Infiniti vs. Lincoln: The race to join luxury's elite

Both automakers are trying to make their way into luxury auto's top ranks. Who's getting there faster?

infiniti lincoln

It is a small leap, but among the most difficult in automotive marketing: making the transition from a premium brand -- one in which a higher price is justified by extra features -- to true luxury, where the higher price greatly exceeds the product's functional attributes.

Two brands -- one domestic, one import -- are currently engaged in making the leap. The effort by Lincoln has been thoroughly examined by the American press, while Nissan's Infiniti has received far less attention. Yet, to many analysts, Infiniti has the better chance at success.

Achieving true luxury status is like gaining admission to an exclusive club. It means you possess something beyond the basic credentials. You command that extra something that allows you to charge more.

Currently, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi are charter members of the club, while Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati, and Lexus hold junior memberships, and Cadillac is an aspirant. Porsche enjoys a dual status as a sports car maker as well as luxury marketer.

Infiniti and Lincoln are following different strategies to gain admission. The Nissan division is using a traditional product-based assault, proven by Audi in the 1990s, where success is predicated on superiority of driving dynamics and advanced technology. Lincoln is making its case based on intangibles like customization and customer service.

Both say that reaching the upper echelon is a process that will take years, and both have suffered setbacks, but Infiniti appears to be in the lead. "Infiniti, with a more diversified portfolio, has a much better chance of capturing younger buyers in costal states, where luxury brands earn their chops," says AutomotiveCompass analyst Warren Browne. Following, a review of the progress to date:

  @FortuneMagazine - Last updated August 27 2013 06:07 AM ET
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