Over the past two days during previews for the Detroit auto show, automakers unveiled nearly two dozen new luxury models or concepts, with all expressing confidence that luxury vehicle sales would ignite this year.
"We see success…in every direction we look," said Johan de Nysschen, head of Audi's American arm, which is planning to build a factory in the United States to meet growing demand.
Luxury cars and trucks — those costing at least $35,000 — account for about 13% of the U.S. market. While new vehicle sales have bounced back to 13 million a year, the rebound has been fairly slow, driven by shoppers who've literally worn out or outgrown their current rides. But luxury cars are forecast to grow more than 10% in 2012, outpacing the rest of the market.
For that money, buyers increasingly expect technology that can't be found in everyday vehicles — from in-car WiFi internet hotspots to night vision displays to entertainment systems that can link over Bluetooth with up to 10 devices simultaneously. Raw horsepower has given way to refinement; the push to eliminate noise in interiors has gone so far that in some BMW latest models, the stereo system recreates engine noise, synchronized with the motor's RPMs.
The most notable unveiling at the Detroit show this year belonged to an American-built luxury car: the 2013 Cadillac ATS, an all-new small car that General Motors wants to take on the world's most popular luxury sedan, the BMW 3-Series. BMW's also renewed the 3-Series this year, with BMW execs expressing confidence that they can hold off any comers.
Yet the real battle among luxury brands lies with SUVs, which turn out to be as attractive to customers in Europe and China seeking spacious rides as they are here. The combination of fuel costs and toughening regulations have forced automakers to find ways of powering them with smaller, more efficient engines.
This week alone saw the reveal of the Buick Encore, the U.S. version of the Audi Q3 and a refreshed Acura RDX — all smaller SUVs powered by engines with fewer than six cylinders. Porsche will join the crowd with its own small SUV next year called the Cajun; and even Bentley, the British builder of six-figure sedans, will fashion its own SUV within a few years.
The other driver behind the luxury push: the rebound of Japanese automakers, following a year marked by the deadly earthquake and tsunami. Toyota's Lexus division, which lost its spot as top-selling U.S. luxury brand to BMW in 2011, will roll out nine new or updated models this year. It showed off the LF-LC concept, the most attractive version of a new, aggressive style that had only sparked comparisons to the Predator movies to date.
But the most stunning concept at the show belonged to Acura, thanks to Honda's decision to revive the NSX supercar in 2015. It's impossible to say how much of the concept will survive to production, or whether the performance of a gas-electric hybrid can match the NSX of the '90s — but it shows that Honda, like the rest of the world's auto industry, can't imagine a future without luxury shoppers holding its keys.