The upcoming 3rd-gen Toyota Harrier: it’s NOT a preview of the 4th-gen Lexus RX

Toyota Harrier 1
A bare-bones Japanese language Toyota news release linking to a page on the Toyota Japan website promising a new Harrier crossover SUV in winter 2013 led to a stream of predictions that we were looking at the 4th-generation of the Lexus RX – minus the spindle grille – based on the historic relation between the two models. And this was no mere shadowy teaser, but included 4 clear pictures of a dark violet-blue-gray vehicle (three of which illustrate this article) with clear stylistic ties to its predecessors.

So, are they correct, or off base? OK, so the title of this article is a huge, in-your-face giveaway spoiler as to what this author thinks, but please stay with us as we justify why our opinion flies in the face of much of the Internet punditry. After all, yours truly has been down this road before – almost 9 years ago, to be precise – debunking erroneous notions that the original Toyota Mark X was the 2nd-generation Lexus IS.

First, though, a review of the historic relation between essentially similar Lexus and Toyota models is in order. In terms of origins, these fall into two broad categories:

Conceived as a Lexus, but badged as a Toyota in Japan
Born of the F1 (“Flagship One”) initiative to create a large luxury vehicle to challenge the world’s best, the original Lexus LS launched Toyota’s international luxury brand, with sales starting in the United States in September 1989. With the Lexus brand not appearing in the Japanese market until 26 July 2005, however, there was an almost 16-year period which saw an at times convoluted relationship between the international Lexus models and their Toyota-badged variants for Japan. Japanese dealers began clamoring for their version of the Lexus LS, which appeared at Toyopet Stores barely a month after its U.S. debut bearing the Toyota Celsior badge. The late 2006 debut of the XF40 4th-generation Lexus LS saw the end of Toyota Celsior badging.

A high-end luxury sedan begs for a GT coupe counterpart, right? Thus work began on the E-segment Lexus SC at Toyota’s Calty Design Research center in California, leading to a June 1991 unveiling. In Japan it appeared around the same time as the 3rd (Z30) iteration of a familiar badge: Toyota Soarer. The Soarer name carried on into the Japanese version of the 2nd-generation (Z40) Lexus SC until the July 2005 Japanese rollout of the Lexus dealer network. Then, the Toyota Soarer simply changed badges and carried on as a Lexus until its ultimate demise as a production car in July 2010 and as a Super GT racer at the end of the 2011 season.

Toyotas rebadged as Lexus for export
Toyota soon realized that a single F-segment high-end large luxury sedan such as the Lexus LS / Toyota Celsior was not enough to sustain a dealer network, and hastily adapted the V20 (2nd-generation) Toyota Vista 4-door pillared hardtop (itself a Toyota Camry variant) as the original Lexus ES 250. This 2-year stopgap was replaced by the XV10 2nd-generation Lexus ES with a new Toyota Windom equivalent. Both were launched in September 1991. The ES/Windom relation continued until the debut of the XV40 5th-generation Lexus ES in February 2007, at which point the Toyota Windom died and the Lexus ES became a model built but not sold in Japan.

After the rear-wheel-drive F-segment Lexus LS sedan and the E-segment Lexus SC coupe, an E-segment sedan seemed like a natural next step for Lexus. After Calty designer Erwin Lui’s unorthodox tactic of using plaster-filled balloons to achieve the original SC coupe’s rounded, voluptuous shapes, Toyota did something just as unexpected: hire Italy’s famed Italdesign Giugiaro to design a new Crown derivative, the Toyota Aristo, which was unveiled in Japan in October 1991. Its Lexus GS counterpart for export began production in February 1993. The twin Aristo/GS continued for a second generation, known as S160, until the introduction of the 3rd-generation (S190) Lexus GS at the January 2005 Detroit Auto Show and the Japanese introduction of the Lexus brand over 6 months later killed the Toyota Aristo.

Lexus’ first foray into the world of sports utility vehicles was with the Lexus LX line, essentially fancier, high-luxe versions of the largest Toyota Land Cruisers, starting with the 1996 model year only for export. In a notable twist, however, the 2nd-generation (J100) Lexus LX was sold in Japan as the Toyota Land Cruiser Cygnus. The Cygnus badge didn’t survive past the 2007 model year.

The increasing popularity of European-style, enthusiast-friendly D-segment sports sedans led to the creation of the iconic Toyota Altezza in October 1998. The following year, its Lexus IS-badged counterpart first appeared in Europe. Alas, the original Altezza/IS lasted but a single generation, and the Altezza badge was laid to rest in March 2005 with the advent of the 2nd-generation (XE20) Lexus IS (although we once wondered if the Altezza badge was worthy of reviving).

Yes, just about every Toyota-badged Lexus introduced before 2005 has been relegated to history, with one exception…

Toyota Harrier 2

Harrier: the last remaining Toyota-to-Lexus model
Although previewed in concept form by the Lexus-badged SLV, the world’s first D-segment luxury crossover (car-based) SUV actually first went into production as the Toyota Harrier in December 1997, 3 months before being exported as the Lexus RX. Harrier and RX were near-identical twins during their first (XU10) and second (XU30) generations, the latter having first gone on sale in February 2003. As the 3rd-generation (AL10) Lexus RX appeared in November 2008 and finally entered Japanese showrooms, Toyota chose not to discontinue the Harrier. Rather, it carried on, virtually unchanged, in the Japanese domestic market, a fact that slipped under many radars.

In a sense, the seeds for this story were sown back in December 2012, when yours truly, researching something on the Toyota Japan site, accidentally stumbled upon a now dead Harrier page. If memory serves correctly, it was then available only with a single engine offering: the 2AZ-FE 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, a fact tacitly confirmed by the Batfa.com website.

Thus, Japanese consumers have, in a sense, the option of choosing between showroom-new 2nd-gen or 3rd-gen Lexus RXs, with the former bearing a Toyota badge and using a smaller, less powerful engine. Such a situation isn’t as unusual as you’d expect. Volkswagen is probably the champion in this regard, with buyers in China, Mexico and South Africa, off the top of our head, able to choose from multiple generations of Golfs, Jettas and Passats off the new car showroom floor. It isn’t unusual for European carmakers such as Opel, Fiat and Peugeot/Citroën to offer, for a period, decontented cheaper versions of soon-to-be-superseded models alongside their better-equipped, more expensive successors. And, in North America, Chevrolet has been known to continue building older versions of Malibus and Impalas for fleet and rental markets alongside the newer consumer-oriented versions.

With Toyota having chosen to continue offering the Harrier in Japan and the current version having remained virtually unchanged for over a decade, it’s no wonder we’re now looking at a successor. Just how much do we know at this point, though?

Hybrid-only or not?
Although recently down to a single 4-cylinder gasoline engine choice, the Toyota Harrier has previously offered the options of the 1MZ-FE 3-liter V6 and the gasoline-electric hybrid version of its larger 3MZ-FE 3.3-liter V6 sibling. It takes only the barest of glances to spot the prominent HYBRID badges on the front fenders of the newest Harrier, so we’re definitely seeing the return of the Harrier Hybrid. But will the Harrier go hybrid-only for the next generation? Hard to say for sure, but there’s certainly a strong case that it could. For one, the latest 7th-generation (XV50) Toyota Camry for the Japanese market has evolved into a niche Hybrid-only vehicle, the largest such front-wheel-drive model in Toyota’s domestic stable. Further, none of the Japanese domestic market’s crossover SUVs currently offer a hybrid version. The Highlander/Kluger? That hasn’t been sold in Japan since the advent of the second generation in mid-2007. The RAV4? The newest 4th-generation version has yet to go on sale there even with gasoline engines, let alone as a hybrid that the rumor mill says is an iffy proposition. And what about the other Toyotas conceptually closest to the Harrier: the American Venza and its similarly-styled smaller Japanese sibling, the Mark X Zio? Nope, no hybrids there, either.

And what powertrain would a Harrier Hybrid use? Our best guess is the 2.5-liter 2AR-FXE 4-cylinder unit from the latest Camry Hybrid.

Facelift or all-new sheetmetal? A brief styling analysis.
Looking at the new Harrier, especially the side view and greenhouse, is giving us a very strong case of déjà vu. Is this all-new sheetmetal? Or simply an extensive facelift on the existing Harrier akin to those applied to the current 4th-generation Lexus LS for 2013 or to the previous 3rd-generation Toyota Avalon for the 2011 and 2012 model years?

The fixed glass pane on the trailing edge of the rear doors is more akin to the outgoing Harrier/2nd-gen Lexus RX than to the latest RX, which replaces this glass with a thicker C-pillar. Yet, details such as the greenhouse and side window shapes, fender and lower door sill shapes and sculpturing appear closer but hardly identical to the latest Lexus RX. Thus, we’ll conclude that we’re looking at new sheet metal, albeit styled in a very familiar way.

Toyota Harrier 3Up front is where the Harrier shows the most marked departure from its predecessor. Beneath the prominent chrome brow on the leading edge of the hood is an upper grille that, to this author, looks like a translucent throwback to the late 1980s-to-mid 1990s light bars found on Mercury Sable and Pontiac Grand Prix models of the era. The shape of the large lower grille follows current Toyota styling trends, and is especially reminiscent of the latest Avalon. Pretty distant from the current Lexus spindle grille look, we’d say.

When is the 4th-gen Lexus RX due, anyway?
Writers speculating on whether we’re about to see a new Lexus RX are ignoring that model’s product cadence. The 3rd-generation went on sale in February 2009 as a 2010 model and received the larger spindle grille as part of a mid-life facelift in Spring/Summer 2012 for the 2013 model year. Thus, we’d be quite surprised if a 4th-generation RX appeared any sooner than late 2014 or during the 2015 calendar year as a 2016 model. Besides, Lexus’ current priorities are launching its 2 newest model lines, the RC coupe and the NX smaller crossover SUV.

Any hopes for a Toyota Harrier/Lexus RX reconvergence? Sorry, but that train left in early 2009, and this new Harrier, if anything, shows that its path is veering further than ever from that of its formerly near-identical twin.

Informed Speculation: the 19 new Toyota, Lexus and Scion models to launch during 2012

Ahhh… Pavlov and the conditioned reflex. For those of you that stayed awake during high school science or psychology classes, this was the famous experiment where Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov would ring a bell at the same time as offering a dog food, with the latter making the dog salivate in anticipation. Eventually, the dog was conditioned to salivate simply upon hearing the bell ring, even before the food was actually presented.

Here at Kaizen Factor, however, the conditioned reflex works a bit differently. All it takes is for a senior Toyota official to declare something like, “during (insert year or period of time) Toyota will introduce (insert number) new or updated (possibly having a certain common characteristic) models” for this author to indulge in educated guesswork to figure out what, precisely, those vehicles will be. Indeed, our Informed Speculation series of articles have, in the past, built upon Executive Vice President in charge of Research & Development Takeshi Uchiyamada’s claim that Toyota would release 7 all-new and 4 next-generation versions of existing Toyota and Lexus hybrids by the end of 2012.

Concurrent with the Detroit Auto Show in early January, trade publication Automotive News holds its World Congress get-together of car industry executives. On 10 January 2012, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.’s Group Vice President and Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter’s speech included this tidbit:

With the improving car market…along with a barrage of 19 new or updated Toyota, Scion and Lexus products…we expect 2012 to be a banner year for Toyota.

Yes, you heard right. We’re going to introduce one new or updated car every 19 days on average this year!

That’s unprecedented in Toyota’s history.

As this author…um…salivates at the prospect of guessing what, precisely those 19 models are, we need to put forth a trio of ground rules. The first is that, given that this particular pronouncement was made by Toyota U.S.A.‘s Bob Carter, we won’t consider models for other markets, such as the Euro-centric Toyota Avensis and Aygo mid-life facelifts or the upcoming made-in-France Yaris Hybrid that have already been revealed.

Second, we’re interpreting this to mean new or updated models launched during calendar year 2012, not necessarily model year 2012. Thus, new 2012 models that went on sale during the late 2011 calendar year such as Toyota’s Camry, Camry Hybrid, Prius v, Yaris and refreshed Tacoma, as well as the new-to-North America Scion iQ are specifically excluded from our listing, logic that is tacitly supported in the 7th paragraph of an article by David E. Zoia of WardsAuto.

Finally, we should note that, given Toyota and Lexus’ penchant for considering hybrid and non-hybrid versions of any given model as two separate versions, they’re probably using that logic in arriving at their 19 model count.

Although not contained in the Toyota USA Newsroom’s draft of Bob Carter’s speech, word soon got out that 9 out of the 19 new or updated models would wear the Lexus badge, at first via the aforementioned David E. Zoia of WardsAuto and the Hans Greimel / Mark Rechtin team from Automotive News, and then officially admitted by Lexus in their first-ever Super Bowl commercial press release. With two Scion-badged debuts expected during 2012, that leaves 8 new or revised Toyotas for the list.

Although listed in seemingly random order, the list can, in fact, be mentally divided into two separate “blocs”. The first 9 are the no-brainers, the Toyota, Scion and Lexus vehicles that have already been officially revealed to the world, in some cases as far back as a year ago or longer, but not available for purchase until the 2012 calendar year. The remaining 10 is where our informed speculation title comes in, with yet-to-be-revealed vehicles whose probabilities vary from highly likely to speculative wild-ass guesses that may well be bumped off the list by something else.

OK, enough qualifyers and preambles. Here’s our Informed Speculation list:

1) Lexus GS 350
With its slow, protracted rollout during 2011 (LF-Gh predictor concept at April’s New York Auto Show; 4th-gen GS 350 debut at Pebble Beach, California in August; GS 350 F Sport premiering at Las Vegas’ SEMA Show; and the debut of the not-for-North America GS 250 at China’s Guangzhou Auto Show, both in November) plus its familiar, predictable exterior styling, the latest iteration of the Lexus GS may not, on the surface, feel particularly “new”, but just wait until its February on-sale rollout, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the generational leap of its interior and, above all, by a driving experience that is miles ahead of its predecessors, one that is certain to produce anxiety attacks in Ingolstadt, Munich and Stuttgart.

2) Lexus GS 450h
The hybrid version of the 4th-generation Lexus GS got its own dedicated public debut at the 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show. Like its predecessor, this is a performance-oriented hybrid with a 3.5-liter 2GR-FXE V6 that is a hybridized and more powerful derivative of the GS 350 engine. Due to go on sale after its non-hybrid sibling in spring 2012, it is, if anything, even more of an eye-opening improvement over the previous GS 450h. And, if published rumors (notably from England’s Auto Express) turn out to be true, the GS 450h may well be joined by a second more economy and low CO2 emissions-oriented hybrid sibling. Most rumors point towards a GS 300h powered by a variant of the new-for-2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid’s 2.5-liter 2AR-FXE 4-cylinder engine. A more remote possibility is a GS 350h powered by a new hybridized variant of the Lexus IS 250 and GS 250’s 4GR-FSE 2.5-liter V6.

3) Toyota Prius c
As Toyota’s Prius branches out into a family of Prii with the larger Prius v (a.k.a. Prius Alpha or Prius+), the subbrand now goes in the opposite direction with the smaller Prius c (for cookie city). This dive into Toyota’s deep parts bin essentially mates the 2550mm (100.4″) wheelbase iteration of the NBC platform (think outgoing Toyota Yaris / Vios / Belta sedan) with the 1NZ-FXE 1.5-liter 4 cylinder hybrid powertrain from the 2nd-generation (2004-2009) original Prius. Toyota has put a great deal of effort into making the mechanical components as compact and light as possible and in lowering the center of gravity (a major Toyota goal these days) as Prius c project manager Masahiko Yanagihara informed Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars. About to go on sale in Japan as the Toyota Aqua, the Prius c will be available in the U.S. in March with a starting MSRP below $19,000. Expect it to obliterate what few sales the current 5-door Honda Insight still generates.

4) Toyota Prius Plug-in
After a rather long public introduction period (its North American debut was at the December 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show, and this author attended a technical briefing at the South Florida Auto Show in October 2010), the Toyota Prius Plug-in is finally about to go on sale. Its public rollout is just as protracted as its launch was, with order-taking for 14 launch states (California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia) having begun in October 2011 for Spring 2012 delivery, followed by a 2013 national rollout. The Prius Plug-in features a lithium-ion battery that provides an extended electric-only driving range of up to 15 miles at a maximum speed of 62 miles per hour. Charging times are 2.5-3 hours using a standard 120V outlet or 1.5 hours using 240V.

5) Scion FR-S
The most highly anticipated affordable new sports car in a long time finally goes on sale this coming Spring. The phrase “game-changer” has probably devolved into cliché by now, but if any one car truly deserves that description, this is it. The collaboration with Subaru has brought out the best each company has to offer, and red-blooded car enthusiasts are anxiously awaiting its release. Sure, die-hard Toyota fans remind us that none of the company’s golden-age sports cars bore the Scion badge, while others fret that Subaru’s marketing and two trim-level offering for the BRZ are trumping Scion’s traditional mono-spec plans, but all this pales to the hearty celebrations and hosannas for the return of the reliable, affordable rear-wheel-drive Japanese 2+2 sports coupe in new-car showrooms.

6) Toyota Land Cruiser
Many Toyota fans fret over the similarities between the Toyota Land Cruiser and its Lexus LX 570 sibling, eloquently expressed by the Toyota’s ranking among the 10 least-selling vehicles by a mass-market brand. After all, if you’re spending over $70,000 on a super-capable SUV, may as well get one with a luxury badge and its commensurate dealer VIP treatment. So, what does Toyota do for the current Land Cruiser’s first mid-life facelift going on sale this month as a 2013 model? Bring it even closer to the Lexus LX by adding a large, chrome-trimmed body side molding and adding “over $2,500 in new and updated equipment, inside and out” and making the features of the previously optional Upgrade Package standard! Once you get over the eye-popping $77,955 base MSRP for the 2013 Land Cruiser, head on over to Expedition Portal and read Scott Brady’s spot-on take on the subject.

7) Lexus LX 570
Like its Toyota-badged fraternal-verging-on-identical twin described above, the current iteration of Lexus’ top-of-the-line SUV receives its first mid-term refresh. Most obviously, the LX becomes the third model (after the CT and 4th-generation GS) to receive the new-face-of-Lexus spindle grille, as well as new Turn Assist (which tightens the turning circle by adding more brake force to the inside rear wheel) and Multi-terrain Select (allowing for a choice of five types of terrain settings) features. Expect it at your local Lexus dealer in early February with an MSRP of $80,930, or almost $3000 over the Land Cruiser. As we said earlier, a no-brainer which one to go for. By the way, the LX 570, like the Toyota Land Cruiser and 4th-generation Lexus GS, skips the 2012 model year altogether and goes straight from 2011 to extended 2013 model year.

8) Scion iQ EV
After a couple of launch delays, the North America-market Scion iQ was nonetheless barely excluded from our “list of 19” by virtue of the 248 units sold in the western United States during December 2011. Yet to go on sale, but expected by the end of this calendar year, is a limited run of battery-electric Scion iQ EVs. A Toyota-badged prototype, as shown above, debuted last March at the 2011 Geneva Auto Show. Information on the Toyota USA Newsroom is scant, except to predict a range of less than 50 miles per charge and a small run of cars available only to demonstration programs such as fleets and short-distance urban car-sharing programs. The Integrity Exports website adds that there will be an initial run of 600 cars, with 400 remaining in Japan, 100 earmarked for Europe and the final hundred coming to the United States wearing the Scion badge.

9) Toyota RAV4 EV
Back in May 2010, we amply reported on the Toyota/Tesla collaboration, which, soon enough, begat a Demonstration Vehicle prototype battery electric 3rd-generation Toyota RAV4 EV that debuted at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show with the promise of a late 2012 on-sale date. The carmaker’s second BEV launch this year harkens back to the first RAV4 EV that was available from 1997-2003. Those of you with long memories may recall that this resulted in an odd product cadence where, after the 2001 model year 1st-gen RAV4 EVs were sold alongside newer 2nd-gen gasoline-powered RAV4s. Given that the current RAV4 has been around since the 2006 model year, will history repeat with the post-2013 RAV4 EV an offshoot of the 3rd-generation RAV4 that will soon be superseded by a 4th-generation gasoline version? This author’s admittedly hazy crystal ball says no…

10) Toyota RAV4
With its debut in late 2005 as a 2006 model, the current RAV4 has been the longest-lived gasoline or diesel-powered generation of Toyota’s pioneering small crossover SUV, now in its 7th model year with but a single mid-term refresh in 2009. Would Toyota really launch a RAV4 EV this year in such an aging model? We doubt it. And this author isn’t alone in his skepticism, as Car and Driver‘s Jon Yanca noted that, “Toyota made a point to say that the (2010 RAV4 EV) demonstration vehicles will be based on current-generation cars, which sure makes it sound like the appearance of the fully baked version will coincide with the launch of the next RAV4. So there’s one useful thing we learned—maybe.” Even more useful, however, would be a return to its roots as a short, strictly 2-row seating model such as Japan and Europe get, and not the current North America and Australia super-size that is barely shorter than the Toyota Highlander.

11) Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
With the existence of a Toyota RAV4 EV that will supposedly be available in significantly greater numbers than the 100-car test run of Scion iQ EVs, should we really expect a RAV4 Hybrid? Back in November 2010 this author wrote that, “With all the talk of the full-electric Toyota/Tesla RAV4 EV, a separate hybrid RAV4 is unlikely, but you never know.” In retrospect, we feel that prediction to be erroneous, and that we will see a RAV4 Hybrid to plug the price and fuel economy gap between a gasoline and full-electric RAV4. Other factors include the lack of a 4-cylinder hybrid crossover SUV with an all-wheel-drive option in Toyota’s lineup and, to a lesser extent, Ford’s mix of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and full-electric variants of its Focus and C-Max lines.

12) Toyota Avalon
Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter’s speech at the Automotive News World Congress also included this enigmatic clue: “You’ll see an outstanding example of a locally developed new product later this year. I can’t say much about it other than its name has a letter “A” or two in it”. While Venza, Sienna, Tundra, Sequoia, maybe Matrix or even an improbable and highly unlikely Solara revival could fit this U.S.-developed description, odds are he’s talking about the 4th-generation Toyota Avalon. The current iteration of Toyota’s full-size front-wheel-drive sedan is certainly overdue for a major change, given its 2005 model year debut and 2 mid-life facelifts. In June 2011, a Toyota dealers’ national meeting in Las Vegas included a preview of both the 2012 Camry and the upcoming Avalon. Reportedly, they were far more excited by the latter, likening the new Avalon’s styling to the Audi A7 and current Jaguar XJ. Given the Avalon’s precedent of Chicago Auto Show debuts, we may well see the newest version of Toyota’s large sedan unveiled at the show’s Wednesday 8 and Thursday 9 February press conferences.

13) Lexus ES 350
Where the Toyota Camry goes, the Lexus ES closely follows, at least as far as total makeovers go. Hardly surprising, given their common mechanicals and roots. Current rumors peg the debut of the 6th-generation Lexus ES during the 2012 New York Auto Show press conferences on Wednesday 4 and Thursday 5 April, alongside the unveiling of the production version its archrival, the smokin’ hot 2nd-generation Lincoln MKZ. Given that the current Lexus ES is the brand’s best-selling model in China (and, in fact, among the 5 top-selling luxury vehicles there), the premium that frequently chauffeur-driven Chinese executives place on rear seat leg room, and no plans for a Chinese market long-wheelbase version of the new GS sedan all suggest that the new ES may well skew closer to Avalon than Camry in size and proportions.

14) Lexus ES 300h
As we reported back in December 2010, Toyota applied for U.S. and Canadian trademarks for ES 300h for use by its Lexus division. Likely to debut alongside its non-hybrid counterpart in New York, the first-ever hybrid Lexus ES will probably share the latest Camry Hybrid’s 2AR-FXE 2.5-liter 4-cylinder hybrid engine. Given the rave reviews this new powertrain has received, not to mention its noticeably improved fuel economy versus its 6th-generation Camry Hybrid predecessor, expect this to be the final death knell for the underperforming Lexus HS. Also, don’t be too surprised if, at some point, this Lexus ES and ES h becomes the second Lexus model to be built in North America, be it in Canada’s Cambridge, Ontario South Plant alongside the RX 350 or in the U.S. at a new Lexus-caliber facility within Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky manufacturing complex.

15) Lexus RX 350
Having debuted in November 2008 at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the current 3rd-generation (AL10) Lexus RX is just about due for its mid-life refresh. At a minimum, expect a revised front with Lexus’ new spindle grille, plus new wheel styles and revised taillight inserts for Lexus’ most popular model in the United States. One possible surprise, however, was hinted at by Hans Greimel and Mark Rechtin of Automotive News as they quote Lexus general manager Mark Templin’s statement that “Lexus will launch nine new or updated models this year, plus three F-Sport variations“. With the new GS F-Sport being the first, might an RX 350 F-Sport be the second? Unlikely as this notion may sound to some, don’t forget that the RX currently offers an unheralded Sport Package with sport-tuned suspension and VDIM.

16) Lexus RX 450h
The bulk of what we wrote above for the RX 350, naturally, also goes for its RX 450h hybrid sibling. One probable exception, though, would be the slim likelihood of an RX 450h F-Sport for North America. CT 200h F-Sport notwithstanding, Japan and Europe seem to be far more amenable to the notion of F-Sport hybrids than the New World is. For proof, just look at 4th-generation GS offerings here versus other markets.

17) Lexus LS 460
With the current, 4th-generation (XF40) Lexus LS having debuted for the 2007 model year and received but a single mid-life refresh for 2010, the time seems ripe for the rollout of its 5th-gen successor. Though details are scant-to-nonexistent at this point, we expect a protracted, multi-continent rollout of its diverse variants, akin to what we saw for the 4th-generation Lexus GS. Assuming that April’s 2012 New York Auto Show is earmarked for the ES, possible LS debut venues include Pebble Beach, California in August; Paris in September; and Los Angeles and Guangzhou, China in November. Given that the Lexus LS’s archrivals Audi A8, BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class all currently or will soon offer 6-cylinder versions of their flagships even in North America, we wouldn’t be surprised to see an LS 350 powered by the 2GR-FSE 3.5-liter V6. On the reverse side of the coin, might a 5th-gen LS F-Sport be the third new thusly-badged model that Mark Templin was hinting at?

18) Lexus LS 600h
Again, there isn’t much to add to what was said above for the Lexus LS’s hybrid variant. Given the rumored 2-pronged economy hybrid/performance hybrid strategy for the new Lexus GS, plus the current or upcoming availability, even in North America, of diesel-powered Audi A8 and Mercedes S-Class models, an LS 450h powered by the Lexus GS 450h’s 3.5-liter 2GR-FXE hybrid V6 to be sold alongside the LS 600h L and its 2UR-FSE 5-liter hybrid V8 sounds like a natural strategy.

19) mystery large Toyota hybrid
Unexpectedly hinted at during Bob Carter’s Automotive News World Congress speech, this one deserves its own separate Kaizen Factor article. Stay tuned…

Other possibilities
As is the norm for this sort of Informed Speculation articles, there are a number of seemingly more remote, secondary possibilities that may well shove some of these entries off the list. They are definitely worth exploring.

With Scion focused on expanding previously-delayed gasoline-powered iQ availability beyond the U.S. west coast, rolling out the highly-anticipated FR-S coupe and the 100 electric iQ EVs, we wouldn’t expect more from them besides a token Release Series or two of an existing model. What about Scion’s long-standing tradition of always revealing something at the New York Auto Show, you say? More often than not, this is a concept vehicle, as opposed to a new production model, and that’s certainly what we’d expect this year.

At Lexus, some of you may be baffled at the inclusion of the 5th-generation LS ahead of the 3rd-generation IS. After all, the 3rd-generation (S190) GS launch at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show in January was swiftly followed by the 2nd-generation (XE20) IS debut at Geneva in March of that year. Our rationale is that the current LS has received only a single mid-cycle refresh and no talk of a delay from its traditional 6-year cycle between major changes, whereas the current IS has received two mid-cycle refreshes amidst talk of a 1-year delay versus original 3rd-gen launch plans. Thus, IS can more logically stand to be released after LS.

There are also hopes that the trademarked-in-mid-2009 CT 300h name might become an actual, more powerful option for the successful entry-level Lexus CT line. But would a new engine option without a mid-cycle refresh count as one of the 19 anyway? We’d guess not. As to rumors of a sub-RX, RAV4 based Lexus SUV or a larger, 7-seat crossover, sure, they’d be logical additions to the line, but with Lexus’ hands full juggling the cadence of renewing its four core sedan lines, don’t expect to see them as production vehicles debuting during this calendar year.

Toyota’s broad model line, of course, makes for the largest margin of error on this list. Starting at the bottom, the new-for-2012 in North America 3rd-generation (XP130) Toyota Yaris hatchbacks are still awaiting a notchback sedan sibling. But will it ever come? Just over two years after the newest Yaris debuted in Japan as the Toyota Vitz, we are still awaiting the next generation of its Japanese Domestic Market sedan counterpart, the Belta. And no new Belta nor Yaris sedan also means no new Vios for southeast Asia. With Honda and Mazda adopting a no-sedan-for-North America strategy for their Yaris-rivaling Fit and 2 lines, Toyota may well be following suit.

Corolla and Matrix? Nah. The North American Corolla appears one year later than its Japanese Corolla and European Auris siblings, and the latter isn’t expected to be unveiled until this September’s Paris Auto Show. The Sienna minivan? Another unlikely, since the 2011 model year debut of its 3rd-generation puts its mid-term refresh at some point next year at the earliest. Highlander? With the current model’s 2011 model year mid-life facelift, also improbable. On the other hand, their Venza sibling is a prime candidate for bumping something off the list, since it has been around since the 2009 model year without the benefit of a mid-term refresh. A 2013 model year mid-term refresh at the end of this year for the current, new-for-2010 Toyota 4Runner and its Lexus GX 460 sibling also rates a maybe, while our esteemed co-editor Flipside909 has also suggested the possibility of a second mid-term refresh for the Tundra and Sequoia.

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

Sweet Victory! Lexus/F-Sport LX 570 wins Baja 1000!

November 20, 2010 -In their commitment to Lexus’ Pursuit of Perfection, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America / F-Sport 2008 Lexus LX 570 made their Pursuit of Victory by placing 1st in the Stock Full class in the 2010 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000. The drivers responsible for piloting the LX570 to victory is Joe Bacal, Bob Ditner, co-drivers Chris Cocores and Paul Williamsen of JT Grey Racing. Their win is an important milestone in Lexus Motorsports as this is the only LX 570 and luxury SUV competing in the famous but treacherous Baja 1000.

The LX 570 was subjected to all sorts of terrain in the arid conditions of Baja California, Mexico. At times, the LX powered through dry lake beds at speeds above 110 MPH. The Lexus truck managed to power through the rough terrain despite having 2 mechanical issues that put them down for 12.5 hours. They managed to finish the whole race in a grueling 42 hours. Not too shabby as they completed the whole race and still won their class!

Joe and team achieved several milestones including the 2010 SCORE points championship for the Stock Full class of the whole series, Joe claimed four 1st place finishes in five races and achieved the Toyota Milestone awards for racing every mile of SCORE’s five-race season (only 17 racers were eligible coming into the Baja 1000). We at Kaizen Factor congratulate Joe Bacal and team for their remarkable victory!

More info:

http://www.jtgrey.com/
http://www.facebook.com/ControlAmidChaos
http://www.twitter.com/cntrlamidchaos
http://www.YouTube.com/ControlAmidChaos

Photo courtesy of Control Amid Chaos/JT Grey Racing.