MONTEREY, California -- Eighteen months ago, Toyota had all but scrapped its plans for the redesigned Lexus GS 350 sedan that was unveiled here last week.
At the time, the company was pouring engineering resources into resolving its unintended acceleration crisis and was busy changing quality and safety procedures. Plus, the GS' underwhelming sales in the United States and Europe made for a weak business case against the Mercedes E class and BMW 5 series.
Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda had put the GS on the chopping block, but a last-ditch effort from U.S. and European executives saved the car. In the process, the company overhauled the way Lexus executives report to top management in Japan -- giving the luxury brand a stronger voice at the highest levels of the company.
"I didn't want this car," Toyoda said at the debut of the GS, which goes on sale in early 2012. But Lexus' regional management teams "fought me like crazy."
Several top Toyota executives confirmed that the 2013 GS redesign had been as good as dead.
"There were some executives, including Akio, who thought, in terms of our priority list, that the GS should be delayed or canceled," said Andrew Coetzee, now U.S. vice president of Lexus Brand Development. He was a Lexus product planner in Japan at the time.
Coetzee says Toyoda's pessimism resulted from the many layers of Japanese executives through which Lexus' overseas managers reported. Only when Lexus' global team members appealed directly to Toyoda did the boss change his mind.
Company officials say Toyoda decided there was a flaw in the system. As part of the company's management reorganization in April, he created a new reporting structure that gives Lexus more influence.
Previously, at least four layers of r&d, sales and marketing executives in Japan separated Toyoda from overseas executives responsible for the Lexus brand. But a new Lexus Product and Market Planning Division was formed with a direct line to Toyoda.
The division is headed by Japan-based executive Karl Schlicht, who reports to managing officer Kiyotaka Ise. Ise, whose only responsibility is Lexus, reports to Toyoda.
Coetzee admitted that "things were not done well" with the current bland and bloated GS, and that the lineup was "missing something" between the entry-luxury ES and IS sedans and the flagship LS. The GS needed to represent "a premium car with premium chassis technology ... a step up in dynamics and status."
The GS has been a continual underachiever compared with the 5 series, E class and Audi A6. The current generation's sales peaked at 27,390 units in 2006, tapering off to 7,059 last year.
But the redesigned 2013 GS displays the sheet metal and interior design cues that will carry across the brand for the next several years.
"The GS may be low volume [in the past], but it is symbolic of the new Lexus," said Yoshi Inaba, CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.