Japan’s Unlikely Rise to Luxury Car Dominance in the U.S.

Japan’s Unlikely Rise to Luxury Car Dominance in the U.S.

Out of the ashes of World War II, the Japanese for a time turned out trinket cars: miniature mobile contraptions that did little to dignify the phrase “Made in Japan.”

Toyota in 1950 was on the brink of bankruptcy. Honda turned to motorcycles after developing aircraft propellers for the Imperial Japanese Navy and in the early 1960s unveiled the T360, a pocket-size pickup with a 30-horsepower engine. More than 100,000 of these were made. All were painted blue.

Japanese cars didn’t define luxury then, but in the more than half-century since, that has changed. Now it’s difficult to imagine the high-end American car market without models like Acura, Infiniti and Lexus, all of which Japan introduced to the United States in the 1980s. These models have raised expectations for luxury vehicles, from how the car should look to what the experience should be like when you buy one.

The Japanese, not known for shifting manufacturing gears too quickly, were fast in building sport utility vehicles. Toyota, the parent of Lexus, is now the largest carmaker in the world, with more than 2.3 million vehicles sold last year in the United States. Toyota and Honda consistently sell the most S.U.V.s around the world, with Nissan not far down the list. In the United States, Lexus is outsold only by BMW and Tesla among luxury brands. And when the new Acura Integra is unveiled early this month at a starting price of about $32,000, it will partly be targeting a market of younger, more affluent driving enthusiasts — buyers who will amplify Acura’s aim to deliver a sexy, “fun to drive” element into its range of models sold in North America.

Japan didn’t begin a serious push to establish its presence in American markets until the 1980s, largely through consumer technology. Sony’s advances left America’s consumer electronics industry far behind: Think compact disc, Betamax, the Walkman and the VCR. Remember the laser disc? It set the stage for the DVD. Panasonic had corralled part of the television market. Pioneer and Mitsubishi wanted in on the fun. Samsung, in South Korea, wasn’t even a blip on the horizon. “Japan Inc.” was going great guns.

All this gave Eiji Toyoda, a member of Toyota Motor’s founding family, an idea. He called his concept sedan the Project F1 (F for flagship). His motivation: Beat the Germans. Beat the Americans. Beat everyone. The crystallization of his idea would be the Lexus.

Elsewhere in Japan, from 1983 until the debut of the Lexus LS400 six years later, Honda was making more than motorcycles and Civics. Its newly named Acura division, code-named Channel II, and its models — the Legend and Integra, destined only for America — were already for sale by 1986. And Nissan, with its Infiniti spinoff, was just three years behind.

“In 1945, Japan was decimated,” said Jon Ikeda, the vice president and brand officer of Acura. “And then in ’64 they were showing the bullet train and hosting the Olympics.” But in just two decades, “you’re talking an all-aluminum-body NSX and Honda is winning Formula 1 races,” he continued. “Acura got caught up in that energy — we wanted to show the world that Japan could build amazing products.”

One significant factor that aided the new nameplates was a 1981 voluntary trade agreement that limited Japanese auto imports to the United States. The restrictions on imports, which stretched into the early 1990s, and the subsequent loss of sales motivated the Japanese to create higher-priced vehicles to boost their profits.

Toyota was pumping a billion 1980s dollars into Project F1 and assembling 3,700 of its top engineers. There would be a 4.0-liter V8. It would run as quiet as a … well, as a Mercedes. It would cost $40,000. (Instant car-buyer reaction: “$40,000 for a Japanese car?”) In the wings waited the all-aluminum Acura NSX two-seater. At $65,000, it was the most expensive Japanese car to that point. It was a stunning example of engineering: aluminum suspension, four-channel Anti-Blocking System brakes, 270-horsepower mid-engine V6 with variable valve timing, as in VTEC.

And then there was Nissan. Infiniti launched in 1989 with two cars: the M30, a dated coupe, and the first-generation Q45. Both cars were already several years old when they arrived in the United States. Some reviewers compared the interiors to Japanese tapestries, and what didn’t help dispel that notion was an ad campaign that featured rocks and flowers but no car. As one comedian noted, Infiniti sales were little changed, but rocks and trees were selling nicely.

But subsequent vehicles, like the G35 sports sedan and the FX crossover, both from 2003, established Infiniti’s engineering chops and proved popular with enthusiasts. “Made in Japan” began to mean something different.

“The three big Japanese automakers developed premium brands because they believed they could compete in the U.S. market on quality, performance and the dealership experience,” said Bill Howard, an automotive analyst in New Jersey, adding that Lexus quickly gained sales with luxury and superb fit and finish.

“Acura had a five-year head start on Lexus and Infiniti,” he continued. “But Acuras had an early reputation as nicer, sportier Hondas — both came with stick shifts — while buyers today ignore that several Lexus models are simply much nicer Toyotas.”

Crunching some sales numbers, Mr. Howard found that BMW, Mercedes and Lexus each finished 2021 with about 330,000 U.S. sales.

“They have been the top three since 2006,” he said. “The other major premium brands — Audi, Acura, Cadillac, Lincoln and Infiniti, in descending order of sales — each sold less than 200,000 cars last year.”

But those carmakers aren’t standing still. “Lincoln has moved to an all-S.U.V. lineup,” Mr. Howard continued. “Lincoln and Infiniti are working to attract women buyers. Infiniti is using former ESPN reporter Erin Andrews as a spokesperson.”

It’s a given that high-end vehicles usually translate to high-end profits. And to reach those well-heeled buyers, Lexus and the other brands not only pioneered a new kind of premium — they also reinvented the customer experience.

Remember when the best a “luxury” car showroom could offer was a lukewarm cup of Maxwell House? Lexus served cappuccino with the perfect crema. Chronicling the customer overhaul in a Car and Driver article, John Pearley Huffman wrote that service was Lexus’ way “to overcome its lack of heritage.”

He added: “Lexus’ senior technicians became ‘diagnostic specialists.’ They wore clean white shirts and were expected to explain directly to customers what was going on with their cars. It changed the industry.”

Even so, the car business is nothing if not cyclical, and it became clear in 2007 that the aspirational patterns set in the ’80s by Toyota and others could be replicated, this time by Hyundai, another major Asian player.

When Hyundai introduced Genesis, a new luxury division, in 2003 its game plan mirrored that of the Japanese two decades earlier: Borrow liberally (from Lexus, of course, and even Bentley). Use — guess what — Mercedes-Benz as another benchmark. This year, to reinforce the company’s credibility, Hyundai handed over its design baton to Peter Schreyer, a highly respected artist who helped create the look of the Audi TT and New Beetle before he moved to Kia in South Korea in 2006.

But Hyundai also went one step beyond its predecessors and created an exotic showplace-plus in Manhattan’s meatpacking district called Genesis House, where one can dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant, take time out in the library space and, by the way, buy a car. (Lexus had sponsored a similar operation in the same neighborhood but it closed.)

Mr. Howard said he expected other countries to continue borrowing from Japan’s playbook, breaking into the premium space.

“Vehicles from China are not currently regarded as ready for export, but that could well change within the decade, especially as the automotive world goes electric,” he said. “And India may well be an automaker for the world in coming years. It has a growing population that needs mainstream cars.”

The post Japan’s Unlikely Rise to Luxury Car Dominance in the U.S. appeared first on New York Times.

Last Update: Thu, 02 Jun 22 09:17:06