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Hot, small luxury cars target younger buyers

9:54 AM, Jan 16, 2014   |    comments
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DETROIT - Luxury automakers, trying to avoid being seen as old and stodgy, are trying to find a fountain of youth by increasingly offering small and performance-oriented cars.

Several brands unveiled smaller cars aimed at younger buyers or new models with souped-up performance at the press preview here for the North American International Auto Show - while still sporting luxury features.

The new cars stand in contrast with the staid, bigger sedans for which many of brands are are known

Automakers hope smaller and hotter wheels will lead to more passion - and sales - for their brands. Among those introducing new models here:

• Cadillac. In launching its new ATS coupe, Cadillac "brings the excitement" in an "expressive" car, says Alan Batey, the new head of General Motors North America.

The ATS sedan - the same car with four doors instead of two - is "bringing younger people to the brand." Some 70% are being lured from other brands. By luring them young, "you grow with them."

• Lexus. The RC-F, a hopped-up version of the RC sports car making its debut, is also calibrated to try to fire up buyers about owning a car from Toyota's luxury stable. "We need to find way to attract younger folks to the Lexus brand," says Jeff Bracken, a group vice president in charge of Lexus in the U.S.

• Infiniti. The Nissan luxury brand is being remade with the notion of trying to get prospective buyers inspired at the thought of owning it. As a result, Infiniti showed a variant of its Q50 midsize sedan here, the Eau Rouge named after a turn in a Belgian raceway. It will get a 500-horsepower engine.

"Performance is an essential part of who we are," says Johan de Nysschen, global chief of the Infiniti brand.

All follow on the heels of Mercedes-Benz' experiment in luring customers with a sub-$30,000 sedan. Mercedes executives think that the new smaller car, the CLA-Class, is leading to success by following a simple formula.

"Get 'em young, wow them with the best experience in the business and keep them for life" is the way Mercedes-Benz' U.S. sales chief, Steve Cannon, explains it.

Mercedes sold 14,113 CLAs last year, its first year on sale, according to Autodata. Inventories are tight at dealerships. One of five customers are in their twenties, and the average age of buyers is substantially below the rest of the brand, Cannon says.

Not all automakers, however, are willing to allow dramatic dips in their prices.

While they may crave luxury baubles, most young working people can't afford to sign on the dotted line. By and large, luxury cars are "not within the reach of young buyers," says Eric Ibarra, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

But, hey, at least if they grow to love the cars they can't yet afford, that's progress.

(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)

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