Why Infiniti, Lincoln face the same challenge

The luxury marque hasn't lived up to its dreams. In fact, there was talk that its parent company might kill it. Now with a dynamic new leader, it's trying to build buzz with a more exciting lineup.

But it faces some of the toughest competition in the business: Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Lexus and even the revived Cadillac.

Pop quiz: What is the brand?

A. Lincoln

B. Infiniti

Answer: Both.

For all of their differences, the luxury brands of Ford Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. are in the same boat. They're urgently trying to get back in the conversation in which truly prestigious luxury brands are discussed -- the marques that can get an impressive price premium and that can price their high-end vehicles close to, or in some cases far above, $100,000.

So Lincoln has renamed itself the Lincoln Motor Co. to distinguish itself from the Ford brand. Ford marketing chief Jim Farley is running Lincoln, which is trying to push beyond its U.S.-centric sales footprint -- notably in China -- and draw more youthful buyers in the United States.

And Infiniti has moved its headquarters from Japan to Hong Kong to create some psychic distance from the Nissan brand. Ex-Audi of America head Johan de Nysschen is in charge. Infiniti, too, is trying to move beyond its U.S. core, but needs the vehicles, notably diesels, that sell in other parts of the world.

For now, they're mired in the limbo of "not quite luxury."

They don't have the upper-end credibility that allows Mercedes-Benz, for instance, to slap a $212,905 base price on its S-class S65 AMG model. Or to match BMW's $116,395 sticker for the M6 convertible. You can see why de Nysschen has said he wants to push the top of the Infiniti lineup, as Audi did with its R8 coupe, which starts at $116,150. (All prices include shipping.)

That's not to dismiss Lincoln and Infiniti. Both are part of successful, aggressive automakers that have ample resources to compete.

But for all its glamour, the luxury segment is a tough neighborhood. Competitors don't give ground easily. And buyers in this segment are ultrasensitive to the fine points of styling, luxury appointments and engineering prowess. They know a quick rebadging job when they see one.

This is the highest level of competition -- the most painstakingly created vehicles, the most cosseted buyers -- in the industry. Lincoln and Infiniti are going to have to show that they've got the game to play at this level.

You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com

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