F Sport trim works wonders for Lexus' image

F Sport packages vary from model to model but largely involve cosmetic features and some hardware upgrades. They proved so popular that Lexus added F Sport availability to the redesigned 2016 RX 450h hybrid crossover.

If Lexus finally reclaims the U.S. luxury sales crown this year after a four-year drought, its acceptance speech ought to include a special thanks to its F Sport models.

F Sport trim packages are available on nearly every model Lexus sells, and they’re putting an exclamation point on the automaker’s dramatic turnaround — not just in image but in performance, too.

Customers are eating it up.

Through September, 71 percent of all RC coupe buyers this year opted for the F Sport package. About half of GS buyers and IS buyers checked the F Sport box.

And it’s not limited to performance-oriented cars either. Lexus sells 30 percent of its NX compact crossovers with the F Sport kit and 34 percent of its CT 200h hybrid hatchbacks with it.

Based on that success, Lexus threw caution to the wind on its redesigned 2016 RX midsize crossover and added F Sport availability on its hybrid model for the first time.

All told, 77,495 Lexus models have rolled out of dealerships this year wearing the tiny F Sport badges.

The popularity of F Sport vindicates Lexus’ decision several years ago to give its products more styling and performance chops. The effort began in 2011 when Lexus debuted the 2013 GS midsize sports sedan. It was the first model to wear the “spindle grille,” which — love it or hate it — soon spread to the entire lineup.

Each subsequent model progressively dialed up the aggressive styling but also mixed in worthwhile performance credibility.

The wholesale reinvention of once-bland Lexus was done to match or beat the German luxury brands at their own game — brands that are presumed to be performance-oriented simply because of where they come from.

Bolain: Easier to market

“Lexus’ focus on performance makes a lot of sense given the inherent performance angle of the Germans,” Tom Libby, analyst at IHS Automotive, told Automotive News. Lexus “needs to do that because brands like Audi and BMW already have a less-subdued image.”

The shift is currently paying dividends in the hotly contested luxury sales race in the U.S. Lexus has made no secret of wanting to be back in the top spot, which it vacated in 2011 after 11 years of domination.

Lexus’ 247,445 sales through September put it just 2,511 vehicles behind BMW and 2,445 vehicles behind Mercedes-Benz (not including its Sprinter vans).

Lexus also has been able to use its F dedicated performance subbrand for a trickle-down effect. Though the upgrades to the current RC F and forthcoming GS F were done almost entirely without input from the teams on the F Sport models, marketing them side-by-side elevates the latter’s street cred.

Unlike the F variants, F Sport packages do nothing to increase the vehicles’ power.

F Sport packages vary from model to model but largely involve cosmetic features (flashier wheels, more aggressive bumpers), plus some hardware upgrades (a sport-tuned suspension, a more aggressive Sport+ drive mode and an adaptive suspension on some models).

Pricing for the packaging also varies, from $ 1,730 on the CT 200h to $ 8,350 extra on the LS.

The packages not only bring more profits for Toyota’s luxury division but also manage to attract a generation of younger customers, a feat any automaker would envy.

Take the full-size LS sedan. It’s not exactly a millennial’s dream ride, with the median buyer age sitting at around 65 years old. But the F Sport version accounts for a quarter of LS sales so far this year, and those buyers are on average 12 years younger, according to Lexus.

Actually having dynamic models in the lineup also has made it easier to market Lexus.

“The marketing only works now because we have the product to back it up,” Brian Bolain, Lexus’ marketing manager, told Automotive News at the press launch for the 2016 RX in September. “For years we tried to do interesting marketing, but it’s a bit disingenuous until you have a product that makes good on it.”

You can reach David Undercoffler at undercoffler@crain.com.


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