By Norihiko Shirouzu
BEIJING (Reuters) - Big may be beautiful, but Toyota Motor Corp's <7203.T> global design chief is betting that edgy is the way to go for the Japanese automaker's premium Lexus brand, specifically its signature 'spindle grille' design.
Tokuo Fukuichi, who is also Lexus' global chief, says the design shock-therapy gives the brand - and conservative Toyota more broadly - the stand-out face it previously lacked.
While some industry rivals and design experts say the jagged-edged, trapezoid grille is downright ugly, 63-year-old Fukuichi stands by the drastic makeover, saying it will give Lexus a "unique" edge over German rivals BMW (BMWG.DE), Audi (VOWG_p.DE) and Mercedes-Benz (DAIGn.DE) particularly in competitive emerging markets such as China, where buyers will pay more for a car that stands out from the crowd.
Fukuichi, who was brought back to Toyota from a subsidiary in 2011 and as he was recovering from cancer, says Toyota for too long designed cars by committee – often of several dozen people. "The upshot was styling conservatism which everybody tolerated, but nobody was passionately in love with. We tried to please 10 out of 10 people. Now we're trying to please one of 10 people out there with Lexus."
"When CEO Akio Toyoda asked me to come back, he told me he wanted to make our cars cool. That meant he thought our cars weren't sexy," Fukuichi added, explaining his introduction back then of the head-turning grille.
In an interview ahead of next week's Shanghai autoshow, Fukuichi said Lexus was still not at "a gold medal winning level on the global stage," versus leading German brands and the likes of Jaguar (TAMO.NS), Maserati (FCHA.MI) and Aston Martin.
FLAWED MOVIE STAR
Fukuichi is no stranger to controversy. In the late-1980s, he caused a storm with Toyota's first-generation Previa multi-purpose vehicle, which was dubbed the 'egg van' because of its quirky rounded styling.
"Even polarizing designs, you get used to them after a while," he says.
The designer's credo is to take a risk to stand out from the competition - like a movie star playing on what others consider a flaw in his looks in an industry where the generic drop-dead fashion model doesn't linger long in the memory.
For Lexus, that flawed look is the spindle grille, which made its quiet, tentative debut in the Lexus CT in 2010 and was later incorporated into the redesigned Lexus GS.
It upset more than a few. At a mid-2012 shareholders' meeting, one angry Toyota shareholder complained the new Lexus "face" was giving the brand a bad reputation. Even some Lexus insiders likened the new look to an ugly deep-sea creature.
Others outside joined in the criticism. A former Rolls Royce designer said the pinched-in-the-middle spindle grille was a "design no-no" as it created an "uncomfortable" tension in the lines and shape of the car. A U.S. design professor said the controversial grille looked like the mouth of the Predator, an alien sci-fi movie character.
But the radical look had its fans, too. A senior Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> designer said the company's Infiniti premium brand quietly dropped plans to adopt a similar spindle grille profile because Lexus beat them to it.
And the opinion that really counts - at showrooms - appears positive. Lexus' global sales have grown 42 percent since 2010 to 583,000 vehicles last year.
Fukuichi remains philosophical about his bold design.
"I had nothing to lose except my life. I was ready to quit any time and retire if it didn't work," he said.
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)