By YURI KAGEYAMA, AP Business Writer Tue Jul 26, 6:34 AM ET
TOKYO - Bow-tied waiters held trays of mineral water and chic ambient music filled the air as Toyota unveiled the three models Tuesday that will mark the introduction of the Lexus luxury brand in Japan, 16 years after it was rolled out in the United States.
For a combination of cultural and business reasons, Japan's No. 1 carmaker has until now avoided using the Lexus brand in its homeland, choosing instead to sell many of the same models under its trusted Toyota name.
For years, conformist Japan has lived under the ideal that everyone is middle class, and most people tended to shun flashy or luxury cars that stand out.
But Toyota officials say Japan is changing, and a growing upper class is willing to spend — though how the new brand will fare in this notoriously finicky consumer market is uncertain.
Toyota Motor Corp. says it's trying to sell more than a car. It wants to give customers "an experience," and set up luxurious-looking dealerships, complete with leather furniture and hotel-quality service, especially for the Lexus. The showrooms open Aug. 30.
"This is the realization of our dream to create a global luxury brand," Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe told reporters at a giant tent pitched in a Tokyo park, similar to tents for fashion shows and other gala events here. "This is something we have wanted for many years."
The Lexus models sold in Japan, which were known here as the Toyota Aristo, Soarer and Altezza, are slightly different from — and cheaper than — the sedan models shown Tuesday, the GS430/GS350, SC430 and IS350/250, priced as much as $61,000.
Toyota is counting on the success Lexus scored since its debut in 1989 in the United States, including excellent J.D. Power and Associates rankings, to woo rich Japanese, who now buy imports such as BMW and Mercedes Benz.
Toyota, based in Toyota city, in central Japan, has set up a special training center to groom classy, courteous dealers to sell the Lexus brand in Japan. That's proved a challenge because Japanese dealers are already superior to what people are used to in the United States and other nations.
Watanabe said Toyota is targeting 3,000 vehicles a month sales for the three models combined, and other Lexus models will start selling in coming years, including a hybrid GS next year. Toyota sold 7,900 of the planned Lexus three models combined last year in Japan as Toyotas.
This year, Toyota expects to sell 84,000 vehicles of the three new Lexus models around the world, 20,000 of them in Japan, Watanabe said. Next year, that the company hopes that will climb to 500,000 worldwide for all Lexus models — 50,000 to 60,000 in Japan, he said.
Toyota sold more than 358,000 Lexus vehicles around the world last year, about 80 percent of them in North America. Since 1989, Lexus global sales have totaled more than 2.7 million.