DETROIT — Japanese luxury auto brands Lexus and Infiniti have used the Detroit Auto Show to test new ways to regain momentum against Germany's prestige automakers and Tesla.
The Japanese are fighting to gain ground in the U.S. luxury market as Audi and Mercedes-Benz have expanded sales and Tesla has provided a fresh alternative to established brands.
Last year, Lexus suffered a 7.6 percent slide in U.S. sales. Acura's 2017 sales fell 3.9 percent from 2016. Infiniti pushed up sales by 11.3 percent — but by selling almost twice as many sport utility vehicles as cars. However, Infiniti's total 2017 sales of 153,415 vehicles put it behind the leading Germany luxury car brands, as well as Acura, Lexus and Cadillac.
The Lexus LF-1 Limitless concept SUV model, with its futuristic looks and "Chauffeur mode" semi-autonomous hands-off driving capabilities, signals that Toyota's luxury brand may start to focus more on SUVs than traditional large sedans.
The LF-1 also previews a futuristic navigation technology that anticipates where the driver is going based on driving habits and history, and provides hotel recommendations or other concierge services.
"We don't want to be the 'race car' brand; we don't want to be the 'quiet ride' brand. We want to be the brand which is emotionally connected with the customer," said Cooper Ericksen, vice president of U.S. marketing for Lexus.
Lexus, Infiniti and Acura launched in the U.S. market in the late 1980s and took advantage of quality problems at Audi and a lack of innovation at the then-leading luxury brands, Cadillac and Lincoln.
Now, the structure of the U.S. luxury market has changed. Four brands — Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Lexus — dominate.
Tesla delivered 103,000 vehicles in 2017, its best year ever, though that total is still a small fraction of the overall luxury market. Tesla, meanwhile, is trying to overcome "production hell" and increase output of its more affordable compact Model 3 sedan. The highly anticipated car is just starting to reach customers — but with 400,000 preorders, 2018 could be a breakthrough year for Tesla.
In Detroit, Infiniti showed the Q Inspiration Concept sedan powered by a unique, high-efficiency variable-compression gasoline engine. While the prototype is not electric, its exterior might appeal to customers of the Tesla Model S. Meanwhile, Chief Executive Hiroto Saikawa said this week at the North American International Auto Show that all new Infiniti models launched from 2021 will be either electric or so-called "e-Power" hybrids.
Infiniti also said that we can expect "beautiful vehicles" based on the Q Inspiration.
"We don't look at Tesla and try to do the same idea of luxury, but there has been a natural evolution of luxury," Infiniti's executive design director Karim Habib said at the North American International Auto Show earlier this week.
Ironically, Infiniti first showed a luxury electric offering in a 2012 concept car, but later scrapped it over profitability concerns. That left the road clear for Tesla's Model S, introduced the same year.
Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu