Luxury marketers are using direct comparisons in their ads, naming names, quoting prices and monthly payments. Gritty issues are in the forefront, especially resale value, since the highest resale value means the lowest lease payments.
A BMW dealer group, for example, has branded Lexus an "overpriced Toyota." Lexus countered with a radio ad that helped listeners spot BMW "lies."
Even old-boy competitors like BMW and Mercedes-Benz are less squeamish about making direct comparisons with each other.
BMW dropped its gloves after taking potshots from all over, said Victor Doolan, president of BMW of North America.
"There's a Volvo ad that says it `outperforms a BMW at top speed,"' Mr. Doolan said "Buick, Pontiac, Lexus-they've all taken cracks at BMW. We don't mind other people mentioning our cars in their ads-we really don't-as long as it's accurate."
The no-holds-barred trend dates back to when Toyota Motor Sales USA's Lexus and Nissan Motor Corp. USA's Infiniti crashed the European-import party five years ago. At the time, the Europeans wanted to talk prestige, while the Japanese raised the taboo subject of price.
Today, the shoe is on the other foot. The Europeans have a price-value story to tell, following layoffs and cost-cutting at home. The Japanese still talk price, but in terms of monthly payments on a lease, since some Japanese stickers are now higher than competing European cars.
What's more, sales of Japanese luxury cars are soft this year, as is the luxury market. But sales of European cars are strong.
The rocketing value of the yen forced the Japanese to raise prices. And Lexus and Infiniti were priced at rock bottom when they were introduced.
With financial backing from BMW of North America, BMW dealers in southern California attacked Lexus in print and on radio last fall. The ads still run occasionally, on a "tactical" basis.
"According to recent test results, Lexus' greatest achievement in acceleration is its price," says one ad, from Mendelsohn/Zien, Los Angeles. The ad says the Lexus LS400 went from $35,000 for the base model to $57,000 with options in four years. It calls the Lexus "an overpriced Toyota with an `acceleration' problem."
Lexus retaliated with radio ads, including one in which a "lie detector" is actuated when somebody says the BMW 325i retains its value better than a Lexus ES300. Team One, El Segundo, Calif., handles.
BMW and Mercedes-Benz of North America also have exchanged competing claims. They deny they had a gentlemen's agreement, but until recently the two German rivals rarely attacked each other directly.
A recent TV ad from Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., for the Nissan Altima flashed a BMW, including a close-up of the BMW logo. The ad said, "If you have to ask how much it costs to lease a luxury car, you probably can't afford it."
Mr. Doolan said he felt obliged to challenge Mercedes' claim that it has the best resale value in the industry, which Mercedes made in a recent print ad. The ad didn't name BMW, but the headline said:
"Listed below are all the cars with a better resale value than Mercedes-Benz:" followed by a blank page.
Smaller print at the bottom said, "For the past seven years, Mercedes-Benz as a line has on average the highest percent resale value over a 10-year period." Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, handles.
BMW retaliated with an ad that cited the N.A.D.A. Official Used Car Guide, showing that as a percentage of suggested retail, the BMW 325i and 525i kept their value better than the Mercedes 190E 2.6 and 300E 2.6.
The BMW headline said: "Listed above is information Mercedes-Benz would rather keep classified."
In smaller print, the ad from Mullen, Wenham, Mass., taunted: "When you've had the highest percentage of retained resale value for as long as Mercedes-Benz, news like this can be quite unsettling."
Mr. Henry is a reporter with Automotive News.