Disruptive business strategies are always more interesting – whereas market leaders must protect their customer base, new entrants can take risks as they tempt customers away from the norm and taste previously forbidden fruit.
It’s human nature to become complacent, or in Audi’s case a tadge too arrogant, but as BMW celebrates the end of a record sales year (10.6% up with 1,845,186 cars sold globally) the very essence of that success means they’re diluting their core proposition.
“Ultimate Driving Machine” is no longer strictly true – any number of models from Jaguar, Audi, Mercedes and even Lexus can now offer viable alternatives to BMW’s more sporting models, but rather than M, AMG or RS, it’s in the heartland of BMW’s model range where the threat can be felt most closely.
Lexus finally crashed the sports saloon party with the previous generation IS – the 5.0-litre V8 IS F and F-Sport models providing their own unique appeal – and the all-new IS looks like raising the tempo still further.
Since the second-generation XE20-based IS appeared in 2005, Lexus has earning genuine sporting kudos with its 552 bhp LFA supercar – ironically using Germany’s iconic Nürburgring circuit to seal its reputation as one of the best drivers cars in the world.
So when the all-new IS saloon was launched at this week’s Detroit Motor Show, nobody was laughing when they said “..our prime focus is to deliver an engaging and rewarding driving experience”.
Indeed, Junichi Furuyama, IS Chief Engineer, went on to say “We adopted an entirely different approach to the development of the new IS. Rather than develop each individual aspect in the hope they will combine to offer an engaging driving experience, we first established the kind of driving experience owners desire. With this as our initial premise, we then developed the individual performance elements to support it.
“Every aspect of the new IS has been engineered with a focus on sporting performance, agile handling, accurate response to driver input and highly communicative feedback.”
But it’s not just their dedication to sporting performance that will have the folks at Munich and Ingolstadt worried, the all-new IS is based on the exterior design of the critically acclaimed LF-CC concept car, which made its premiere at the 2012 Paris Motor Show. And to rub further salt in their wounds, the driver’s cockpit is inspired by the LFA supercar, so now you’ll be able to own a slice of the supercar’s cache for a fraction of that car’s £340,000 price tag.
The model range confirmed yesterday includes the first full-hybrid IS – the IS 300h – together with the V6-engined petrol-powered IS 250. An IS 350 will be available in the US, powered by a 3.5-litre V6 engine mated to the eight-speed, Sport Direct Shift (SPDS) automatic transmission from the outgoing IS F.
The IS 300h sounds like a bit of a damp squib though compared to Infiniti’s new Q50 hybrid, also launched at Detroit. Whereas the IS 300h features a 2.5-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol engine combined with a battery-powered electric motor – producing a total of 217bhp, the Q50h offers a 3.5-litre V6 with a stonking 355bhp.
We don’t yet know about the Q50’s pricing or fuel economy, but there can be little doubt which company took the extra Weetabix before setting itself against the Germans. Lexus claim a sub-100g/km CO2 emission output and average fuel consumption of more than 65mpg for the IS 300h, which is nice, but somewhat at odds with its ‘ultimate focus on sporting performance’ mantra.
Their Japanese rivals might just have stolen a march on the IS’ dynamic credentials too – with the likes of three-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel and RBR reserve driver Sebastien Buemi involved in the Q50’s chassis development.
The new IS is wider (+10mm) with a longer wheelbase (+70mm) and a broader, more confident stance. Lexus say overall the impression is of power, elegance and a stronger brand identity.
Both new IS versions feature rear-wheel drive, although Infiniti will also offer all-wheel drive on its Q50. While the IS 250 drives the wheels though a six-speed auto box, with a CVT transmission being offered for the hybrid.
The F-Sport models have evolved from their mainly aesthetic origins, to offer specially tuned front and rear suspension systems. Their front seats have been exclusively designed to provide extra support and electric power steering has been tuned to enhance the F Sport models’ handling.
So, the gloves are off. Not just between the big Japanese brands but also in their ambition to provide a serious alternative to the dominant Germans. The all-new IS looks appealing, but will Lexus deliver the kind of sporting performance that beats BMW, or will Infiniti come along at the last minute and steal its lunch.
See, I told you disruptive strategies could be fun.
Keep an eye on both brands (and the impact they have on the leading players) as the models reach the market in summer 2013.