STORY WONG KAI YI
CHIEF ENGINEER LEXUS INTERNATIONA
IT’S clear that the new Lexus ES is a labour of love for Yasuhiro Sakakibara, Lexus’s chief engineer. Speaking to Torque at the Singapore launch of Lexus’ volume-seller, Sakakibara- san cuts a low-key, almost deferential figure in a plain suit. But talk to him about his latest creation and his eyes light up. A lot of effort and engineering was put into the driving dynamics and looks of the new Lexus ES, he tells us. Working on feedback that the older model looked somewhat plain, the new ES now looks far sportier, while its sumptuous cabin lives up to Lexus’s standards of understated luxury. The car, much like the man who created it, presents itself discreetly to you instead of waltzing in like a cabaret troupe, an oasis of quiet opulence in a turbulent consumerist world. Having been an engineer for nearly 30 years, Sakakibara-san knows a thing or two about crafting well-engineered vehicles. In the late 90s, he decided to focus on building vehicles with exceptional elegance, quietness and style. As a testament to his passion for good engineering, he reportedly worked on-site at Lexus’s production plant in Japan on various aspects of the Lexus ES. He has worked on improving platforms and powertrains to enhance performance,
and has also created concept vehicles to boot. Busy as he is, Sakakibara-san still takes time out to keep fit by swimming, running and cycling. Athletic but quiet – much like the ES, then.
What particular design goals did you have in mind, particularly with regards to the ES’s ride refinement, chassis dynamics and powertrain?
I though to myself: What is lacking in the (older) ES? What I did find it needed was better acceleration, a good drive, and also the design that appeals to the emotions. An emotional, sporty design.
Was this focus on the emotional aspect different from the previous model?
Even without driving it, just by looking at this car, people will know that this car will really run. I wanted that kind of emotional appeal. I wanted to achieve the kind of design that just by looking at it, you will feel like drinking beer and feeling good about it. I wanted that kind of beauty in it.
So in the ways that the new ES has improved from the old one, how much of it was down to customer feedback?
For the design, the users of the current model were not really complaining, but I did hear that they were not very happy with the plainness when you look at the car, and I wanted to improve on it.
Following from that question, is Lexus seeking to capture this market segment who have yet to buy a luxury car? And with this new ES, are you looking to expand production volume as well?
We do hope to capture more customers, not just relying on current customers. And this is my personal opinion: we want potential customers of the new ES to be people who don’t just go for brands. For example, when talking about luxury cars, they just go for Mercedes. I wanted to draw people who have the eyes to really discern what is really good.
If we could touch on Toyota for a bit. Considering the commonality with the Camry, with regards to the GA-K platform, what were some of the challenges differentiating the new ES from the Camry?
For dynamics, we paid a lot of attention to two points: the quietness and driving performance. Some examples I introduced for quietness (on the ES) which are not on the Camry, are sound absorbing materials surrounding the suspension tower, and the underbody. The Camry uses conventional resin but I used sound- absorbing materials. For the driving performance, there are some materials and engineering techniques we used. One example is body bonding adhesive, and there are parts that we used laser screw welding (LSW) for bonding of the parts to achieve that driving performance. These two cars have the same GA-K platform, but in fact, there are a lot of components not shared between the two.
In your presentation, you talked about reducing driver fatigue (in the ES). Could you expand on that area a little bit?
The human eyes are very interesting. The angle that we are looking at, not seeing but looking, is only about one degree. And you know that there are other things outside that range, but we aren’t really looking (at them). When the car moves, the eye works hard to maintain its vision by making opposite movements. If you look at some athletes, like marathon runners, their heads are very stable, they don’t move their heads. We worked with researchers in Toyota and we have installed swing bar shock absorbers for the Luxury version in Singapore (to aid with smoothening out the ride).
Was there any emphasis on sportier driving, in this current variant?
(He asks whether I have driven the new ES yet, as the interview had taken place before my test- drive slot). If you can drive both the old ES and the new one, I don’t think I need to explain. They are completely different.
Is the GA-K platform going to be extended to Lexus’ other future offerings?
I’m sorry, I can’t mention upcoming products. If I do, I will be fired.
I WANTED TO ACHIEVE THE KIND OF DESIGN THAT JUST BY LOOKING AT IT, YOU WILL FEEL LIKE DRINKING BEER AND FEELING GOOD ABOUT IT.
Like its creator, the new Lexus ES is classy yet understated.
Text: Wong Kai Yi