Sixteen years ago, when the Detroit auto show expanded into the North American International Auto Show, promoters got a big boost because two luxury brands were launched there.
Nissan showed its Infiniti brand, and Toyota unveiled its Lexus brand. Both brands were created primarily for North America, although each shared platforms with models sold wearing Nissan or Toyota jewelry in Japan.
Both remained North American brands for a decade. But they took different roads.
Lexus used a homogenized design, benchmarking the Mercedes-Benz experience and becoming an icon.
Infiniti used more traditional Japanese design cues, funky advertising that featured rocks and streams -- not cars -- and a niche marketing mentality.
Lexus pulled ahead.
Last year, Infiniti sold 131,000 vehicles here, less than half what Lexus sold. But sales are accelerating. So far this year, Infiniti sales are up a smidgen, and Lexus sales are down a tad.
On Wednesday, Nissan began selling its full line of Infiniti vehicles in Taiwan, making it just the brand's third market, behind the Middle East and North America. At least for a while, Nissan will keep Infiniti's overseas marketing in check, unlike Toyota, which finally launched the Lexus brand in Europe and Japan.
There still are too many overlapping Nissan models to carve out a successful niche in Japan. Also, Infiniti Division Vice President Mark Igo knows it doesn't make sense to go to Europe until Infiniti has a great turbodiesel because that's what Europeans want in a luxury car.
Those things will come.
Infiniti is retooling to be more of a luxury performance brand, on the order of BMW, rather than a head-on competitor to Lexus or Mercedes. It also is encouraging dealers to expand and improve its dealerships to handle more showroom and back-shop business.
Now all Infiniti needs is a couple of really hot products, like say, a powerful, sexy roadster and a new performance-oriented sport wagon.
Those probably will come, too, in time.
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