In the mid-1990’s most automotive brands that existed at the time began launching websites as digital was rapidly becoming the next frontier and offered an opportunity to showcase products and influence consumers as they perform research. Early examples of auto manufacturer websites provide a unique window into brand identity as there were wild variations in style and tone compared to the much more uniform websites of today, where virtually all have a nearly identical layout and user experience.
The first snapshot of Lexus’ website was recorded on December 22, 1996. Creatively titled “Lexus Centre of Performance Art”, the website navigation is overlaid atop an sketch that resembles an interpretation of an ancient Roman villa. Resembling a guide for tourist in a faraway land, perhaps Lexus employed this model to help guide brand-new internet users by leveraging a familiar map-based layout from traditional printed media. There is also a “concierge” named Alex prominently featured, who was doubtlessly utilized by befuddled website visitors back in the day. According to the description Alex is there to “help you at any time, on any page”. Perhaps the most striking element of Lexus’ homepage in 1996 was that there was no imagery of their vehicles. At this time the brand’s lineup consisted of the ES, GS, LS, SC and LX.
Fast forward 22 years and we encounter Lexus’ website in 2018. Taking on a far more sophisticated look, the design has been cleaned up and organized. Alex the concierge has retired, however there is a “Shopping Tools” menu with visuals for top functions at the bottom of the page. As web users as a whole became more acclimated to navigating websites and assimilated to the digital word, we notice less copy and far more visuals. While less cluttered, the website has certainly lost some personality over time. Here’s a little message for Lexus: Bring back Alex! Perhaps he could be reborn as a virtual chat assistant. In 2018 the brand’s lineup has doubled in size compared to 1996. The current vehicles are the IS, ES, GS, LS, RC, LC, NX, RX, GX, LX.
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Launched in the United States in 1986, Acura got a head start in the Japanese luxury game as it debuted three years before Lexus and Infiniti hit the market. Originally the brand was positioned as a luxury performance division of Honda, with the sharp handling compact Integra and nimble mid-size Legend as its two entrants. Fast forward 10 years and the Acura brand was in a state of flux, as reflected by the looks of their homepage. Stenciled images accent the navigation formed around the Acura emblem and embody a more luxurious and less sporty design aesthetic that also extended to their lineup. 1996 was the debut year for the awkward CL coupe, the ho-hum TL sedan, the Isuzu Trooper based SLX, and Lexus-imitating full-size RL, which essentially had no sporting pretentious whatsoever but did have a very quiet interior. By 1996 Acura’s direction just wasn’t clear. The NSX sports car stood in juxtaposition to the luxury car focus and solider on mostly unchanged for years after its early-90’s debut. Its position as the brand’s halo car is solidified by the “download an NSX screen saver” messaging in the lower right corner. In 1996 the Acura lineup consisted of the Integra, TL, CL, RL, SLX and NSX.
Travel through space and time to 2018 and we came across Acura’s flashy new website in 2008, that mirrors their ad campaign closely by utilizing light and color to good effect. The bright red background surrounds the silhouette of the dynamic new Acura RDX, which in some ways is emblematic of the brand’s reemergence as a formidable mid-luxury category player. The bold imagery and strong colors contrast sharply with the faded hues seem in the sketches of the 1996 version of the site. Once again positioned as a sporty performance brand, the 2018 website reflects a welcome return back to Acura’s roots and away from the wispy Lexus-imitating style of yesteryear. The 2018 Acura lineup is comprised of the ILX, TLX, RLX, RDX, MDX and NSX.
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Infiniti launched in 1986, right alongside Lexus. While Infiniti has yet to reach Lexus’ level of success in terms of sales, it has had a number of interesting products over the decades and filled an interesting niche throughout its many reinventions. The Infiniti brand was on the cusp of a revolution in 2000 when the website image above was captured. The Q45 that would go on sale in 2001 was largely viewed as a dud and did little to advance the brand. It wasn’t until the release of the G35 in 2003 that new life was breathed into the brand, setting a major focus on performance and sportiness. In Y2K the Infiniti lineup consisted of just three model, the G20, I30, QX4, all of which were thinly veiled Nissans with a noncommittal approach to either sportiness or luxury. As the brand was not exactly setting the sales charts on fire, perhaps the basic website is reflective of minimal funds being invested in marketing Infiniti at the time.
With an lineup flush with SUV’s, the Infiniti brand is much better postured for sales success in 2018 than it was at the dawn of the millennium. Current models include the Q50, Q60, Q70, QX30, QX50, QX60, QX70 and QX80. As it continues to market crossovers and SUVs, the brand’s image has shifted away from the sporty focus seen in 2003 and more toward a core focus on luxury, just like in the early days when the 1989 Q45 launched, followed by the opulent J30. In terms of web design, the brand’s homepage basically follows the same canned layout employed by Lexus and Infiniti, however its visuals strike an interesting balance between Lexus’ minimalist look and Acura’s jazzy color palette.
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[Images: Wayback Machine, Infiniti, Acura, Lexus]