Buckle up, folks, strange story ahead.
I'm at the Palm Beach International Raceway, whipping around the track in this thing:
That's Lexus' LC 500, a performance coupe with a 5-liter V8 engine that cranks out 471 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque. I can get it up to about 115 miles per hour before I have to slow down to avoid colliding with the car in front of me. This low-slung, street-legal racecar handles like a dream, and the throaty growl of the engine is absolutely thrilling.
Me and 19 other journalists are taking turns running laps at this Lexus-hosted event. After driving on the main track, we're divided into smaller groups to drive on the smaller courses (slalom, emergency braking, autocross). Waiting for us at these auxiliary tracks are yet more LC 500s, lined up in a row. This car costs almost $100,000 and it's Lexus' pride and joy.
However, one of the journalists I'm with, a guy named Simon, spots a car that is not the LC 500, sitting off to the side. It has four doors.
Simon points to it. "Can I drive that one?" he asks a Lexus rep.
"No problem," the rep says, motioning for an associate to bring the car over.
After whipping the LC 500 around the autocross track, I become curious: Why did Simon choose the four-door family sedan, rather than the supercar-like LC?
Then I remembered what the French stunt driver had told me.
The French Stunt Driver
As part of the event, Lexus had shuttled us to Miami's Design District the day before. We journalists had been divided into trios, with each group placed in a chauffeur-driven Lexus LX. On the way back, I sat in the front so I could try the front seats' built-in massage function. (I have a bad back, and this thing was incredible.)
It was a long drive, and I struck up a conversation with the driver. Was he a full-time chauffeur, how did he get into this line of work?
"Actually, I was a racecar driver," he said. "I raced Formula cars in France, then came to America to do stunt driving for Hollywood, and got a spot racing for NASCAR.
"I hated NASCAR," he said. "The cars are too heavy, and driving in a circle was very weird for me."
I had mistakenly thought he was a Lexus employee but Julian, who had a French accent, revealed that he now earns his living as a race instructor and as a driver-for-hire for events like this. (The stunt work dried up, he said, with demand being reduced by both CG and nepotism in the small stunt driver community.)
We talked cars for much of the ride, and agreed that the best car chase scenes in any movie were in Ronin, with that Audi S8 and 5-class BMW. Those are bad-ass scenes because they're not using sports cars, but regular four-door sedans being driven with skill, and all without Fast-and-Furious-style CG.
Best movie car chase scenes: "Ronin," 1998
Since Julian had driven practically every type of car on Earth, I had to know: What was his personal car? What does an experienced professional driver choose to drive every day?
"I have a 2008 BMW M5," he said with pride. "I bought it used. It took me a long time to find, but it was exactly what I wanted. This kind of car, they do not make anymore."
I posed him a philosophical question: If he totaled the M5 and could not find another, what would he choose?
"Actually, I've thought about that," he said. "I would probably get a GS-F. But they will stop making it this year. They are not taking any more orders, and I heard they have canceled the car. That is a shame."
"What's a GS-F?" I asked.
"Lexus makes it," he replied.
Back to the Track
The car that Simon had chosen was a GS-F. Next to the exotic-looking LC 500, it appears to be an unassuming, somewhat boxy family sedan. Simon climbed out of it after his run with a smile on his face, and when the opportunity came to change cars, I hopped into it.
The GS-F is obviously bigger than the LC 500, and the driving position is a bit higher. I nosed it up to the starting line of the autocross track, not knowing what to expect. When I got the green light, I hit the accelerator.
Pardon my French, but I can only describe the GS-F driving experience as HOLY MOTHERF*CKING SH*T.
The LC 500, you expect that thing to be fast, because that's what fast cars look like. But the GS-F sedan looks like a maybe-faster-than-average four-door--so it was a fast as f*ck surprise. While it feels heavier than the LC 500, the engine (also a 5-liter V8) is so powerful that you only become aware of the extra weight in the corners.
With no other cars for me to collide with on the autocross track, I pushed the GS-F harder and harder. Using the braking and apexing techniques the instructors had taught us, I took corners at approximately twice the speed I'd be comfortable doing in a regular car. The brakes were powerful, the acceleration was explosive and the handling was unflappable.
I spent the next two laps living out every bank-robber-getaway-driver fantasy I've had since I was 16. I threw the car into corners like I was being chased by a team of police cruisers. By the end I was practically trying to send it off of the road, but it was like the traction had been taken over by an AI that refused to let me lose control, while still delivering how-is-this-possible levels of speed.
After the test drives were done, we were given the opportunity to take a "hot lap" in a GS-F driven by racing legend Scott Pruett. (Pruett, recently retired from a 50-year racing career, is now a Lexus brand ambassador.) Since the car is a four-door, he'd take three of us at a time.
We strapped our helmets back on and climbed in. Pruett, cool as a cucumber, then launched the GS-F down the track while calmly answering one of the journalist's many questions. He got the car up to 134 miles an hour--with all four of us weighing it down. I have never felt G-forces like I felt in the corners; I had trouble holding my helmeted head upright, and felt certain that my body was leaving a deep impression in the seats and door panel.
"Didj'have fun, guys?" Pruett, all smiles, asked as we completed the lap. "You wanna do it again?"
We of course said yes, and seconds later were rocketing down the track again. Under Pruett's impossibly-smooth steering and pedal control, it felt like we were in a four-door Ferrari.
After I wobbled away from the car and took my helmet off, I got it. Julian the driver, and the guys behind the car chase scenes in Ronin, preferred fast four-door cars that don't look flashy. Sleeper cars. I now understood the appeal completely.
In short, I was super-impressed with the about-to-be-canceled GS-F. But weirdly enough, the car's lack of popularity--or at least, a small group of vocal haters--was the whole reason Lexus was holding this event, which had nothing to do with the GS-F, or even cars, at all.
The Akio Era
Akio Toyoda is 63 years old but looks 43. And he doesn't look like the president of the largest auto manufacturer in the world; he bears an impish smile and looks like an uncle that's about to play a prank on you. I know these things because I met him.
He's the great-grandson of inventor Sakichi Toyoda, who in 1926 founded the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works and came to be known as the Father of Japan's Industrial Revolution.
Akio is the grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, who in 1933 formed a new division of Toyoda Automatic Loom Works that started manufacturing these newfangled thing called cars.
Akio is the son of Shoichiro Toyoda, who as President of Toyota Motor Corporation from 1982 to 1992 oversaw the development of the Lexus brand.
However, despite this lineage there was no guarantee that Akio Toyoda would ascend to the presidency himself. As far back as 1950, the Toyota company broke with tradition and promoted non-family-members into the company presidency, three times in fact, from then until now. The last time a Toyoda family member had held the reins was in 1995. Also remember that Akio's got tons of relatives also descended from Sakichi Toyoda, and any of them might have earned the top job.
Further proof that Akio was no dynastic shoo-in: Consider that Germany's wealthiest family, the Quandts, own 46% of BMW, giving them outsized influence in all decisions. The Porsche family owns 53% of Volkswagen. The Toyoda family's shares of Toyota? Less than 1%.
It's also worth noting that Akio Toyoda is rather unconventional, maybe even rebellious. When a mentor warned him that even if he would be company president someday, Toyota's engineers would not take his input seriously, since he lacked racing experience, he began training as a race driver--even though he was in his 50s. Using a pseudonym so as not to draw attention, he subsequently competed, multiple times, in the grueling 24 Hours of Nürburgring at Germany's famously challenging and dangerous course (3 to 12 people die on the track each year). In 2009 he and his team finished a respectable 3rd out of eight in the "SP8" naturally-aspirated prototype category.
At the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show, Akio arrived "in the first car he ever owned, a meticulously preserved, white 1970 Corolla 1600 GT," Automotive News reported. "Afterward, he delighted the masses by doing doughnuts in the lot out back."
This past May, Akio delivered the commencement speech to this year's graduating class at his Alma Mater, Babson College in Massachusetts. "How wild is tonight's party going to get?" he asked the grads from the podium. "And more importantly, can I come?
"I can't stay out too late," he added. "Because tomorrow is the finale of 'Game of Thrones.'"
When I met Akio Toyoda in Florida, he cheerfully began handing out these self-designed stickers to everyone nearby:
Yes, the man is unusual.
Akio Toyoda got his MBA from Babson in his mid-20s, in 1982, and started working for Toyota in '84. He worked his way up through the company, being rotated through multiple positions as is the Japanese custom; automotive operations, production, marketing, product development, quality control, purchasing, management. And finally, after 25 years, in 2009 he earned the presidency.
A Busy Start
Akio Toyoda inherited a great company in the middle of a shitstorm.
The financial crisis was in full swing, and just months earlier Toyota reported that they'd experienced their first fiscal year operating at a loss. Reuters called it "the worst downturn in its history." Seemingly as a warning, competitors GM and Chrysler, facing similar difficulties, went over the cliff of bankruptcy.
In 2010 it got worse, with an "unintended acceleration" problem--which reportedly dated back to 2007--emerging in Toyota's vehicles. The company's legendary quality control had failed, and Akio was called to testify before the U.S. Congress. While he was not in charge of Toyota when the problem was created, he was damn sure responsible for cleaning it up. "I take full responsibility for that," he testified. "We never run away from our problems or pretend we don't notice them." He enacted a policy whereby Toyota management team members were compelled to drive the very models they had developed and, as a trained test driver himself, took the unusual step of driving the problematic models both before and after the fixes had been enacted.
In 2011 it got worse yet again, as Japan was rocked by an earthquake, a tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, shattering Toyota's supply chain. Suddenly their vaunted "just in time" production system appeared vulnerable.
But there was one bright spot, or what was supposed to be a bright spot, in 2011. Lexus had completed their re-design of the fourth-generation GS, their mid-luxury class performance sedan, one of the first new models whose design Akio had signed off on since becoming company president. Lexus unveiled it at Pebble Beach.
The response was…not good.
The Worst Insult of All
Shigeki Tomoyama, Toyota's Executive Vice President, smiles patiently as we journalists shuffle into an unusual chamber. A flatscreen TV has been set up on a countertop for his presentation. As Toyota and Lexus images begin to flash across the screen, Tomoyama's face turns serious.
"The story goes back to 2011," he begins. "When we launched the Lexus GS at Pebble Beach that year, our president, Mr. Toyoda, faced the criticism that 'Lexus was boring.'"
I tend to think of CEOs and company presidents as relatively invulnerable people, but the comment hit Toyoda hard. ("It was such a bitter experience," he'd later tell us.) And coming off of three crises in a row, none of which were of his own making, Toyoda resolved to come up with something radical and original to turn the company's fortunes around.
Thus, following Pebble Beach and the criticism, Toyoda "decided to become the Chief Brand Officer of Lexus," Tomoyama continues, "to lead a measured design and product reform. As CBO, he initiated the Lexus brand transformation towards becoming a luxury lifestyle brand."
Under Akio's direction, Lexus designers and consultants were tasked with creating things that went beyond cars. This yielded an F Sport luxury road bicycle made out of the same carbon fiber reinforced plastic as their LFA supercar;
It also yielded Intersect by Lexus, a combination café, restaurant, retail space, event space and cocktail bar in New York City;
And after Akio paid a visit to Toyota's Marine division in Japan, which produces power boats for fishing and cruising, he had an idea: A Lexus Sport Yacht Concept.
"Three years ago," Tomoyama continues, "we launched the first Lexus Sport Yacht Concept here in Miami. We received a lot of positive feedback, and comments such as 'The design is fantastic,' 'When will it be for sale?' and 'How much?'" But unfortunately, at that time I had to answer 'It's just a concept, and we are not planning to sell it.
"Today," Tomoyama says, "we are very proud to unveil the production model of the Lexus 650."
So…here's where I should point out that the "unusual chamber" I'd mentioned earlier is not part of a building, but floating on a waterway off of Boca Raton. We're standing in the main cabin of the LY 650, Lexus' $4-million, 65-foot yacht.
Before stepping inside, we had to place little booties over our shoes to avoid marring any surfaces:
The protective footwear was handed out because this is, as Tomoyama mentioned, a production model. This is the first one off of the line and it's already been sold. The anonymous buyer isn't going to want our footprints all over it. But, for the next two hours, we're allowed to check it all out as we cruise past the coast.
The surfaces, the materials, and the fit-and-finish are what you'd expect from Lexus. There's plenty of carbon fiber, expensive wood, shiny metal fixtures, buttery-soft materials.
From the main cabin you can descend a staircase. Halfway down is a landing occupied by a small galley kitchen.
At the bottom of the stairs you reach the lower level, which features three state rooms (and three bathrooms all featuring both a toilet and a shower). The master state room has a sofa and a walk-in closet, for chrissakes.
In addition to the Lexus-level fit-and-finish, what's most remarkable is that the rooms do not feel small nor cramped, like you'd expect in the hull of a boat; Italian yacht designer Lenard, whom Lexus collaborated with, struck upon the right combination of contrasting tones to give the cabins a feeling of spaciousness in a small footprint. I'd imagine Lexus' homegrown designers had plenty of input too, as Japan is another place where you've got to make limited space feel livable.
(Click here for the full slideshow of our LY 650 interior/exterior tour and our impressions.)
A Surprise Visit
We journalists were not supposed to meet Akio Toyoda on this trip; he wasn't scheduled to be there. But after the inaugural cruise, back on land we were asked to wait in a receiving area. Akio, it turns out, had just flown in to see the LY 650.
Incredibly, since its construction had only just been completed, we'd gotten to take a ride on it before he had. "To tell you the truth, I haven't been on the yacht yet," Akio revealed. "That means that you are way ahead of me when it comes to experiencing it."
What followed next was an informal Q&A session with Toyoda, a rare opportunity. Had I known, I would have prepared a better question than what I came up with. (I should also point out here that our questions and his answers were delivered through an interpreter--in the case of some of the international journalists, through two interpreters and three languages--so some of these responses may not be verbatim.)
My fellow journalists had tons of questions, the first one of course being "Why a yacht?"
Akio confirmed that his disappointment at the reception of the GS was, in fact, the inciting incident. "Originally when I became president, and when we launched the new GS, I was told that that vehicle was very, very boring. That critic said that he had never seen such a boring car! And that was the starting point for everything for Lexus that has happened since.
"At Lexus we want to create more than just luxury products; we want to create a luxury lifestyle. This yacht is part of that idea.
"Toyota itself is now trying to transition from an automotive company into a mobility company. And in order to enhance the value of our Lexus brand, we need to cover land, sea…and also air."
Does that mean a Lexus airplane is in the works?
"Please wait to see what we do when it comes to that area."
As for the question I came up with: I pointed out that we adult journalists all understood what Lexus was trying to do with the brand, and that we were of course familiar with Lexus because it's been around for years. But what if a child spotted a Lexus and, having no idea about brands, asked his parents what it was? How would Akio Toyoda like to hear them describe it?
He thought about it for a moment. Then said:
"First of all, I would like to ask the child how they feel about [the Lexus object in question], at first sight. What do they feel--a sense of security, a peacefulness? I think those are extremely important, essential aspects of the taste that Lexus provides.
"Also, when the child looks at this Lexus, whether it is a car, a yacht or something else, I would hope they feel some sense of yearning, so to speak. A feeling that he or she wants to own something like this in the future. I want to make sure that Lexus could provide such an emotional sensation, at first sight."
A journalist threw him a softball: What was he most proud of about Lexus designs?
"The gracefulness," he said. "I mean there are numerous premium brands and makers of luxury, high-end, high-quality, high-performing cars. But I want to make sure that among those, Lexus offers gracefulness, for people driving them or looking at them. That's what I insist on when it comes to Lexus. And I'm not saying that we have fully accomplished that objective, at this point.
"In order for us to accomplish that objective, the most important aspect is to develop and nurture those people who will be building Lexus going forward. For us to be able to do that, it's very important that we receive influence and feedback from people like you."
Another journalist chimed in with a question about whether Akio himself would be cruising around in a Lexus yacht. His answer revealed another, previously unmentioned motivation to build waterborne pleasure craft.
"Actually, I do have a sailing license," Akio replied. "As for why I obtained it: I have been exposed to many different areas of the outside world, and [as President of Toyota] there is no purely private space for me. And I thought being on a yacht would be a purely private space. That's why I was attracted specifically to yachts.
"Right now, however, I do not have the ability to sail and maneuver a yacht fully on my own. So even if I'm on a yacht, I still won't have a purely private space, yet.
"Someday in the future I want to gain that ability, so that I can maneuver the yacht and sail myself around. As I said, I have not been on the yacht yet, but I think what I would enjoy most, is to be on that area in the very front of the boat, where I can just lie down and enjoy myself."