Overseas, Lexus, which is owned by Toyota, ranks alongside the likes of Acura and Infinity, the luxury brands of auto majors Honda and Nissan respectively. It is known for refined driving, luxury and the best engineering and technology.
In Western markets like the US and Canada, the larger flagship Lexus sedans, which included the LS400, were considered by auto experts to be a better choice than German luxury cars for a number of reasons. The prime one was that they had all the premium features one wanted while having a more practical price tag and being more cost effective to own and maintain. Despite being a new entrant, Japan’s Lexus was on par with the European brands in terms of automotive engineering, a huge achievement for a newcomer. And then, of course, there was the exceptional hospitality that customers received at Lexus dealerships—rarely before had buyers been treated like valued guest at a car showroom. It all combined for a beautiful experience and the brand gained in the US.
In India, the brand Lexus still brings to mind stories from the 1990s of rogue stockbroker Harshad Mehta who was chauffeured around in Mumbai in a Lexus LS400 at a time when imported cars were near impossible to afford and own in India. Mehta’s car was considered such a prize that Mumbai-based entrepreneur Raja Dhody bought it when it went up for auction. Dhody recalls that he also owned a Mercedes-Benz at the time but nothing came close to the Lexus. “It was top class in comfort, styling, power, design… its drivability made it spectacular. There was no other word for it,” he says.
Of course, things have changed now and buying a luxury car no longer requires great determination to battle with customs and other government agencies and an insider’s knowledge of “grey market channels”. Today, almost every marque car-maker operates in India, having a network of sales offices, factories, assembly lines and dealerships. It is easy to walk into the closest showroom and pick out a colour and model of your choice. The car is not yet up for sale but is being offered to a few for test drives.
While Lexus has planted its flag in India, and sells four hybrid electric SUVs, three electric hybrid sedans and half a dozen other ICE-engine vehicles, such as the RX, NX, LX and the LC, its overall numbers are small. It is yet to create the mystique that it has in other Asian markets in order to drive sales and growth. It does have a loyal following in India, but it is still a niche one.
Lexus’ latest offering that is being showcased in India, the Lexus UX 300e, is sharply designed, compact and fitted with the right mix of technology that car-lovers regard as top-notch. It brings to the driver that blend of super-luxury and minimalism that only Japanese brands have mastered.
The dimensions and manoeuvrability make it the perfect compact SUV for Indian roads and traffic conditions as well as a practical car if you drive yourself around. The 17-inch alloy wheels (that come with a repair kit) not only handle bumps well but also give it good ground clearance. This is especially important in India, where speed breakers are usually designed like mini-mountains. Few luxury carmakers account for this trait of Indian roads and provide sufficient ground clearance.
The UX 300e comes with many of the bells and whistles common to all high-end cars now—a seven-inch media screen with a remote interface, reversing camera systems, front and rear parking sensors, and headlights with automatic high beams. It features what the Japanese call ‘dynamic and active safety equipment and features’. Examples of active features that kick in when you’re driving include vehicle stability control (VSC), active brake lights, lane tracing assist (LTA), acoustic vehicle alerting system (AVAS) and electronically controlled braking regeneration. On the passive side of safety features, there are child safety door locks, seatbelt pre-tensioners, audible and visual seatbelt reminders, and knee airbags for the front passenger seats.
Beyond the safety features and technology, the true essence of a Lexus is the luxury of its design, the smoothness of the ride and the quality of the engineering. Drive or sit in one, and the calm that one feels even while in motion says it all. There is nothing excessive about the interiors; everything contributes to the sense of quiet luxury. The car glides over road surfaces and silently cruises to almost illegal speeds without so much as a whimper—a typical characteristic of all-electric cars but which still takes a little getting used to. You only get to hear the engine when you are outside the electric 300 or momentarily while parking it, but it is not an unpleasant or grating sound. Like all electric cars, power flows on tap for this Lexus and one does not need to cycle through gears as with fossil fuel-powered cars.
While the company hasn’t shared what it plans to do with the UX 300e in India, it seems to be using this car to test the waters before it rolls out a slew of SUVs, all of which are likely to be electric. Lexus also sells the larger, more premium NX and RX SUVs with ICE engines here. Electric versions of these models may be more suitable in the Indian context given the price sensitivity of the market. Time will tell how the Japanese carmaker chooses to price these cars in India.
The international prices for UX 300e start at around £42,000 or ₹41 lakh, which when treated to India’s layers of duties would escalate the retail price to well over a crore. This is a large tag by any yardstick, and this probably explains the Lexus’ trepidation and the testing of the waters before a full-fledged launch. Pricing, ultimately, is what will determine its success. In the short term, it is a given that there will be few takers for electric cars for multiple reasons, including a yet-to-be-developed charging network and the high cost of the cars.
For Lexus, the 300 UXe demonstrates the power of Japanese luxury, its ability to combine power, drive comfort, ergonomics and aesthetics, and the consciousness of crafting an electric avatar that will appeal to a discerning and small audience of premium car buyers.