The History of Lexus

While the flagship LS 400 was the breakthrough car for Lexus, in 1998 it showed the RX 300 crossover, that caught Detroit unaware and catapulted the nascent Luxury brand into U.S. luxury sales leadership.

While the flagship LS 400 was the breakthrough car for Lexus, in 1998 it showed the RX 300 crossover, that caught Detroit unaware and catapulted the nascent luxury brand into U.S. sales leadership.

Lexus launched in 1989 with two luxury sedans, one small and the other large aimed directly at the Mercedes-Benz S-class. The full size Lexus LS 400 was priced more than $10,000 under top of the line German offerings in the U.S. At the time, Lexus made bold claims of superior quality and durability, as well as several years without a marked decrease in the quietness, smooth ride, and exterior and interior finishes, among others, of the new line.

These, of course, were scoffed at by other luxury automakers. Honda’s Acura luxury line had debuted previously, and Nissan introduced its Infiniti line with a performance emphasis and a controversial “Rocks and Trees” marketing campaign that emphasized the Japanese heritage of the vehicles.

Lexus took a quality and value approach that was significantly helped by the long-standing financial success of the many Toyota dealers who become Lexus dealers. Not only were these dealers expert in the auto retail business, but profit margins from a high number of sales per outlet allowed them to pamper customers. A strong factory warranty policy reinforced the selling proposition.  What ensued was a recasting of the luxury car business, first in the U.S., but ultimately globally. Following is a timeline of significant Lexus events:

  • 1989: Lexus launched with two sedans, the LS 400 and ES 250. German automakers dismiss the brand as insignificant and laugh at quality and durability claims. A single consumer complaint launches a recall dubbed “a special service campaign,” eventually earning the brand recognition for customer satisfaction.
  • 1990: Out of thousands interested in a Lexus franchise, 121 dealers are selected for Lexus’ first year of business.
  • 1991: Lexus introduced an all-new ES 330 as well as the SC 300 and SC 300 sport coupes. Lexus outsold both Mercedes-Benz and BMW to become the best-selling luxury import brand in the U.S. The chase begins to pass Cadillac and Lincoln, both of which have large luxury trucks.
  • 1993: The GS 300 luxury sport sedan introduced. Certified Pre-Owned  program introduced.
  • 1994: Completely redesigned second generation LS 400 goes on sale.
  • 1995: 100% tariffs on select Japanese luxury vehicles proposed by U.S. government in effort to settle long-standing U.S.-Japan trade dispute. A political deal was reached between U.S. and Japan and trade war averted. Japanese non-tariff barriers against the U.S. auto industry remain in place. The LX 450 luxury sport utility announced.
  • 1996: Lexus LX 450 and all-new ES 300 go on sale.
  • 1997: Redesigned LS 400 featuring VVT-I introduced. Next-generation GS 400 and GS 300 luxury performance sedans go on sale.
  • 1998: Lexus introduced the RX 300, which created the luxury crossover segment. U.S. automakers continue to produce body-on-frame trucks as luxury offerings.
  • Lexus LX 470 luxury sport utility vehicle debuted. Monthly sales surpass all luxury competitors, a first for any international automaker.
  • 1999: One-millionth vehicle sold in the U.S.
  • 2000: Lexus develops a second offering in the entry-luxury sedan category with the IS 300 sport sedan targeted at the 3-Series BMW. First import luxury brand to sell 20,000 vehicles in one month. Lexus became the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S.
  • 2001: Lexus updates its SC model into a hardtop convertible, the SC 430. Fourth-generation ES 300 goes on sale.
  • 2002: The ES 300 and RX 300 are America’s best-selling luxury car and SUV. The GX 470 mid-size luxury sport utility vehicle announced. LF-S, first Lexus Future concept vehicle, unveiled in Tokyo, showcases new design philosophy.
  • 2003: All-new second generation RX 330 goes on sale. LF-X concept vehicle unveiled. Lexus announces the RX 330 will become the first Lexus vehicle manufactured in North America at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada (TMMC) in Cambridge, Ontario. It is the first plant outside Japan to produce a Lexus model.
  • 2004: Two-millionth vehicle sold in the U.S.
  • 2005: RX 400h, the world’s first luxury hybrid vehicle, debuts. Third-generation GS 300 and GS 430 go on sale. All-new IS 250 and IS 350 sport sedans go on sale. LFA super-premium two-seat GT sports car concept revealed in Detroit. LF-Sh concept vehicle revealed in Tokyo. Lexus-badged vehicles sold in Japan for the first time.
  • 2006: Lexus’ second hybrid offering and industry’s first luxury hybrid sport sedan, GS 450h, goes on sale. ES 350, LS 460 and LS 460 L goes on sale.
  • 2007: A premium hybrid sedan, the world’s first full V8 hybrid vehicle, the LS 600hL goes on sale. F Sport performance parts line launches at SEMA.
  • 2008: All-new LX 570 goes on sale. Powered by a 416-hp V8 engine, the Lexus IS F high-performance sedan introduced.
  • 2009: Lexus’ 20th anniversary Lexus introduces the all-new RX 350 and RX 450h luxury utility vehicles, reinventing the vehicle that invented it all. The all-new IS 350C and IS 250C hard-top convertibles go on sale. Second-generation RX 450h goes on sale. More than 1 million RX vehicles sold in the U.S., making it the most successful luxury utility vehicle. HS 250h, the world’s first hybrid-only luxury vehicle goes on sale. All-new second generation GS 460 goes on sale. LF-Ch premium compact hybrid concept makes North American debut.
  • 2010: World premiere of the CT 200h, compact hybrid at the Geneva Motor Show.
  • 2011: First LFA production vehicle arrives in the United States. Only 500 hand-assembled LFA’s planned for production. CT200h, Lexus’ fifth hybrid vehicles, goes on sale. Lexus debuts new look of Lexus at the world premiere of the GS 350 at Pebble Beach Concourse d’Elegance. World premiere of GS 350 F Sport in Las Vegas.
  • 2012: World premiere of LF-LC concept vehicle in Detroit. Fourth-generation GS 350  and GS 450h go on sale. Lexus debuts first-ever Super Bowl commercial for Super Bowl XLVI. World-premiere of redesigned LS, including the first-ever LS 460 F Sport, debuts at the “Lexus Laws of Attraction” exhibit in San Francisco. LS models go on sale. Sixth generation ES 350 and first-ever ES 300h hybrid sedan go on sale. Final Lexus LFA was built on December 14, 2012, ending the 500-unit run of the supercar.
  • 2013: World premiere of the third-generation IS sport sedan.

About Ken Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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