Lexus, Infiniti Not Interested in Big-Hatch ExperimentBy Michelle Krebs April 9, 2010
Plenty of words written and opinions expressed about the luxury midsize hatchbacks recently launched by BMW AG (550i GT) and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Acura unit (ZDX). Most of the talk hasn't been complimentary -- the new cars' polarizing styling seems to be mostly polarizing toward the negative.
American buyers famously don't favor hatchbacks, even in the lower market segments, so the introduction of the big-money 550i GT and the ZDX -- and to a lesser extent, Honda's new Accord Crosstour and Toyota Motor Corp.'s Venza -- has generated a lot of what-were-they-thinking criticism.
But if BMW and Acura are on the leading edge of a latent new consumer trend, some of their rivals don't think so. Like the critics, two Japanese competitors think luxury hatchbacks currently are a bridge too far.
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Infiniti premium-car division -- no stranger to pushing the envelope -- isn't going there, said Ben Poore, Nissan North America's vice president of the Infiniti business unit, at last week's New York auto show.
Poore said the company's research and clinics aren't finding any evidence of demand for premium hatchbacks.
"What they're seeing is a much stronger preference (among consumers) for a trunk," Poore told AutoObserver.
It's not as if Infiniti has never taken chances. Two generations of wild-child FX crossovers and a past that includes the more-than-a-little-weird last-generation Q45 and the bordering-on-freaky J30 demonstrate more styling audaciousness than is common in the normally risk-averse luxury market.
But Poore said even Infiniti won't be taking part -- at least until there's some demonstration of market approval.
"It's a very different styling," he said, adding that even in other markets more open to hatchback utility, the body style has not been as successful as sedans.
"I'd rather be on (either) the crossover styling or the trunk styling," Poore said.
At rival Toyota's Lexus luxury unit, the story is much the same. Despite readying the launch of the CT 200h, an all-new compact hybrid that also happens to be a hatchback, the brand that has most directly challenged the traditional German luxury marques isn't planning to challenge BMW's first shot into the brave new world of larger luxury hatchbacks for the U.S.
"We don't have any plans for it right now," said Dave Nordstrom, Lexus vice president of marketing. "We have not seen the demand from our customers -- but we continue to look at it."
European automakers have less risk - if not in image, at least from an investment standpoint - because hatchbacks are not perceived as downmarket alternatives in their home region. Europeans never took to full-blown SUVs and thus accept hatchback cars for their reasonable blend of practicality and economy.
BMW's 5 Series GT seems to demonstrate why the thinking emerged: The car attempts to bridge the gap between the range of traditional three-box sedans and the more truckish configuration of its crossovers such as the X5 and X6 that are too large and too consumptive for typical European tastes.
That used to be the territory owned by wagons (in the U.S., the 550i GT replaces the slow-selling 5 Series wagon), but some now see the hatchback as a potentially more stylish -- or at least avant garde -- evolution.
The Volkswagen Group's upscale Audi brand recently delivered the example of what the best execution might accomplish: the A5 Sportback, a sleek variant of the A5 range that artfully conceals the fact it's a hatchback. Ironically, this luxury hatchback that has the potential to be the most successful of the breed in the U.S. strictly because it hides it hatch, isn't planned for sale here.
One wild card might be the reinvigorated Saab brand. Although nobody at the company -- now owned by Dutch supercar maker Spyker Cars NV -- will confirm it, rumors have the brand's new-generation 9-3 entry level car, coming in 2012, reviving a beloved Saab styling trait: the hatchback. -- Bill Visnic, Senior Editor
Photos by Edmunds, Manufacturers
1 - BMW 5 Series Grand Turismo (photo by Edmunds)
2 - Lexus CT 200h (photo by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.)