Farewell Infiniti, we hardly knew you.
When the announcement came, it was met with resignation. For those attuned to the mood music surrounding the embattled Japanese marque of late, and following a decade of under-achievement it has been difficult to feign surprise that Nissan’s upmarket nameplate is shortly to depart Western European markets, seemingly never to return. For everyone else however, it’s been more a case of ‘Infiniti who’?
It’s difficult to escape the nagging suspicion that Nissan never quite had the firmness of will to fully commit to the Infiniti project, first introduced into the United States in 1989 as the carmaker’s response to the threat imposed by Toyota’s stellar Lexus LS400. The ’89 Infiniti Q45 saloon, while a fine motorcar in its own right, was simply a derivation of the Japanese market Nissan HG50-series President model, employing a shorter wheelbase and a restyled nose and tail.
Over the intervening years further models were added, but for too long these were largely redeployed Japanese (up)market Nissans. Perennial second-fiddle players to Lexus in the US (and never quite a stand-alone brand in Japan) Infiniti gained a solid slice of the North American luxury car market for a time at least, but lacked their home-grown rival’s stronger positioning and sales success.
But it wasn’t until 2008 that the marque arrived on these shores, Infiniti’s European introduction proving to be a masterclass in how not to introduce a luxury car brand. While Lexus had arrived twenty years earlier with a top of the line model of established excellence, Infiniti by contrast stumbled onto the market, into the teeth of Global recession, with a range of cars ill-suited to local conditions.
With an uninspired range of under-defined vehicles, which neither looked especially appetizing to the average upwardly mobile customer (or potential Lexus buyer for that matter), nor in receipt of the kind of critical reception necessary to provide much of a breakthrough, the brand failed to make any noticeable headway. Worse still, with almost no mainstream marketing support (F1 sponsorship notwithstanding) the buying public never quite got past the ‘what is that?’ phase.
The 2015 introduction of the C-segment Q30 and its higher-riding QX30 sibling was intended to lend the programme a fresh impetus. Co-developed with Mercedes-Benz, sharing internal body structure and other hardware with Rastatt’s GLA model, Nissan had high expectations for the UK-built line, with projected annual sales of over 30,000 cars. That it fell so woefully short of expectations cannot simply be ascribed to its appearance (in fact it looked okay) its performance (broadly acceptable) or its overall appeal (described by Autocar as ‘credible’) – the root of its 2018 sales collapse must lie elsewhere.
Last year proved to be Infiniti’s worst, with the bulk of its European market range axed owing to incompatibilities with WLTP emission regulations. Also, as the European market became increasingly SUV-centric, the carmaker had little other than large petrol-powered and US-orientated models to offer, unsuited to European sensibilities, budgets or indeed their medieval city centres.
As recently as last December, Nissan was pledging Infiniti’s continued EU presence, with a hybrid version of the Q50 saloon and a new mid-sized QX50 SUV to come on stream. In addition, was the announcement that the marque would embark on a holding pattern until a new generation of EV and hybrid offerings could be readied. The carmaker also appointed former BMW design director, Karim Habib, tasked with replacing a corporate design theme which never quite lived up to the potential suggested by a succession of creditable concepts.
“You’ll start to see a better picture from next year”, an Infiniti spokesperson told Autocar in December. But in today’s industry, the rapid turn of events can make fools of us all. And with CEO, Carlos Ghosn now facing trial, the marque’s cheerleader in-chief has gone and with him it would appear, Infiniti’s reason to exist, in the European market at least.
Earlier this month, the decision to cease production of the Q30 in Sunderland and remove the Infiniti brand from Western European markets was announced along a new management regime and a fresh approach. The former is expected to occur by the summer, while the latter is set to take place over the coming year, meaning the marque is essentially as good as gone.
But while Infiniti’s presence has always felt rather half-hearted, it’s especially unfortunate for employees at Nissan’s already embattled Sunderland assembly plant, not to mention the remaining support and dealership staff across the region. However, it does appear to be an inevitable consequence of a brand strategy which has been as ill-considered as it was inconsistent.
But surely Infiniti’s failure only further exposes Renault-Nissan’s business model at a time when not only is the group coming under scrutiny for all the wrong reasons, but like the bulk of its mass-market rivals is facing an over saturated market, the existential threats from technology giants and legislators, without the putative buffer of a viable upmarket nameplate?
The lessons of history teach us that those carmakers who remain trapped in a low transaction price cycle pay a heavy price in the long run. Where brand Nissan/Renault ends up in ten year’s time could be determined by decisions made today. One can’t help wondering therefore if this particular decision will be seen in the fullness of time as being pivotal?