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U.S. auto industry exuberant heading into 2013

By TOM KRISHER and DEE-ANN DURBIN Published: January 17, 2013

Supple leather seats, finely stitched dashboards and sparkling chrome grilles are everywhere at this year's auto show, a sign that car companies are clawing at each other for a piece of the growing and lucrative U.S. luxury market.

From a well-crafted new E-Class lineup from Mercedes to the plush, decked out luxury Cadenza sedan from once-lowly Kia, automakers are vying for customers who are ready to be pampered a little more.

Luxury sales grew almost 12 percent last year to over 1 million sales, and automakers are expecting further increases as people feel better about the economy and the Great Recession recedes into the rear-view mirror.

For the past few years, much of the U.S. auto sales growth has been in compact and midsize cars at the lower end of the price range, says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area industry forecasting firm. But recent trends show that buyers who want luxury items such as leather seats and touch screens are coming back into the market and are willing to pay a little more.

“The premium market took a couple of years off” during the recession, he said. “I think we're going to see a comeback over the next couple of years.”

Lincoln continues the revamp of its lineup with the MKC concept, a small crossover that is the second of four new Lincolns coming by 2015. Bentley is showing a new convertible. Lexus is introducing a new version of the entry-level IS sedan. Maserati debuts its new Quattroporte sedan. Infiniti, Nissan's luxury brand, introduced its new sports sedan using performers from Cirque du Soleil. And even mainstream companies like Hyundai and Honda are showing off luxurious concept vehicles.

Blurring the lines:

The unveiling of the BMW 320i sedan, an entry-level 3-Series that starts at $33,445, renewed questions about whether luxury cars are starting to bump into mainstream models.

In the last couple of years, mass-market brands have started offering features once reserved for luxury brands. Ford offers a hands-free, automatic parallel parking systems and lane-departure warning signals on the midsize Fusion. Even the little Dodge Dart has a heated steering wheel.

Buyers will have to decide: Do they buy a loaded Fusion for nearly $37,000 or the new 320i?

And carmakers need to decide how to market their cars. The Chrysler 300, for example, competes with other mainstream large cars at the low end, but it has two high-end versions — the 300c and 300 Luxury Series — that compete with BMW.

“It's really like having two cars,” said Olivier Francois, Chrysler's marketing chief. “What we probably need to do is amplify the gap, separate the two poles.”

Jim Lentz, who runs Toyota's operations in the U.S., isn't worried. In his own lineup, he says, the Toyota Avalon and Lexus ES sedans are very similar, but few shoppers consider both. “A Lexus buyer is buying the prestige. They're buying the dealership experience,” he said. Avalon, he said, is the “accountant's car,” not showy but with nice features.

Chrysler's Bigland says he can't worry too much about the battle between mainstream and premium cars because there's such tough competition on other fronts.

“It's just a great example of how brutally competitive this industry is,” said Bigland. “From the BMWs to the Mercedes to any of the other 18 manufacturers that we square off with every day. Every single one of them, if you don't come and play your `A' game, you're going to get your head kicked in.”

Crossovers get smaller:

With explosive growth in crossover vehicles in the past five years, automakers are looking at new ways to attract buyers of more efficient SUVs that are based on car underpinnings.

At the Detroit show, Honda opened a new front in the battle with a sharp-looking small utility. It's based on a subcompact frame and will be smaller than Honda's popular CR-V. It's a new part of the market that's attractive to automakers because there aren't any well-established competitors to unseat.

“I think the industry as a whole believes there's opportunity here,” Schuster says. “It's up for grabs.”

Nissan already is in the market with its funky Juke. General Motors' Buick is just entering with an all-new Encore.

Honda Executive Vice President John Mendel says the new vehicle, called simply an “Urban SUV Concept,” is designed for city commuters who still want the cargo space, adventurous lifestyle and high sitting position of an SUV.

It's aimed at people who no longer need a bigger SUV, yet don't want to give up the utility. Mendel says technology has allowed it to create more space in a smaller vehicle, matching the interior volume of older compact SUVs.

“If you've got a 5- or 7-year-old car, you can move down a class and not give up anything including space,” he said.

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