Sometimes a car maker has so much foresight that we humble punters, and even the automotive media, simply don’t see it. Porsche’s decision to drop the Audi-sourced diesel engines from its ranges altogether was unexpected, at least so soon, but there’s one car maker which must be rolling its eyes pretty hard round about now: Lexus.
Lexus is and always was a brand built on refinement. In this context you could define refinement as excellence in the control of physics: ride quality, noise suppression and reliability are all day-one Lexus traits that have whispered their way down the decades. Yet the European automotive media has consistently shunned Lexus cars in favour of those from European brands. Lexus, they said, just didn’t get European buyers.
Well, that’s not how it’s turning out. Dieselgate is the European car industry’s nightmares all come true. New diesel sales are avalanching and everyone who sells oil-burners on this continent is desperately rushing to develop viable hybrids and electric cars. Lexus saw this coming, at least in a round-about fashion. It hasn’t sold a diesel car anywhere in almost seven years.
It was back in the 1990s when Toyota had what seems today like a miraculous vision of the future. It gave birth to the Prius, but more importantly it gave us a modular hybrid drivetrain that could be used and adapted in any number of self-charging and plug-in shapes, with petrol, diesel or even hydrogen fuel.
What that, in turn, provided was a powertrain as smooth as Michael Buble’s singing voice coated in liquid chocolate, and as quiet as a church mouse practising Buddhist meditation. As the generations progressed, the hybrid setup got better and better, especially in Lexus products. That evolution and extra measures to kill noise and vibration made the first hybrid Lexus, the 2007 LS 600h, a thing of ultimate serenity.
Diesels simply wouldn’t do for Lexus. It was with great reluctance (behind the scenes) that the company gave in to market/customer demand and borrowed a 175bhp Toyota 2.2-litre D-CAT diesel for Europe, starting in 2006 and installing it only in the Avensis-based IS. It was with the greatest pleasure that the firm eventually canned it again in 2012, when the cost and engineering stars had aligned to let the then-all-new IS use petrol-electric hybrid power instead.
Lexus knew diesel was/is a bad thing, even if it was sometimes necessary in order to sell cars in markets that biased towards it. It’s noisy, it produces too many vibrations and it had to become very complicated in order to work properly. In other words, it was never refined enough. Some six- and eight-cylinder diesels are wonderfully smooth, but still nowhere near as Lexus as a petrol-electric hybrid.
The Japanese comfort kings also knew that diesel wasn’t clean enough. They knew about the particulates issue, making a point of stressing the D-CAT diesel’s relative virtues in that department back in 2006. In 2014, 10 months before dieselgate even kicked off, Lexus stated confidently that hybrid’s time had come, and that diesel was on the way out. It’s like they had a crystal ball.
The truth is that Lexus has known the best way to power a car efficiently, quietly and with minimal fuss since the 1990s, but until very recently few people were willing to listen. While other brands clamour in 2018 and beyond to market themselves as the new standard-setters for environmentalism, let’s not forget who’s been quietly treading that path with peerless reliability for over 20 years.