It may come as a surprise to most people that luxury brands from Japanese makers such as Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura, were never meant to be driven or sold on their home turf. These premium grade cars were specifically designed to go up against Japan’s German automotive rivals that had continued to gain footing in the American market. But it was not just the notion of global expansion that brought these cars to foreign countries.
Due to the extreme success of Japanese automaker’s efficient and reliable vehicles in the American market in the 70’s, the US began implementation of voluntary export restraint (VER) that would see many of the vehicles heavily taxed (a measure to keep domestic automakers from going out of business). To avoid profit loss throughout Japanese automotive export global ventures, they began to produce luxury brands with larger vehicles and SUVs in the US through transplant factories. This allowed them the perfect venue to push foreign sales and establish domestic dealership networks offering high-quality foreign imports built locally. Most importantly, they could avoid the VER and greatly improve Japanese brand strength and profitability that continues to last to this day.
The first on the high-end automobile scene was Honda with their Acura line. Honda had already established its extensive dealership network with its successful Civic models as well as its two-wheeler offerings. As a brand that had a long-history with America and had researched the market thoroughly, Honda noticed a gap in the market that was being filled quickly by BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Not one to miss an opportunity, the Executive Class Acura Legend was launched in 1986 with initial widespread success taking a nice chunk of the market share home with it. Although the brand enjoyed steady sales through the 80’s, the German (and later fellow Japanese) revivals were quick to get their own piece of the action.
The lull for the Acura brand ended in the early 2000’s with a refresh of the brand’s styling and direction that saw a major push forward in gaining back its place in the market. Although the V-TEC system and the all-aluminum NSX sports car set the tone in the 1990’s, the flagship vehicles heading the brand’s revival were the Lexus-fighting Acura 3.2 TL, and the mini-van killing MDX SUV. However, regardless of the success of Acura in the States, there was never enough initiative in potential sales to warrant a return across the Pacific.
Nissan was the second Asian luxury brand that attempted to gain footing in the States launching its Infiniti brand in 1987. With a revamping of its flagship model the Nissan President, the new Infiniti was rebranded as the Q45. Although the Infiniti brand never reached the same market share as its Japanese counterparts, it did see an improvement in brand strength with the rebadged Nissan Skyline launch of the G35 followed by a more defining design overhaul. This was led by the newly appointed Nissan Motors President and CEO, Carlos Ghosn from 2001, along with drastic company restructuring on a global level. Although there has been talk of bringing the Infiniti back home to Japan, there have been no solidified plans announced as of yet.
Catching mention of the Honda’s and Nissan’s plans in their infancy, Toyota began what was known as the F1 project to launch its own luxury car brand as early as 1983. A venture spearheaded by the late Eiji Toyoda, the project materialized into what became the Lexus LS 400. Not taking even the slightest shortcut in launching the vehicle, the project extended itself until the first vehicle launch in 1989. From the beginning of the engineering process, all the way to hiring the top advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi for its legendary marketing campaign, Toyota spent over 1 billion USD to ensure that the vehicle would become the new benchmark for its class. Needless to say, with Lexus still a top brand, the American market is the most profitable region in the world.
With the established global performance of the brand, Toyota decided to bring it back home to Japan and began selling the Lexus brand through tailored dealerships in 2005. Almost 10 years into its appearance in Japan, the brand has seen a steadily growing market share nestled comfortably in between the ever popular German imports. With an impressive range of vehicles from the sports class such as the IS and F-series, to its recently relaunched RX SUV, the future is looking great for Lexus at home and abroad.