OPINION. Was Uber the wrong call for Lexus?

More and more Lexus saloons are on the road as part of the company’s partnership with Uber. But has this cost Lexus its premium reputation?

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Lexus has come a long way from its origins. When it first started, the Japanese brand was, let’s be honest, little more than a re-branded Toyota with higher quality materials. Now, and with the exception of the LX (which is a rebranded Land Cruiser, by the way) and the GX (or, ahem, a Prado), Lexus has finally started developing its own model line-up. And very good ones at that.

Take the LS600h for instance, the closest rivals for which are the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7-Series. In a market where Mercedes is traditionally the brand that introduces new technology, it was Lexus who pioneered the first self-parking luxury saloon. It didn’t work perfectly, but hey, it was out of the box thinking nevertheless. Then there’s the RX450h, the first hybrid SUV that returned impressive if perhaps not earth-shattering fuel efficiency. And there can’t be many of us left wondering when Lexus’ follow-up to the insane LFA supercar will turn up.

Lately though, the brand seems to have lost some of its edge. Okay, last year Lexus launched the GS-F, Japan’s answer to the BMW M3, the Mercedes-AMG C63 and the Audi RS5. Unfortunately, and bear with me here, I doubt this will come to much. I’m quite certain the GS-F will be a great car when we finally get our hands on one, but will it prove as polished or as engaging to drive as the performance saloons BMW M and Mercedes-AMG have spent close to four decades slowly improving? Probably not. Similarly the SKYJET spaceship and the Sports Yacht Concept. Impressive, certainly, but are they likely to capture the public’s imagination like Rolls-Royce’s affiliation with the Bloodhound SSC land speed record attempt of Mercedes-AMG’s $2.9 million Cigarette Racing boats?

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All of this leads me to Lexus within the Middle East market. We all know that beyond transportation and exhilarating fun, the business of making cars is, just that, a business: selling cars, booking production schedules, and shifting products is what it’s all about. Consequently when Uber, the self-taxi business that in the UAE cannot truly be a self taxi business, put out a tender for a fleet of cars, lots of brands answered the call. And Lexus won.

Now I’m not sure how many cars Lexus sold nor at what price, or whether, potentially each Uber car is on long-term lease (it’s proving difficult to get answers from local dealers or Uber itself). Such has been the influx and increase in popularity of Uber though, and in a relatively short space of time, it’s understandable to mistake any and all white Lexus GS’ driving around at rush hour to be an Uber. On the one hand, with the recent resurgence of new Lexus models ahead of 2018, such as the new LS that landed at the Detroit Motor Show, and the company’s high profile return to Daytona with the new RC F GT3, this new relationship is surely just good promotion.

But on the other hand, given the number of GS’ we now see on the roads, is it wise to give an entire country the notion that Lexus’ premium answer to the BMW 5 series and the Mercedes E-Class is now little more than a private taxi?

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We all know for instance that the Toyota Camry is the de-facto vehicle of choice for people carriers here, but then again, they are also painted as such: who among you would choose a charming shade of beige with just a dash of hot pink on the roof? Save the occasional moron, almost none of you. And that’s okay. Recognising Toyota’s flagship saloon as perhaps THE official vehicle of a government institution has done little to damage its mainstream credibility, and has probably even helped it: what screams impressive durability better than a taxi?

With Lexus though, it’s slightly different. The company’s new design language after all is sharp and charismatic enough to make the company’s ‘DNA’ truly stand out, the build quality and ergonomic design on the inside proving just as striking. In certain sectors, Lexus has legitimately established itself as a rival to the big German three in terms of premium quality. None of which matters unfortunately if, as a customer, you forego the options list and just stick with white paint on your brand new GS. Which now means it’s an Uber car. A stigma, if you will, that will never concern BMW, Mercedes, Audi and even Jaguar.

It’s all about sales, true, but this decision has left me genuinely wondering whether I will ever buy a brand new Lexus, despite my affection for the brand. I’m not thrilled by the idea of spending $50K upwards on a saloon that, through brand affiliation, has lost much of its premium shine, nor am I particularly keen to have almost everyone I cruise by on the way to work wondering who my next pick-up is. Should Uber continue its prominent rise, this could well be a financial gamble that’s paid off for Lexus. But at what price?

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