This article was written on 28 Mar 2014, and is filled under Urbanities.

Lexus and the Automotive State of Exception

As Roland Barthes famously put it in Mythologies, the 1955 Citroën DS 19 was a “superlative object,” that is, an object that exuded perfection while hinting that its origins were somehow mysterious, definitely uncommon, and possibly supernatural.1 In 1989, Toyota’s Lexus LS 400 sedan became this sort of object with a late 20th-century vengeance. And with an important difference too because, despite space-age design and attempts to pitch the bigger models to wealthier buyers, Citroën never quite made it on the luxury market, especially outside France. Similar to the German Volkswagen if arguably inferior qualitatively, it was and has remained a “people’s car,” a slightly fancier affair than the humbler Renault. And also like VW Beetle and then the Golf in Germany, Fiat in Italy, Škoda in the former Czechoslovakia, or Ford and Chevy in the U. S., the Citroëns have been more than just popular means of transportation. They have played a major role in the construction of the nation as a demotic socio-automotive assemblage, a community of peers riding, so to speak, on the equalizing—and equalizingly “affordable”—ownership and operation of a multiply symbolic vehicle.

Some of this vehicle’s tenor is remarkably anthropological. Commentators like Umberto Eco have indirectly attended to it, and so have the Indiana police officers who, back in the mid-1990s, reportedly stumbled on a sex scene involving a car owner and his beloved roadster (apparently, an episode quite different from, albeit no less steamy than, the one involving Cameron Diaz in The Counselor). Almost as intriguing is the sociological aspect, especially apropos of the Lexus. Where VW homogenizes the driving body politic, the Lexus deliberately sets out to split and differentiate it to an extent that no upper-scale Citroën, Passat, Audi (a souped-up Passat essentially), or GM (say, a Cadillac) has done it. VW and Ford are and in all likelihood will stay “democratic,” even populist. They foreground a logic and a cheerful ideal of sameness, foster the faux equality of horsepower and standard (rather than pricey optional) features. Not so a Bentley or a Lamborghini or, right below their market level, BMW and Mercedes, car luxury standard bearers and implicitly class markers worldwide.

The Lexus purported to provide a self-differentiating identity fantasy quantifiably cheaper and presumably better than the two well-established German imports, and its lineup did become a status symbol in the U. S. in inevitable if rather odd competition with the German carmakers. Lexus’s appeal to American consumers—for the car was initially aimed only at them—inhered just in part in quality, appearance, and “customer satisfaction,” or turned on a satisfaction of a different kind. What attracted buyers was neither the Lexus SC’s V8 per se nor the “seductive design culled directly from the luxury yachts and villas of the French Riviera,”2 as a brochure raved about the same convertible, but whatever was “culled” quite brazenly from an automotive history Lexus did not possess nor could bypass, for that matter. In this case, history, namely, certain preexistent notions of form, comfort, and performance were decidedly German, a German prerogative if not a monopoly. Stuttgart’s Mercedes-Benz Museum invites you to “experience the future of the automobile from the very beginning.”3 No Lexus museum will be in position to extent a similar invitation any time soon. But that does not mean the Lexus designers did not have to deal with the issue. They had to. Only, their goal was not to reinvent history but just to inscribe themselves into it lucratively, and so they did deal with this issue, at once encouraging and discouraging comparisons with the German tradition of luxury car manufacturing.

The specific superlative nature of the Lexus as an object derives quite literally from this highly ambivalent, “poaching” dialogue of styles and marketing ploys, and speaks in fact to a whole conundrum of derivation in the world of cars and, interestingly enough, car owners alike. Striking here is the studied self-exposure of both things and people on ostentatious yet historically-socially insecure display. They all want to be or rather be seen as something individual, unique, “artistic,” at the expense of that which “deep down” they suspects they represent, stand for, refer to, or come from. This is the suspicion if not the anxiety the Lexus transfers to its owner along with the ownership title. In short, Lexus is most ambivalent about, if not utterly at war with, its origins, and, arguably, so is the man or woman owning it. This is the high drama of corporate mimesis and also a Hamletian dilemma in its own right, staged in showrooms, driveways, garages, and on roads across America.

On the one hand, to meet and possibly surpass the luxury benchmarks of the late 1980s, the BMW 7 series and especially the Mercedes E Class, the Lexus had no choice but first to acknowledge the benchmark itself, to reference the German cars one way or another, to evoke a history it certainly could not boast and to invoke a style for which the Toyota sedans of the time could be only a modest a source of inspiration. As a matter of fact, the association with Toyota was most problematic, and Toyota itself did quite a bit to underplay it given that its cars had been reliable and within the purchasing reach of middle-class America but bland, anonymous, and surely un-artistic in appearance. Even today, certain car manufacturers and dealers do not hesitate to advertise their subcompacts as “cures for the common Corolla.” So, as far as the self-differentiating potential goes, Toyota was a liability.

On the other hand, so was the stylistic affiliation with Mercedes and BMW. The allusions of the glossy pamphlets, the notion of belonging “up there” with its mythic rivals have both helped and hurt Lexus. To this very day, its designers and dealers are still trying to negotiate this troublesome proximity, to figure out a smart way of intimating that, yes, a Lexus is “like” a Mercedes and a BMW in the sense that it is a competitive (in actuality, “superior”) item in their category but not quite derived from them nor looking up to them. In other words, it had to compete against them and for this reason be and look like them but only for so long as the Teutonic comparison proved beneficial. To establish itself, Lexus was forced to summon up the aforementioned automotive past and the past more broadly, but at the same time it had to make sure its own ahistoricity, “lack of tradition,” or the Toyota tradition for that matter, did not undermine its objectives.

For Lexus intended to be, or, better put, at least to look like, the real thing, not the next best thing. It did not want to be or to be viewed as an ersatz. Arguably, it was one but did not want to come across to its buyers as a substitute, for no substitute is perfect; no object derived from another can be, said Socrates. No stand-in object can help the person behind it stand out. In the “pursuit of perfection” (the Lexus slogan) on its own terms, the object could not afford the image of poor man’s luxury vehicle because the man (or woman) was, via the image the car afforded, in pursuit of a self-representation quite incompatible with poverty (of taste, means, and so forth).

Image and class are keynote here—class perception and class differentiation, U. S. consumption imaginary as social imaginary, to be more exact. For Americans began buying Lexuses (or “Lexi”) not necessarily because they could not tell the difference between BMW’s legendary 3-series and the Lexus IS but in order to “stand out” a tad more cheaply and with fewer headaches than the Joneses, who had been reportedly complaining about the maintenance costs of their “Ultimate Driving Machine” (one of the BMW mottos on the English-speaking market). Both elements of the transaction are important: the “good-buy” component but also the “standout,” “differentiating” routine. Thus, the superlative, excessive presence of the glamorous, “luxury yacht”-looking, expensive leather-clad commodity parallels and fuels the recently acquired intensity of the consumer’s social pantomime, his or her Lexus a moving and exquisitely individualizing spotlight, with the Joneses now in the audience, presumably green with envy.

The irony, of course, was that before long there were just too many spotlights that looked like a Lexus logo. Individualization was soon followed by re-serialization, by the relapse into sameness both for car and driver, and this is precisely what recent non-Toyota car commercials have targeted in the Lexus RX-10 SUV. Predictably enough, “ownership personality” fell prey in the U. S. once again to the impersonality of mass production and distribution. New Lexus aficionados joined an ever-larger crowd, and it hardly helped that, on the sly, more and more Lexus models were built on “common” Toyota platforms. Initially billed as an elite protocol of distinctiveness, Lexus “perfectionism” led back to the series, to the uniform, and to the all-encompassing sameness from which cars and drivers alike had dreamed to extricate themselves.

–Christian Moraru



1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies. Selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers (New York: The Noonday Press, 1993), 88.

2. 08 LEXUS Collection, PB-1016 (9/07)00217-FULIN-08 (Printed in [the] U.S.A., 2007), 18.

3. Mercedes-Benz Museum. (accessed December 14, 2009).

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