Lexus Talks Turbochargers, Possible SC Successor

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German luxury brands have been bullish on turbochargers for years, but Toyota’s Lexus division has been reluctant to follow — at least until now. An all-new turbocharged four-cylinder in the NX 200t serves as the base engine in the brand’s newest SUV. If you believe Brian Bolain, Lexus’ corporate marketing manager, it’s just the tip of the turbo iceberg.

Related: 2015 Lexus NX Starts at $35,405

Lexus has come a long way since its 1989 inception: Sixty dealerships have grown to more than 230, and the brand held the U.S. luxury-brand sales title throughout the 2000s. But it lost the crown to Mercedes-Benz in 2011 when a March earthquake and tsunami in Japan left U.S. inventory below BMW and Mercedes levels for six of the nine months that followed. Mercedes has kept the sales title ever since.

Bolain downplayed the importance of Lexus being America’s top-selling luxury brand, but he did hint at a few directions it might go — specifically, more turbochargers and perhaps a replacement for the SC convertible.

The NX 200t’s four-cylinder engine has Lexus’ first twin-scroll turbocharger, and it “can easily do the same service” in other Lexus vehicles as the turbo four-cylinders from various German competitors have done for them. The bandwagon is rather full: Audi has espoused forced induction for years, and BMW is so bullish on turbos that a recent EPA report found 95 percent of the brand’s cars now employ them.

“Our company does everything one toe in the water,” Bolain said. “We wait to get comfortable with it, and then we go all in.”

Does the NX 200t signal the beginning of an all-in effort? It’s likely. Bolain said Lexus engineers are “nowhere near the top” of power output of its new engine. “We can take the existing four [cylinder] and do a lot with just a chip.”

No Entry-Level Sedan
Engines aside, don’t expect an entry-level sedan to take on the likes of the Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA250. Lexus has all but ruled out the body style in that segment, marketing chief Brian Smith told us back in 2012. That makes its de facto entry-level car the CT 200h, a hybrid hatchback that starts at $32,975, including destination. But the CT enters its fifth model year for 2015; the A3 and CLA are both newer and ae outselling the CT this year.

Still, that’s the car Lexus wants to pit against the Germans.

“We can argue whether or not the CT is the right product,” Bolain said, conceding that the car “is in need of a refresh — I’m not going to argue with that.”

But “we’re already playing in that [entry-luxury] arena,” he said.

And around it. The average transaction price for a CLA250 is around $37,000, Bolain said, and a typically equipped IS 250 runs about $39,000.

Top-Flight Convertible
What about the other end? Lexus retired the SC 430 hardtop convertible after the 2010 model year, and it’s lacked a high-end, grand-touring convertible to take on the likes of the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class and BMW 6 Series ever since.

“We certainly see that as a void right now,” Bolain said, adding that the need for some sort of SC replacement is “certainly is on our radar.”

Pardon the déjà vu. Marketing chief Smith told us in 2012 that “there is room” for an SUV below the RX but “nothing that we can announce right now.” Two years later, Lexus debuted the new NX.

What’s around the corner? Bolain wouldn’t say.

“This is going to be a good auto-show season for us,” he said. “And that’s all I’m going to say about that.” photo by Matt Avery

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