Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

LOS ANGELES – Chastened by the economic crisis that laid waste to pension funds and stock portfolios, luxury has “taken on a new identity” in the U.S., says Audi of America Inc. President Johan de Nysschen.

“We see a shift from traditional old-world luxury, which is a little bit more ostentatious,” de Nysschen says here on the sidelines of the L.A. Auto Show.

The new breed of luxury-vehicle buyers are “equally discerning” and appreciative of quality, but their tastes are more “understated,” which buoys de Nysschen’s confidence.

Coincidentally, conservative styling is a hallmark of Audi design.

This “new cultural zeitgeist” is not unique to the U.S., de Nysschen tells Ward’s. “It was well-entrenched in Europe a long time ago.”

Luxury-buyers even dropped out of the market. During the 2009 Frankfurt auto show, Harald Wester, now Fiat Automobiles SpA engineering chief, told Ward’s employers can’t cut their payrolls “and show up next Monday with a new Maserati.”

Maybe not for many, many Mondays.

Enter Audi, de Nysschen suggests. The brand promises “responsible indulgence” and unseen luxury in features, such as Audi’s lightweight aluminum construction and “pre-sense” safety system that autonomously applies a vehicle’s brakes when a collision is imminent.

Growing numbers of luxury-segment buyers are quietly rewarding themselves instead of “choosing their brands and their vehicles (to shout) their position from the rooftops,” de Nysschen says.

Luxury-brand sales data send mixed signals. Through October, BMW and Lexus car deliveries were down 4.1% and 5.1%, respectively, compared with like-2009, according to Ward’s. But time-honored Mercedes-Benz was tracking 17.5% ahead of last year.

Audi sales, on course for a milestone year, were running 13.6% ahead of prior-year. The surging brand uses the auto show to stage the North American debut of the A7 sportback, 4-door coupe and A8L fullsize sedan.

The A8L begins arriving in U.S. showrooms this month. The A7 is expected next year.