Technology Is Latest Battlefront in Luxury Autos

Ecological Awareness and Social Acceptance Also Part of the Game Plan

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Audi is using Audi City, a digital showroom in London, to lure consumers.
Audi is using Audi City, a digital showroom in London, to lure consumers.

The horsepower race is dead, giving way to advanced hybrid technology and smaller displacement engines. Digital technology has become central to selling vehicles, not only on smartphones and tablets but in innovative showroom settings.

These are some of the ways that luxury brands are embracing the megatrends discussed at the Automotive News World Congress.

BMW, for instance, wants to give customers more time and ease their driving experience. It has introduced technologies such as active cruise control, traffic-jam assist and apps that give traffic information in real time, remotely warm a car and even clear the icy windshield, said Ian Robertson, BMW AG board member for sales and marketing.

Mercedes-Benz has two electric vehicles, the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive and the B-class Electric Drive. It will roll out 10 plug-in hybrids by 2017.

At Porsche, a brand long defined by high-performance driving, the definition of a luxury automobile is expanding to include nonautomotive attributes.

Among them, said Bernhard Maier, Porsche's top sales and marketing executive, are concepts such as ecological awareness and social acceptance -- hence the brand's three plug-in hybrids.

Jaguar Land Rover is trying to make fuel economy a bigger part of its brands' image. JLR is developing a 2.0-liter, turbocharged gasoline engine, said Joe Eberhardt, CEO of Jaguar Land Rover North America.

"I think customers today are interested in performance rather than the technology that's under the hood," Mr. Eberhardt said.

Retailing also is undergoing dramatic changes. BMW showrooms have "geniuses" and Mercedes dealerships have "product concierges." Equipped with iPads, these product specialists provide customers with information about product features, especially technology; they don't sell cars.

Mercedes also is introducing the digital service drive to get service customers in and out within 45 minutes to make the experience "as seamless as you can get," said Ola Kaellenius, the board member for sales and marketing.

In London, Audi replaced a traditional retail showroom with a "completely digital showroom" in which customers can customize, shop for and select cars to buy. Sales rose 70% and average transaction prices grew 20%, said Luca de Meo, Audi AG's top sales executive.

He also unveiled the Audi Virtual Reality Experience that uses a wearable device to let shoppers customize and configure their vehicles.

--Diana T. Kurylko is a reporter for Automotive News, which has complete coverage of the Detroit Auto Show and last week's Automotive News World Congress.

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