Yoshihiko Kanamori is not a man given to extravagance of movement. As we sit in a pitlane villa at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, he’s calm, considered and takes his time to answer my questions. But it soon becomes apparent that under this air of professionalism and quiet authority, there’s a proper petrolhead lurking underneath.
Kanamori-san is the chief engineer of the new Lexus GS, and brings a character to the project that Lexus hopes will be recreated in the car. The Japanese company is trying to sportify the Lexus range, to inject some passion and driver appeal into the existing quality and luxury offerings, and the GS is designed to be the sportiest saloon in the range.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get into cars and engineering?
“I was born in Shiga prefecture, near Lake Biwa, the biggest lake in Japan, in 1960. I moved to Kyoto for university and joined Toyota in 1982, so I’ve been with them for 30 years. At university my first car was a Mazda with a rotary engine, and then I had a Toyota Supra. My third car was also a Supra, and then I had a Celica. I still have that Celica now.
“I’ve always been an enthusiast. Every weekend I’d drive different areas in Japan. At university in about 1980 I studied mechanical engineering and selected work experience at a vehicle production company. Out of Honda, Nissan and Toyota I chose Toyota because at that time they had many sports cars.”
What did you do at Toyota?
“Originally I was a body engineer, doing drawings for exterior and interior body parts. In 1996 I moved to production planning and then I was in charge of the Corolla for two or three generations. Then I moved to Lexus in 2007 and have been managing the new GS.”
Have you always driven sports cars over that time?
“Yes, I still love sports cars. I have a family but my wife drives the four-door sedan! I drive the GS as a company car but I still have the Celica. It’s completely standard, although I’ve changed the wheels.”
What’s your philosophy on how Lexuses should feel and how has that changed in recent years?
“With previous Lexuses, customers couldn’t understand the Lexus values – it wasn’t recognisable as a Lexus either from design or when driving. There was no brand identity in the way that Audi or BMW or Mercedes has.
“I’m trying to create more direct appeal in the way a Lexus drives. I want to create more engagement, which was lacking in older cars. Now they are much sharper and more clear, more responsive.”
Is it difficult to create that in these days of weight, safety features and so on?
“The most difficult area is in body rigidity increasing. If I increase body rigidity I have to add reinforcement, which adds weight and that doesn’t help with agility. It’s a constant battle. We’re changing body materials to save weight, going to aluminium or plastic where possible.”
How important is sound in the new Lexus philosophy?
“Lexuses are usually big, silent vehicles. But for GS particularly, I wanted to have engine sound coming through. It’s a concert hall philosophy. Concert halls are very quiet, but when the orchestra comes in and make a harmony, it’s the same concept as we’re working on.”
Will sound still be important in the future, when we see more silent, electric cars?
“Previous Lexuses were almost silent but many customers say that means there’s no emotion to them. No sound means no appeal. In the future maybe there can be some harmony, almost like a music, something artificial to replace engine sound. We are studying artificial sounds for hybrids. It’s a problem, especially for sportier cars because you don’t get a sense of speed and it’s very strange.”
Is it more of a challenge now to engineer emotion and directness into cars than, say, 20 years ago?
“We have to remain appealing. It’s people that operate vehicles, and they have to feel, have fun. That’s my main challenge.”