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Cars: Affordable Luxury

Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01

(continued from page 2)

A CVT eliminates conventional step gears, constantly running the engine at optimum speed. Audi officials insist it will deliver the fuel economy and performance of a manual, with the smoothness of an automatic. The CVT will be available initially only on the front-drive A4, though a version for the all-wheel-drive A4 Quattro is under development.

While the 3 Series, C-Class and A4 dominate the affordable luxury segment, plenty of new players are trying to compete, and besides Jaguar. Take Volvo, another member of Ford's Premier Automotive Group. Over the years, few products have seemed more familiar than those from the Swedish automaker. Even those with weak eyesight could spot the brand's boxy silhouette from a thousand yards. Those drawn to Volvo products wanted simple, safe, reliable transportation. Styling was superfluous. The first hint this could change came with the introduction of the top-line S80 sedan nearly three years ago, quickly followed by the C70 coupe and the convertible.

Mere aberrations? Not at all. Though the recently added V70 wagon maintains the traditional box shape, the latest addition to the lineup is clear proof that Volvo is designing to a different drummer these days. The S60 sedan shares the sleeker styling "vocabulary" introduced with the S80. At first glance, you might mistake the two vehicles, which share platforms and numerous components. But some notable differences permit Volvo officials to use terms like "performance" and "fun-to-drive" to describe the S60 -- and not have to cross their fingers behind their backs.

Lexus is another automaker aiming to capture the young-at-heart buyers fueling the affordable luxury segment's growth. Despite its success -- Lexus is routinely one of the nation's best-selling luxury brands -- its products have tended to appeal to an older buyer who might, in the past, have opted for a Buick or Cadillac. Hip, Euro-oriented buyers "never stepped inside a Lexus store before," admits Bryan Bergsteinsson, who served until a year ago as Lexus general manager. "Maybe they drove by in a BMW or Acura and looked inside to see if their dad was inside waiting for service."

The IS300 is designed to get them to stop. The sedan is priced to be affordable, by luxury segment standards. That doesn't mean cheap. Far from it. The IS300 doesn't have quite as opulent a feel as an LS430, but it does maintain the incredible fit-and-finish that's a Lexus trademark. And with 215 horsepower, it is one of the peppiest products in the segment.

The other Japanese premium brands are weighing in as well. Long cast in the shadow of its Asian rival, Nissan's Infiniti brand is betting on some big growth of its own thanks to the updated and upgraded I35. The new-for-2002 sedan gets a big bump in performance over the old I30, thanks to a bigger 3.5-liter V-6 pumping out 260 horsepower.

It's getting close to facelift time for the Acura TL, which has helped Honda's upscale division gain ground over the last couple years. For those on an especially tight budget, the automaker introduces the all-new RSX for 2002, a replacement for the long-lived Integra. With a projected price between $20,000 to $25,000, it technically doesn't fit into the affordable luxury segment, though it's a significantly more luxurious set of wheels than the old Integra.

You might notice the absence of a couple names from this list. Until recently, the Big Three domestic automakers largely ignored the emergence of the affordable luxury market. Lincoln scored a modest success with its first entry, the LS, though it's really a larger model than most of the other cars in this segment, physically on par with the BMW 5 Series. The sedan's big selling point has been price ($32,290), though a mid-cycle update will aim to add more refinement to the LS, which Lincoln hopes will increase its appeal to import-oriented buyers.

Cadillac, meanwhile, took a critical drubbing for its Catera. The sedan was based on a downmarket design sold in Europe under General Motors' Opel brand. It was stodgy and slow and simply not up to the high standards set by the segment's standard bearers.

That could change dramatically this fall with the introduction of a new vehicle. Originally called the Catera Touring Sedan, the 2002 model will now drop the Catera name and simply be called CTS. If Cadillac has been guilty of playing it safe in recent years, that certainly won't apply here. The sedan will introduce the world to a new styling theme as radical as Caddy's finned wonders of the late 1950s. Dubbed Art & Science, it's the polar opposite of Jaguar's soft sensuality. The sharp-edged CTS, explains GM design director Wayne Cherry, "will look as if it were machined out of a single billet of steel."

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