China's tastes shape Japan's luxury cars

BEIJING — If the styling at Japanese premium brands is looking bold, brash and a tad more avant-garde lately, you can thank — or blame — the red-hot premium segment race in China.

As newcomer brands here that lack the heritage of Germany’s luxury leaders, Lexus, Infiniti and even Acura are dolling up their designs to catch the eye of Chinese customers.

And those flourishes are bound to go global, carrying over to other markets, including the U.S., despite some designers freely admitting that they may be a bit too aggressive for American tastes.

Nakamura: “You judge visually.”

The trend was on full display last month at the auto show in Beijing, where Lexus and Infiniti debuted new styling directions. 

The refreshed Lexus IS got gaping, big-gulp air intakes to imbue the sedan with a meaner mug meant to turn heads. Meanwhile, the Infiniti QX Sport Inspiration concept foreshadowed sexy, undulating sheet metal calculated to make the brand stand out. 

Acura, which debuted its China-only CDX compact crossover in Beijing, gave the vehicle’s grille an ostentatiously oversized Acura caliper logo to telegraph its identity. 

“It’s with China in mind because China is a rather young market,” Shiro Nakamura, Nissan Motor Co.’s chief creative officer, said at the show. “They don’t know the name of the brand; they don’t know the quality, the performance. So visual communication is most important. In the first encounter, you judge visually.” 

Japan’s premium players want a killer first impression because China is soon to surpass the U.S. as the biggest luxury market. 

China’s premium market will reach about 1.7 million sales this year, compared with about 2 million in the U.S., predicted Infiniti President Roland Krueger. But the Japanese-brand share is still tiny.

Lexus IS 200t

Infiniti’s sales rose an impressive 34 percent in 2015 but climbed to only 40,200 vehicles. At Lexus, deliveries in China increased 14 percent to 87,000 vehicles last year. Acura’s sales soared 93 percent from a much smaller base reaching just 4,203 vehicles. 

Looks matter when chasing sales in China. With their penchant for bling, dazzle and baubles, Chinese customers are forcing stylists to flavor the cars to those tastes. 

“That’s one of the reasons why we have developed this design language, which is most probably a little bit more extrovert than other design languages, purposely,” Krueger said. 

Even though the Infiniti QX Sport Inspiration was styled at the company’s design studio in Japan, executives brought in Chinese designers to influence the work, Nakamura said. 

“The United States is slightly more conservative,” he said.

Kreuger: A “bit more extrovert”

Lexus also is pushing the envelope in China, with global ramifications. The brand’s design renaissance began with the redesigned GS sedan in 2012. But since then, styling has grown more extreme, culminating in the IS’ pugnacious midcycle face-lift. 

“China is a very competitive market — maybe the most competitive globally. Thus, we think distinctiveness is extremely important in this market,” said Kouichi Suga, Lexus’ global exterior design chief. 

“We wanted to come up with a distinctive Lexus design and not be buried by the German three.” 

Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW pursue more conventional styling with clean lines from the front to the rear of the car, Suga said. Lexus is aiming for more flair.

Aside from the audacious sculpting, designers also are playing with the front and rear stance and proportions. The look calls for pinching the hood a little higher so that the front fenders jut out lower from the sides over the tires. The goal is to enhance the presence of the front wheels and create a lower-looking stance that emphasizes rear-wheel-drive proportions. 

Acura CDX

It also delivers a distinctive curved side character line. 

Lexus expects the more dynamic looks to strike a chord in the world’s biggest market. And like Infiniti, Lexus is giving Chinese designers a bigger say at the drawing board though it hasn’t always been easy to balance that with Lexus’ American roots. 

“The voice of the Chinese staff is always very strong. And then hearing that loud voice, the U.S. people speak up, too,” Suga said. “It’s always difficult, the arguing.”

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