Upheavals in the luxury car market are expanding the choices for consumers, as automakers battle for market share.
The contest is particularly fierce between Japanese companies fighting to make an impact on the established German luxury automakers.
Toyota’s Lexus luxury offshoot has successfully challenged the BMW/Mercedes/Audi triumvirate in terms of sales volume. But Lexus’s success is based largely on just two models, the RX350 and ES350, and the brand’s image remains respectable but staid. So far Lexus has been unable to develop the coolness quotient that distinguishes certain rivals, notably Audi.
Well behind Lexus in the sales charts and also failing to achieve full credibility among luxury car buyers is Infiniti, the upscale division of Nissan. Infiniti has struggled to reverse a sales slide this year, a challenge not helped by a wholesale model renaming strategy and upper management turmoil.
But both Japanese makes are determined to improve their fortunes and images among U.S. luxury buyers. In the case of Lexus, the effort to spice up its brand image has been going on for some time, with a focus on much more aggressive design. This can be seen in Lexus showrooms in the form of the spindle-shaped grille that adorns most of the current model line-up.
This gaping grille design is an acquired taste, especially on the smaller Lexus models such as the NX compact crossover vehicle. New for the 2015 model year, the NX is an important newcomer for Lexus and enters a booming segment populated by the Audi Q5, Acura RDX, BMW X3 and Mercedes GLK.
Though it’s based on the humble Toyota RAV4, the NX is heavily upgraded and has all the necessary features, including a choice of 2.0-liter turbo engine or a 2.5-liter hybrid powertrain, to appeal to a more discerning audience.
Lexus has high hopes that the NX’s well equipped, dynamic looking character, plus the F-Sport version’s fun-to-drive nature, will attract a significantly younger audience to the brand when it reaches showrooms by the end of 2014 with a price starting under $40,000.
The same goes, in a much more exaggerated fashion, for the new Lexus RC 350 and RC F models, two new sport coupes that go on sale this fall. The two versions share the same basic body design but the F model amps up the visual impact to reflect its ambitions of taking on heavy-hitting German rivals, such as the BMW M4, Audi S5RS and Mercedes C63 AMG. Lexus marketing executives admit the RC F will be a niche player but say it will be a “change agent” and “brand amplifier” for the company.
With 467 hp on tap from its 5.0-liter V-8 engine and a well-engineered chassis, the RC-F performance and handling credentials are evident, as clearly demonstrated by hot laps around New York’s demanding Monticello racetrack.
After the F model, the RC 350 model, with its 306-hp V-6 engine, feels understandably tame, and lacks the handling prowess of its bigger brother (an F Sport edition goes someway to redress the balance, however). Starting at $43,715, the RC 350 will clearly outsell the $63,325 RC F model, but in both cases these coupes are likely to change perceptions of Lexus.
So to Infiniti, which is in the middle of revamping much of its model line-up. Last year the mid-size Q50 sedan launched as a heavily upgraded version of the preceding G37 model. As such the Q50 has been a relative bright spot for Infiniti in terms of sales this year. But the latest model to receive a makeover is the Q70 large sedan, previously known as the M model. The big news, literally, for the Q70 is the arrival of a long wheelbase, Q70L version that brings limousine-like spaciousness and comfort to the rear seat.
Driving the Q70 reveals a car with ample power from both V-6 and V-8 engine options (a hybrid powertrain is also available), competitive ride and handling characteristics for a large sedan, and a whole battery of safety systems and driver aids. Pricing starts just under $50,000 for the V-6 and at $62,850 for the V-8 model. Quiet, refined and confident, the Q70 makes a solid statement and should help Infiniti regain its footing in a highly competitive segment.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com.