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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

(continued from page 3)

Signs indicate that Acura is finally back on track. The new TL sedan is stylish, sporty and loaded with innovative features, including the automotive world's first DVD-Audio system. (See story, page 121.) Honda has always billed itself as an engine manufacturer, first, and as a carmaker, second. The newest TL justifies that claim. The car now pumps out 270 horsepower, compared with 225 from the old TL.

Acura is hoping the new TL will attract a younger, better-

educated and more affluent buyer. Of course, that's similar to what most automakers seem to be seeking these days. So, as with Infiniti, Acura is in desperate need of a new halo car. It might have found one in the audaciously edgy form of the HSC, a 2-seat supercar concept unveiled at last October's Tokyo Motor Show. It's expected to serve as the replacement for the aging NSX sports car. A new version of the flagship RL sedan also is under development.

Acura has already shown it can beat the odds. But now the

challenge is to overcome its own negative momentum.

NEW CHALLENGERS
If Japanese brands like Lexus, Acura and Infiniti represent the third wave of automotive luxury, how do you describe the new Amanti? Not to be confused with Amati—Mazda's failed luxury nameplate—Amanti is one of the newest offerings from Kia, the South Korean carmaker.

South Korea is the Rodney Dangerfield of auto-making nations: it just doesn't get much respect, and for obvious reasons when you recall some of the early junk peddled by manufacturers such as Hyundai and Daewoo until relatively recently. Lately, though, the country's automotive quality's been sharply on the rise. And vehicles like the Amanti and Hyundai's comparably sized XG350 deliver many of the features you'd expect from a luxury car at mainstream prices. Amanti is quick, roomy and well equipped. And it doesn't disguise the automaker's long-term aspirations.

There's a serious case of Japan-envy here. Hyundai Motor Group—which also owns Kia—obsesses over the idea of becoming the globe's fifth largest automaker by decade's end. In the United States, sales of Hyundai vehicles should tip 500,000 by 2006 and Hyundai's "stretch" goal would double that number by 2010. To get there, it's entering an array of new niches, and it likely won't be long before there's a true Hyundai or Kia luxury car. Perhaps even a separate luxury brand, as a few Korean executives have quietly suggested, though currently there are no such plans.

There was a time when the luxury car market was orderly and predictable—much like the folks who bought those automobiles. The definition of luxury—and luxury buyers—has gone through a rapid revolution in recent years, and the old order doesn't exist anymore. Don't write off the classic brands—Cadillac is staging a dramatic and unexpected comeback. But the Japanese have certainly rewritten the rules of the game. v

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto magazine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.com.


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