Nissan’s luxury brand is reportedly facing another reinvention as its long struggle for relevancy continues. We examine Infiniti’s chequered history and ponder its future.
When Toyota launched its first Lexus LS400 in 1989, the automotive world was simply stunned by the ambition and audacity of the Japanese automaker. Previously best known for vehicles that were carefully designed, well-built and reliable, but largely uncharismatic, Toyota had created a luxury saloon that easily matched and, in a number of respects, surpassed the best that either Stuttgart or Munich could offer. It was good enough to send Mercedes-Benz back to the drawing board for its forthcoming W140 S-Class, delaying its launch until 1991.
Also in 1989, Toyota’s rival, Nissan, launched its own luxury marque, Infiniti. Whether this was simply a coincidence, or the product of some industrial eavesdropping is a moot point. In any event, the first two Infiniti models were far less impactful than the LS400. Unlike the ‘clean-sheet’ Lexus that shared very little with previous Toyota designs, the Infiniti Q45 luxury saloon was based on the platform of the existing JDM(1) Nissan President, while the M30 two-door coupé was blatantly a badge-engineered version of the Nissan Leopard.
While Lexus won plaudits for the excellence of the LS400, Infiniti suffered some early criticism for its apparent lack of ambition, at least in relative terms. Dynamically, the LS400 was clearly pitched primarily against the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It had a superbly comfortable ride and a luxurious cabin which isolated passengers from outside disturbances to an extraordinary degree.
The Q45, however, seemed to be more directed at the BMW 7 Series, with firm, supportive seats and an almost sporting dynamic bias(2). In stylistic terms, the LS400 was clearly a Japanese take on the S-Class, but the Q45 was quite unusual, with its slim-pillared six-light DLO, a smooth front end with radiator air intakes concealed under the bumper, and an absence of chrome trim and polished wood veneers from its cabin, which was supposedly influenced by contemporary Italian furniture design.
While the LS went on to achieve great success in the key US market, the Q45 never attracted anything like as much attention. Its somewhat anonymous appearance, at first glance not dissimilar to the contemporary (and decidedly mainstream) Ford Taurus or Chevrolet Caprice, cannot have helped its prospects. Infiniti facelifted the Q45 in 1994, giving it a conventional front grille and a more traditionally luxurious interior. In doing so, the company deprived the Q45 of its only point of differentiation from other luxury cars and achieved no uplift in sales, which were stuck around 10,000 annually.
In an attempt to broaden its range, Infiniti introduced the G20 small saloon in 1990 as its ‘compact executive’ challenger to the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4. This was nothing more than the contemporary first-generation (P10) FWD Nissan Primera with a more generous list of standard equipment. Whatever the honest merits of the Primera, it was certainly no match for the German premium trio. Nissan tried to promote the car’s European(3) influences in its advertising, but to little avail.
The mid-size M30, being offered only as a two-door coupé, was a marginal seller and would be discontinued without a direct replacement in 1992. Total sales over three years were around 17,000 units. Infiniti then introduced a mid-sized luxury saloon, the J30. The styling of this model was rounded and organic, as was then the fashion, and so complemented the larger Q45 model. It was presented as a ‘four-door coupe’ and with good reason, as the interior room was rather lacking compared to its intended competitors, the Lexus GS and Acura Legend. It was discontinued in 1997. Total sales over five years were 89,991(4) cars.
Infiniti’s replacement mid-size saloon model was, confusingly, called the I30. This was simply the 1994 Nissan Cefiro / Maxima with the latter’s V6 engine in its largest 3.0 litre form and luxury trim. Despite the fact that it was sold alongside and was virtually identical to the US market Maxima, the I30 actually became Infiniti’s best seller. That said, the cheaper Maxima still outsold it by a ratio of more than 3:1.
Infiniti axed the slow-selling G20 in 1996 after six years during which just 96,462 found buyers. After a two-year hiatus, and apparently having learnt nothing from the previous experience, Infiniti introduced the second-generation (P11) Primera as its belated replacement. It fared even worse and was discontinued in 2002 with 53,701 sales over five years.
Following the lead of Lexus and Acura, Honda’s luxury marque, Infiniti launched its first SUV in 1997, the QX4. This was nothing more than a lightly made over Nissan Pathfinder, but the growing appetite for such vehicles in the US made its provenance of less concern for buyers and the QX4 immediately became Infiniti’s second best-selling model.
After seven years and just 79,261 sales, the Q45 was replaced by a second-generation model in 1997 that eschewed the distinctive styling and sporting pretentions of the original for a more conservative and conventional luxury car style. The new model featured a four-light DLO, wide C-pillars, a chrome grille, and expanses of (fake) wood garnishing the interior, leading some to describe it in derisive terms as a Japanese Lincoln. It was a wholly generic and undistinguished design. The suspension was set up to provide a softer ride, at the expense of handling. This model was based on the JDM Nissan Cedric / Gloria platform and had a smaller (4.1 litre) V8 engine than its predecessor.
Lexus, however, had already moved the game on with its second generation LS400 in 1994, a careful and thorough update of the original that, notwithstanding its almost indistinguishable appearance, was substantively improved. The second generation Q45 fared even worse than the original, achieving sales of just 29,136 in four years.
After a decade on the US market, the contrast between the rival Japanese luxury marques was stark: Infiniti sold 78,351 cars in 2000, representing a market share of just 0.5%. This compared poorly with Lexus’ total sales of 206,037. Even Acura, Honda’s luxury marque, solidly outperformed Infiniti with total sales of 142,681. Below is a table containing a breakdown of Infiniti’s 2000 US sales by model line:
|Infiniti US Sales in 2000|
The sales gap between the Japanese luxury marques would continue to widen into the new Millennium, with Infiniti initially falling even further behind.
Part Two of this series will follow shortly.
(1) Japanese Domestic Market (only).
(2) The Q45 was influenced by Nissan’s concurrent ‘901 Movement’ project to develop a reputation for excellence in the handling of its cars.
(3) The P10 and P11 Primera models were also manufactured at the Nissan plant in Sunderland, England, hence the tenuous European connection.
(4) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.