Japan Rolls Out Luxury Cars for US

Initial demand is strong for Toyota's Lexus line and Nissan's newly unveiled Infiniti. HEARTTHROB OF AMERICA?

FOR months, anyone watching television has likely seen a series of esoteric ads for the new Infiniti division of Nissan. While the spots spend a lot of time talking about nature, Japanese ideals, and automotive design, they carefully avoided showing any actual cars. Well, finally the wraps are off. Curious customers are finally seeing what the Infiniti is all about.

The division's products went on sale last week at 50 dealerships across the country. And from initial reports, people like what they're seeing.

Stuart Lasser, co-owner of Infiniti of Denville, N.J., says that though he only formally opened his doors on Wednesday morning, he has already taken 15 orders. He expects to sell an average of about 40 a month.

The reaction, Mr. Lasser says, has been excellent. ``People are coming in with Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars. And they're recognizing that Japanese luxury cars'' are in the same class.

Infiniti is the third Japanese luxury car franchise. The first, the Acura division of Honda, went on the market three years ago. Toyota's Lexus division made its debut in September. So far, both those franchises are exceeding their originally optimistic sales forecasts.

But Infiniti officials have been careful not to set any fixed, short-term targets of their own.

The division's general manager, William Bruce, has repeatedly refused to reveal his sales forecasts, though Nissan officials in Japan recently admitted that for at least the first year, they were shooting for only 5,000 vehicles a month, including 2,000 of the flagship Q45, a sleek, $38,000 sedan.

By comparison, Lexus expects to sell more than 70,000 cars during its first year and at least 100,000 cars annually in subsequent years.

But Infiniti sales may also expand in 1991, with additions to the division's product line-up. Currently Infiniti offers only two models, the Q45 and the $23,500 M30 coupe.

Next year will bring a convertible version of the M30 along with the Q20, an entry-level sedan priced in the ``mid-$20,000 range,'' which Bruce says will be comparable to the Mercedes-Benz 190.

The launch of the Infiniti division was reportedly moved up because of the competitive pressures posed by Lexus. Some analysts believe that even by coming onto the market just two months earlier, Lexus has already stolen much of Infiniti's thunder.

Bruce insists he's not worried, and points to the initially strong demand reported by Infiniti dealers.

``A year from now,'' he says, ``people won't remember who launched first, only whether you launched right.''

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