More than 20 years ago Japanese automotive giant Toyota changed the luxury car landscape all while sending the Germans back to the drawing board. Toyota knew that in order to succeed in a market predicated on exclusivity and prestige, they had to make significant changes. Mercedes Benz had a significant jump on them in the luxury car realm. BMW wasn’t far behind MB either. Toyota did what any smart competitor would do. Yes they studied the competition’s product extensively; yes they poured billions of dollars in to R&D for launching their design. But it didn’t stop there. They made an even more important move and created an all-new luxury division under a completely new name, Lexus.
While I’m aware that they weren’t the only carmaker from the land of the rising sun to do so, Honda and Nissan, with their respective Acura and Infiniti brands, have failed to make the same impact that Lexus has. Lexus is seen as a tier 1 brand here in the states which reflected their 10 year run as the #1 selling luxury brand. They proudly sit alongside stalwarts such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Acura and Infiniti, while being great alternatives to the Europeans in the luxury segment, are widely considered as “entry level luxury” or tier 2 with Cadillac and Volvo. I guess that would be akin to “only” paying $150 for a pair of jeans as opposed to a pair of $400 Japanese denim jeans at Barney’s. You get the idea.
Toyota had a full understanding that in order to play with the big boys you have to not only look like the big boys, you have to think in the same manner also. No one would have paid $40,000 for a Toyota this side of the Pacific Ocean. See, in Japan Toyota has always made luxury cars and until recently, there was no Lexus, as cars were still under the Toyota brand. Obviously Toyota did more than change the letter on the grill from a T to a sexy L. They also did more than stuff supple leather and genuine wood inside of Toyotas and expect to be taken seriously by luxury car buyers. The cars were completely re-engineered and so was their way of thinking. Right on down to the Starbucks style atmosphere at dealerships long before there was a Starbucks.
The South Korean automotive giant Hyundai has slowly began to shed its economy car label. One in which it proudly wore for years since being imported here to the States. Hyundai had long been rumored to be planning to enter the luxury car market. Of course most laughed and quickly dismissed it as a joke. Well that all changed when the BH concept was debuted at the 2007 New York International Auto Show and gave us all a glimpse of what was to come. Fast forward to 2009 when the mid size Genesis arrived at US dealerships as a 2010 model, and immediately made waves. Though it was clearly derivative in design and had a mish mash of all of it’s competitor’s exterior features, it was a genuinely handsome car. It was everything that Hyundai was not known for. The Genesis was luxurious both inside and out and yes quite roomy.
The problem with that is that’s not enough for jaded consumers who remember all of the failures of Hyundai’s not so distant past. Though it offered a great value in comparison to its competition. Pretty good performance numbers too. But who wants to spend $40,000 on a Hyundai? Not with that crooked H on the grille. But wait there is no grille. Hyundai was wise enough to remove their trademark logo from the front of the car. However that’s not enough for the status-seeking buyer who has a Benz or BMW in his driveway. Therein lies the problem with Hyundai’s ambitious but well intended approach. The mere fact that they removed their logo from the very Benz-like grille speaks volumes. Is this a company ashamed of their brand and history? Are they attempting to distance themselves from… well themselves. Sure seems like it to me.
One would think that they would have studied the “other” Asian automakers with their recipe for luxury car success. Yes big powerful engines wrapped in beautiful sheet metal on rear wheel drive platforms are key, as is leather and wood. But more importantly it’s all about what’s on the hood and not just what’s beneath it. Branding is everything and that applies in every market. Hyundai missed out on an opportunity to truly re-invent themselves and erase the stigma associated with driving a Hyundai. Perhaps it’s not too late. Maybe in the near future they will rename or at least re-badge their cars but then again maybe not. They are selling a ton of cars. Just look at the success of their Sonata, which is for lack of better words, a Mercedes Benz CLS knockoff which competes directly with the Camrys and Accords of the world. Perhaps Hyundai knows what they are doing after all. However as they released their flagship Equus to a very lukewarm reception, at least sales wise, one has to wonder why anyone would feel the urge to purchase a $60,000 Hyundai. Great looking car both inside and out, but at that price most would rather buy one of the traditional European offerings or go with a reputable Lexus car that commands respect with the valet. As the saying goes, perception is everything.