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Three decades after crashing the European luxury car party, Japan's top brands — Lexus, Acura and Infiniti — are stepping up their game.

Crossing swords with the veteran premium marques — BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar/Land Rover and Cadillac — has brought mixed results for the Japanese in North America. While Toyota's Lexus division quickly made solid inroads into the premium market segment from its start in 1989, Honda's Acura offshoot and Nissan's Infiniti nameplate have found the going much tougher. Now all three Japanese brands are revising their strategies and launching a flood of new models.

For U.S. consumers emboldened by the recovering economy and looking to step up to a premium segment car or crossover, the result is a forthcoming host of fresh alternatives to the traditional European offerings.

What's more, the Japanese brands — most notably Lexus — realize that simply offering stellar vehicle quality and refinement, plus an outstanding dealer experience, are not enough to sway today's customers.

So in the case of Lexus, the arrival this summer of the new generation GS midsized sedan signals a much more aggressive approach to design and vehicle dynamics. The move comes as some observers feel that Lexus is in danger of being written off as the next Buick, ironically just as Buick is in the process of becoming relevant again.

"This is a major change for the brand moving to more dramatic driving characteristics and exciting styling," says Brian Smith, Lexus vice president of marketing.

Underscoring Smith's point at the recent Chicago auto show, the brand displayed an F Sport concept version of the GS with a wild body kit, plus no fewer than four of its $375,000, 522-horsepower LFA supercars.

A drive in the new GS supports Lexus claims that this model is now much more competitive with BMW's standard-setting Five Series in terms of engaging handling and performance characteristics.

Going forward, Smith promises Lexus will spread the GS's new-found design and performance gusto across all its models.

Ironically, tame styling was not one of the problems undermining the progress of Acura. In fact, the opposite was true. For many, the overly aggressive grille design found on recent Acura models was perceived as a major handicap to showroom sales.

Now, Acura is aiming to reboot its image with a series of new models that take a more measured approach to design while maintaining a focus on performance.

Coming to U.S. showrooms this spring are the all new ILX small sedan and new generation RDX midsized crossover. Using modified elements of the Honda Civic (including a hybrid version), the ILX aims for buyers new to the luxury market and Acura, while the five-passenger RDX plays in the heart of the mid-size crossover segment. The RDX drops its predecessor's four-cylinder engine in favor of a 3.5-liter V-6 that kicks out 273 hp (up by 33 hp).

High-performance enthusiasts, however, will have to wait a lot longer to taste Acura's most enticing newcomer, the next-generation NSX sports coupe. The successor to Honda's original 1990 NSX supercar was revealed in concept form at the Detroit show but Acura says it will take three years to bring it to market.

Over at Infiniti, there are rumors of an NSX-rivaling supercar in the works to spice up the brand's appeal in showrooms.

In the meantime, the brand is counting on the spring launch of the new JX seven-passenger crossover, starting at $41,400, to boost its U.S. sales.

This week also saw Infiniti unveil an exciting hybrid electric sports car concept, dubbed Emerg-E, at the Geneva auto show.

With this fresh onslaught from the Japanese brands, luxury car buyers from top to bottom are in for an exciting ride.|newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|s
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