Lexus gets its vision straight from Akio Toyoda

TOKYO — Akio Toyoda is a man of many hats.

In addition to being president of Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s biggest automaker and the company founded by his grandfather, he is also longtime chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, now serving as the face of the Japanese industry for a rare third term.

On the race circuit, Akio is known as Morizo, the free-spirited, speed-demon motorhead. Off track, he is the “master driver,” iron chef and top taste tester for the flavor of the company’s cars.

At the premium Lexus division, Toyoda was once called the chief branding officer. But more recently, he goes by another moniker: Brand Holder, or BH as they say internally.

On paper, Koji Sato — the chief engineer responsible for the super sexy Lexus LC sports coupe — is the president of Lexus International. But Akio the Brand Holder has a big influence.

The informal title is used inside Lexus to communicate Toyoda’s vision as the brand’s spiritual leader. He is the ultimate arbiter on what it means to be Lexus. A key BH buzz word for the brand is “passion.”

“The Brand Holder is Akio Toyoda,” Sato told Automotive News at Fuji Speedway, where Toyoda was racing a hydrogen-powered GR Corolla in a 24-hour endurance race. “He is the guiding person showing the team the vision and philosophy of the brand.”

Essentially, Toyoda plots the destination for Lexus, and Sato figures out how to get there.

“I’m responsible for the execution, bringing that vision for Lexus to reality,” Sato said.

Tapping Toyoda’s instincts might be a good thing.

The founding family scion, now 66, has championed supercharging Lexus’ street cred since even before taking the helm of Toyota in 2009. It started with his backing of the 4.8-liter V-8 Lexus LFA super car and the development of the Lexus IS F sports sedan. And through his passion for motorsports, he cultivated a car culture internally that morphed into Gazoo Racing.

“Akio’s sensors as the master driver are critically important,” Sato said.

In 2007, when Toyoda was still sometimes dismissed as the “young prince” in the Japanese media, he made a rare public appearance to peel off some hot laps at Fuji Speedway to tout the IS F.

He then proved the brand’s mettle by driving Lexus cars in the 24-hour race at Germany’s Nürburgring, one of the few CEOs to actually buckle up for the grueling contest.

Under his watch, Lexus has evolved from a proposition of comfort and safety into a performance play, with the likes of the LC, RC and a host of F-badged offerings throwing down for sport. Toyoda now wants to elevate those driving dynamics for electric vehicles.

His main message for making better cars: “Don’t be boring.”

That is one reason Toyoda wants to consolidate Lexus’ operations and head office at a global technical center, set to open in 2024 at the company’s new Shimoyama proving ground.

The company expects that move to amp up the next chapter of product development.

Clearly the Brand Holder is in no hurry to let go of Lexus anytime soon.


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