Ten years after bursting upon the U.S. luxury market with a mere two models, a funny name and an uphill battle against four entrenched old-money brands, Lexus has carved out a standing few people imagined - even its Toyota overseers.
In a remarkable climb since 1990, the 157-dealer brand expected to surpass the 200,000 annual sales mark last year and in August, its 20,151 sales of four passenger-car and two SUV models set an all-time segment record for a single month.
What's more, Lexus ran a strong second to Mercedes for luxury class leadership in the first 10 months of 2000, outselling Lincoln, Cadillac and BMW.
Dennis E. Clements, Lexus Division general manager since July and a 17-year Toyota sales staff veteran, was not talking up the sterling sales results as he showed off the new Lexus flagship LS 430, which replaces the aging LS 400.
"We're not chasing sales numbers," says Mr. Clements. "How big can we be? I don't want to be Toyota Plus."
With sales per dealer second only to Toyota's, and 6,000 orders on hand for the super-loaded LS 430, Lexus knows it has become an "instant" role model or upscaling buyers. The brand's top-selling RX 300 compact SUV helped make it that, but now it wants to go all out for conquesting in the luxury car class with the LS 430.
"Owners told us the LS 400 had become boring to drive compared to competition," Mr. Clements conceded. "Well, we unveiled the IS 300 early in 2000 as our answer to the BMW `3' and our engineers were on an excitement wave that went right on up to the 430."
Among LS 430 features for the top-of-the-line $68,500 model are a top-of-the-market Mark Levinson audio system, a Cruise Control accident prevention feature that applies the brakes automatically and exclusive airbag malfunction notification.
A Lexus Link Internet connection is expected to penetrate 25% of LS 430 sales at an optional price of $1,215. A base model lacking the high-tech add-ons starts at $54,005.
The car underprices the Mercedes S-Class, says Mr. Clements, taking a shot at the only luxury brand outselling Lexus in the luxury car sales derby. An SC (sports coupe) edition of the 430 arrives in March.
Lexus is slowly adding dealerships as markets grow, the latest opening this month in Ann Arbor, MI, as a second store for Lexus of Lansing, MI.