The hunt for the U.S. luxury auto-sales crown

Lexus Jumps Back Into U.S. Luxury Sales Race With New SUV: Cars

The Luxonomist. 06/03/2015
Lexus RX 450
A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus NX 200t crossover sport-utility vehicle is driven during a line-off ceremony for the company's Lexus NX series at the Toyota Motor Kyushu Inc. Miyata plant in Miyawaka, Japan, on Aug. 8, 2014. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
A Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus NX 200t crossover sport-utility vehicle is driven during a line-off ceremony for the company’s Lexus NX series at the Toyota Motor Kyushu Inc. Miyata plant in Miyawaka, Japan, on Aug. 8, 2014. Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

With a new entry in the hot-selling compact crossover segment, Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus brand has gotten itself back in the hunt for the U.S. luxury auto-sales crown. The new NX, a small sport utility vehicle starting around $35,000, has helped Toyota’s luxury brand to a 26 percent sales gain this year through February, enough to hop over BMW for second place in the U.S. luxury sales race. The NX sold 2,666 in February, providing about two-thirds of the brand’s entire monthly gain.

With its reputation for outstanding durability and its versatile RX crossover, Lexus was No. 1 in the U.S. for 11 years until 2011, when recalls and natural disasters tripped it up and the Germans seized control. Now the Japanese brand is back in the game. “The NX is a brilliant product and it really fills a pretty big hole that Lexus has had for a pretty long time”, said John Krafcik, president of auto researcher TrueCar Inc.

Beyond luxury, Toyota had a good month — or rather the least disappointing month among major automakers in the U.S. Its total sales rose 13 percent and it outsold Ford Motor Co. to rank second only to General Motors Co. All of the biggest car companies’ results were less than analysts had estimated, after bitterly cold weather slowed shopping in February’s final weekend. Analysts had predicted a 15 percent gain for Toyota.

Lexus NX 200
Lexus NX 200

The annualized selling rate, adjusted for seasonal trends, rose to 16.2 million cars and light trucks from a 15.4 million pace a year earlier, according to Autodata Corp. That was the slowest selling pace since April, according to the Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based researcher, and it was short of the average analyst estimate of 16.6 million. Light-vehicle sales are on track to rise for a sixth straight year as job gains, available credit and cheaper fuel prices have brought more shoppers into the market.

Luxury Race. Last year, BMW AG’s namesake brand held off a late surge by Daimler AG’s luxury unit, Mercedes-Benz, to win the U.S. luxury title as Lexus finished 19,000 sales shy of second place. Lexus sales jumped 22 percent in February, led by the RX, the brand’s top-selling model, which rose 14 percent to 6,490, and the GS sedan, which rose 18 percent to 1,851. Year-to-date sales through February totaled 46,126, placing it second behind Mercedes.

Mercedes said deliveries jumped 4.5 percent to 23,616 for its best February ever. Results were led by the C-Class and CLA sedans and the new GLA small SUV. For the year, sales have risen 6.7 percent to 48,235. BMW sales rose 14 percent in February to 25,201 as the 6 Series more than doubled to 1,237 and the X5 SUV rose 42 percent to 4,149. Through February, BMW deliveries have risen 9.7 percent to 44,182.

Lexus RX 450
Lexus RX 450

Heat Check. The NX gives Lexus something it had been missing, a hot vehicle in the hottest segment. Compact SUVs and crossovers have grown to 11 percent of the U.S. new-car market from 7 percent in 2007, according to Kelley Blue Book. Compact crossovers appeal to shoppers who want more storage space or a higher seating position than in a sedan and don’t want to pay for a larger, less fuel-efficient SUV. Audi’s Q3 is another recent entry, following on the success of BMW’s X1.

The trend is likely to continue with Nissan Motor Co. showing an Infiniti QX30 prototype this week at the Geneva International Motor Show, said Mark Wakefield, managing director and head of the automotive practice at consultant AlixPartners in Southfield, Michigan. “CUVs, especially luxury CUVs, are really running up the numbers”, he said.

Low-End Theory. Among luxury brands, many are using lower-priced vehicles to target young, upwardly mobile drivers who might become brand enthusiasts for life, eventually shelling out six figures for a top-of-the-line, high-margin sedan.  Mercedes renewed the trend with the 2013 introduction of its CLA, punctuated by a splashy Super Bowl ad featuring actor Willem Dafoe as the devil and making the point that drivers could buy a Mercedes for close to $30,000 without having to sell their soul.

Lexus RX 350
Lexus RX 350

Audi, the fourth-largest seller of luxury vehicles in the U.S. last year, revamped the A3 sedan last year and it was the brand’s second-best selling model last month, behind the Q5 SUV. Both Audi and Mercedes say their entry-level cars have brought new buyers to the fold without poaching them from existing models.

Lexus Vow. Lexus vowed not to follow the German brands below the $30,000 level. The concern was that selling at lower prices — effectively competing with higher-end Toyota models — might dilute its brand. Turns out, Lexus is luring those same customers anyway. “It’s been really great for us to see — more than anything else — younger buyers and new buyers”, Jeff Bracken, U.S. general manager for Lexus, said on a conference call to discuss monthly sales results. “That’s a huge home run for the Lexus brand”.

Smaller than the RX, the new model appeals to younger buyers, but also to empty nesters, said Titus Merriam, a salesman at a Lexus store in Lansing, Michigan. “It’s definitely got a fresher look”, he said. “We’re a smaller market store, so our client base is older and can afford to spend $40,000 on a smaller car. But it has generated interest in the younger segment: Our dealership is close to Michigan State University, so we get a lot of students who come in to look at it». 


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