LOS ANGELES — After outselling BMW and Mercedes for nine straight years, Lexus has fallen back in the luxury-import pack in 2009.
Overall luxury sales are off, but Lexus — down 34.1 percent for the first six months compared with 2008 — has been hit harder than its two main rivals.
In the first half, Toyota's prestige brand trailed BMW by 3,503 units and was ahead of Mercedes by fewer than 5,000 units. Last year Lexus led BMW by more than 5,000 units in the first six months and had a 17,000-unit margin over Mercedes.
What's wrong with Lexus?
For one thing, company executives admit that they depend too much on RX crossover sales at a time when luxury buyers are seeking smaller cars, including entry-level coupes and convertibles. Lexus officials point out that coupes and convertibles last year accounted for more than one-third of volume for the BMW 3 series, which far outsells Lexus' IS range.
They say Lexus isn't attracting enough 25- to 49-year-olds, the age group that flocks to the 3 series.
Now Lexus is battling back with new entry-level models: the IS convertible and a dedicated hybrid. It also plans a new dealer training program and edgy, provocative ads, all in the name of wooing away some of that BMW traffic.
Lexus attracted plenty of 45-year-olds two decades ago when the brand debuted in the United States. And they have remained loyal to the brand, Lexus General Manager Mark Templin says.
"Now those buyers are 65," he says.
Through April of this year, the median age of Lexus buyers was 53, according to the Power Information Network. That compared with 46 for BMW buyers and 50 for Mercedes-Benz.
In June, Lexus jumped into the entry-level luxury convertible fray with the IS 250C and 350C. But its most dramatic new step is the HS 250h sedan, the brand's first dedicated hybrid and the first entry-level luxury hybrid on the market.
Templin says the goal is to attract buyers as young as 25.