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Asian Deluxe

The East proved long ago that it could compete in the luxury car market. Now it's intent on setting the pace
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

Were it not for the impossibly blue ocean lapping the distant shore, you might imagine yourself driving on the moon. This desolate, cratered landscape certainly doesn't resemble the travel brochures for "lush, tropical Hawaii," but a day of meandering around Maui will expose you to just about every possible climate and terrain.

It's always a challenge to find a site suitable for testing a new vehicle. Hawaii is normally not the first place that comes to mind, but it is hard to resist an offer to put the new Infiniti QX56 through its paces on this spit of volcanic rock. Over the course of a couple days, we wandered through lush tropical rain forests, foggy savannahs and barren lava fields. We even put the big ute through its paces along the hair-raising Hana Highway. "Highway" is a generous term, for this narrow, 45-mile ribbon of macadam is a true torture test, averaging two single-lane bridges, four blind turns and a dozen heart palpitations per mile.

Infiniti's interest in showing off the full-size sport-utility vehicle isn't surprising, for there's a lot riding on the QX56, the newest member in the automaker's quickly growing lineup. Recent additions, like the edgy FX45 crossover and sporty G35 sedan, helped kick-start a brand that once seemed the least likely to succeed. Indeed, it wasn't all that long ago that the pundits were predicting that the Infiniti nameplate would be abandoned by its troubled Japanese parent, Nissan Motor Co.

Then, again, if those same skeptics were right, we wouldn't be using the words "Japanese" and "luxury" in the same sentence. Yet the terms have proven to be anything but mutually exclusive. There are now three Japanese luxury car marques offered in the United States: Honda's Acura, Nissan's Infiniti and Toyota's Lexus, the division that has cruised past its U.S. and European rivals to top the high-line sales charts.

The Japanese luxury brands are no longer second-tier players. If anything, they're intent on setting the agenda for the premium market with an emphasis on comfort, quality, and customer service—as well as the environment, a green theme normally not part of the luxury automotive agenda.

Success was anything but assured when, in 1986, Honda unleashed Acura on a wary world. At the time, it was hard to tell whether the effort had more in common with Don Quixote or David and Goliath, for Acura was attempting to take on not only the well-established domestic luxury brands, Cadillac and Lincoln, but also the snooty European imports, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar. It may have seemed impossible, yet the stylish and well-engineered Acura Legend quickly struck a responsive chord with a generation of Baby Boomers who "grew up with import brands like Honda and were willing to move upmarket with them," says Sue Jacobs, a luxury car specialist with automotive consulting firm Jacobs & Associates.

Acura's aspirations were reasonably modest. It targeted the mid- and so-called "entry-luxury" segments, rather than going head-to-head with the likes of Mercedes, formidable S-Class, the pinnacle of premium motoring. Within a few years, the Japanese marque had carved out a comfortable niche and, buoyed by Acura's success, other Japanese automakers soon set their sights on the profitable and prestigious luxury segment. That included Mazda, the maverick manufacturer whose own fortunes seemed to ebb and flow like the tides. Its most expensive model, the 929, had never been more than an asterisk on the luxury sales charts, yet Mazda officials convinced themselves of the need to establish their own luxury franchise. It was a near-fatal self-deception.

The automobile maker invested quite a bit of money in what was dubbed the Amati project, developing two high-line products and building a state-of-the-art factory to produce them. Then Japan's bubble economy burst. Sales collapsed, plunging the automaker deep into the red. Mazda's U.S. affiliate, Ford Motor Co. assumed control to ensure Mazda's survival. In the process, the project was canceled.

If Amati was a fool's errand, it wasn't clear whether Lexus and Infiniti would fare much better. Both brands took the unusual step of launching in the lion's den, debuting at the 1989 Detroit auto show. After all, even with the modest success of Acura, the American and European luxury brands seemed solidly entrenched, buoyed by the increasingly affluent Reagan-era Yuppies. Yet it quickly became obvious that the timing of the Asian wannabes couldn't have been better.

"We can't buy instant credibility," Dave Illingworth, the first general manager of Lexus, acknowledged at the time, but the Japanese discovered that brand loyalty was for sale. The Germans were blinded by their own arrogance. They simply couldn't conceive of the Japanese entering and succeeding in the luxury market. They also missed factors such as shifting exchange rates, which had steadily moved in favor of the Asians. With a growing number of luxury

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