’t mean it’s totally stripped of it’s Lexus qualities.

This Silver Opal Mica HS has plenty to offer. This car had the black leather interior with charcoal gray accents. It also has the usual standard features like the Lexus 10-speaker Premium Sound System with 6 disc in-dash CD/MP3, XM Radio and USB/AUX inputs. You can even work your iPod through the steering wheel controls. All the usual standard Lexus power features are there including a moonroof, push button start and smart key remote access are standard. It also has a split 5 spoke 17″ wheel package with Michelin Energy MXV4 Plus tires which are V rated!

Despite having a combined 187 hp from a 2.4L 4cyl w/Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain, this car is no slouch. There is plenty of torque going up long grades and driving up the steepest hills of San Francisco. It is a fantastic highway cruiser. It’s stable, smooth and in the cross winds, and it feels very planted. Thanks to its low 0.27 Cd, the HS cuts through the wind without effort or excessive wind noise. If you’re going 20 mph or below, you can run the car in full Electric (EV Mode) for a few minutes. The HS is a great city car. It’s very easy to zigzag through traffic and a breeze to park in tight spaces. On the highways the HS is quiet and as smooth as a car twice its size. Steering and suspension feel are very stable. Despite carrying a load of batteries, the HS can handle well in the twisties and those fast circular freeway on and off-ramps. Body roll is very minimal thanks to the front and rear sway bars and V-rated tires. Around town, the car seamlessly switches from gas to electric without noise.

The HS is all about efficiency and great fuel economy. The HS is EPA-rated at 35 city/34 hwy and 35 combined. The worst mileage I experienced was 32.1 mpg riding the car mostly in PWR mode and the drive selector in B. The best mileage I was able to achieve was 40.1 mpg mainly on the freeway. In mixed city/hwy driving, I averaged 34-35mpg consistently, all with the use of regular 87 unleaded gasoline. Being that this did not have all the bells and whistles, I was more focused on obtaining the best MPGs. I mostly drove in ECO and NORMAL drive modes if you can believe that!

So what’s not to like? The HS250h would make a great commuter car as well as a traveling companion. If you haven’t driven one, try it out, you will be surprised. Below are a few pics of my experience with the HS250h.

July 2009 – Silver Opal Mica – HS250h Base without Navigaton – MSRP $34,200

HS meets Wald IS F

Yes they are related in some way: L-Finesse.

RXs, IS Cs and more…

Gauge cluster of the HS250h

HS with the 2IS and 1IS

HS and a Corolla. Same size? NOT.

Bamboo Pearl & Silver Opal Mica. BP is darker and greener.

HS meets M3

HS meets its cousin, the 3rd Gen Prius

Split 5-spoke 17″ wheels and V-Rated Michelin tires!

HS – A West Coast Novelty?

San Francisco in the background.

Sutro Tower surrounded by fog

Visiting history: the former Naval Air Station Alameda

All Electric meets Hybrid

Visiting the former NAS Treasure Island & the Oakland Span – Bay Bridge

The cockpit of the HS250h -Non-Nav

About to head into The City

Ready to put the pedal to the metal!

You can find more photos here:

Photo Journal: 2010 Lexus HS250h – Silver Opal Mica
Article & All Photos property of: Flipside909