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Lexus flexes its electric muscles

The LF-30 Electrified foreshadows what the next 30 years hold in store for Lexus

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The LF-30 hints at technical ideas that Lexus is working on.

Tokyo

IF ELECTRIC cars are the future, then Lexus has looked stuck in the past. Toyota's luxury division has no battery electric vehicles (BEVs) on the market, even as rivals such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Porsche, and even newcomer Tesla are scrambling to woo buyers eager to bid fossil fuels goodbye.

But Lexus wants to join the electric race, and the LF-30 Electrified shows what it will take to the starting line.

Lexus is showcasing the battery-powered concept car at the Tokyo auto show, which opens its doors to the public on Friday. With a pronounced wedge shape and what the brand calls "glider doors", the LF-30 signals its electrification plans as it prepares to launch a BEV next year.

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The LF-30 itself isn't coming to showrooms, but it pulls back the curtain on Lexus's thinking about its future. "The starting point was knowing that we just celebrated our first 30 years as a brand," Ian Cartabiano, the head of Lexus' European styling centre in the south of France, told The Business Times. "So what do the next 30 years possibly hold for us? We started with a clean sheet."

That approach means the LF-30 defies traditional classification - it's not quite a coupe nor a crossover. "It's a totally new genre of car," Mr Cartabiano said. "We actually called it a speed lounge profile, so it's this fast wedge shape that's speedy in the front and roomy in the back."

Takashi Watanabe, the engineer who oversees the development of electrified vehicles at Lexus International, said at a press gathering three days before the Tokyo show that the brand will show off its first production-ready BEV next month, and in the "first half of the 2020s" it will launch its first plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) and its first dedicated BEV, meaning a car built from the ground-up to run on batteries.

It's that car that the LF-30 foreshadows.

Mr Watanabe said its relatively wild design was made possible by its battery-only architecture; not having to build a car around an engine, transmission, fuel tank, and so on give designers "tremendous freedom and makes possible proportions that are entirely unique," he said.

"We believe the design packaging will be completely different from existing, current vehicles," Yoshihiro Sawa, the president of Lexus International, told BT. "The shape means the inside is very spacious, but the outside is very compact."

Each of the LF-30's wheels has its own electric motor, which is why the car's design emphasises its large wheels. A conventional car would express power through a long bonnet that suggests plenty of engine underneath, but the LF-30's big wheels are meant to reflect how every wheel has its own powerful motor.

Futuristic styling aside, the LF-30 hints at technical ideas that Lexus is working on. Most BEVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries, but the Lexus gets its electricity from solid state lithium batteries, which are more energy dense and heat resistant. That allows them to offer the same range as today's batteries but with less size and weight, while being able to recharge around three times faster.

Shigeki Terashi, the chief technology officer of Toyota, said the Japanese carmaker would like to put solid state batteries into mass production, but he personally thinks the technology will only be ready by the middle of the 2020s.

Even without new batteries, however, the LF-30 shows that BEVs could be capable of new tricks. Having individual wheel motors gives the car "advanced posture control", Mr Watanabe said.

By speeding up or slowing down their legs individually, humans are able to turn effortlessly, stabilise themselves and dance. The LF-30's individual motors would make it capable of similar feats of agility.

The car's steering wheel, which was inspired by a horse's reins, is only connected to the wheels by computer. To make the Lexus feel like an extension of the driver's body, the car's brakes, motors and suspension will all react when he turns the wheel.

Altogether, the motors provide 544 horsepower, enough to thrust the wedge shaped car to 100km/h in just 3.8 seconds.

While the LF-30 Electrified gives clues about Lexus' upcoming BEVs, the brand is also working on fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs), which are driven by electric motors but get their juice by turning hydrogen into electricity. Between that and the self-charging hybrids it already sells, it will soon have every known kind of electrified vehicle type in its line-up.

That multi-pronged approach to future propulsion is necessary because different markets are suited to different technical solutions, Mr Sawa said. "We are selling our vehicles in more than 90 countries, but only a few countries or cities are ready for EVs. For the rest of the world, a hybrid or PHEV is the better solution."

Norway, which gets most of its electricity from renewable sources, is a prime candidate for BEVs, for example. A country with no charging infrastructure would be better served by traditional hybrid cars.

Lexus says its expertise with hybrid technology, which Toyota first put on sale in 1997, actually makes it better-placed to build all kinds of electrified cars, whether plug-in, full electric or fuel cell. "Basically, all of those electrified vehicles use the same major components. In technical terms, we are not behind at all," Mr Terashi said. "But we do not have BEVs on the market, so by taking that if you call Toyota behind, well, I simply have to accept that."

That accusation will eventually disappear, however. By 2025, Toyota and Lexus will have 10 BEVs on the market between them. Until then, the LF-30 Electrified shows how feverishly Lexus is working on electrification. If its ideas make it into mass-production, the brand to catch in the BEV race might actually be Lexus.