Beyond Infiniti (Part Two)

We continue the story of Infiniti, Nissan’s troubled luxury brand, as it enters its second decade.

2001 Infiniti Q45 (c) autoevolution.com

As the new millennium dawned, Infiniti found itself far adrift of its two Japanese rivals, Lexus and Acura, in the US luxury car market. This was largely a result of an unconvincing and substandard product line-up. The J20 compact executive, which should have been Infiniti’s volume seller, was a barely disguised Nissan Primera P11 and had comprehensively failed to attract buyers.

At the other end of its range, the Q45 was a bland and generic luxury saloon that was hugely outclassed by its competitors. The only bright spots in its range were the two mid-sized models, the I30 saloon and the QX4 SUV, both of which were little more than rebadged Nissans. Together, these two models accounted for 78% of the company’s sales in 2000.

Infiniti’s parent company, Nissan, was also in deep trouble. Facing a real prospect of bankruptcy, it had entered into an alliance with Renault in March 1999, with the intention of cutting costs by sharing development on new platforms and mechanical parts, while retaining their individual marque identities. There was little doubt as to which company was the senior partner: Renault purchased a 36.8% stake in Nissan, while the cash-strapped Japanese company could only promise to reciprocate when it had the funds to do so(1). The new alliance would be headed up by Renault’s Carlos Ghosn.

Renault’s effective rescue of Nissan bought Infiniti some time, and a new strategy was devised by Ghosn. Infiniti would in future target BMW rather than Mercedes-Benz or its Japanese rivals. New models would have a distinctively sporting bias. The first of these was a new and completely redesigned Q45, launched in 2001. This was a sister model to the JDM Nissan Cima. The V8 engine was enlarged to 4.5 litres, with a power output of 340 bhp (253 kW). The styling was very different to its staid predecessor, with an arched roof line giving it something of a four-door coupé profile. Early US reviews and test reports were positive for the new model.

Unfortunately, such had been the damage to Infiniti’s reputation over the previous decade that customers for the new Q45 proved elusive. Depressingly for Infiniti, sales were even weaker than for its dreary predecessor. A derisory total of just 9,674(2) were sold over five years on the US market before the model was discontinued in 2006.

After a decade-long hiatus, Infiniti resurrected the ‘M’ model designation for its 2002 mid-size saloon, the M45. This was, to all intents and purposes, a JDM Nissan Gloria. It remained on the market for just two years and sales were inconsequential, with just 7,855 cars finding buyers.

2002 Infiniti G35 Coupé (c) autoevolution.com

Infiniti had much better fortunes with its 2002 G35 model. This was a proper compact executive car that directly targeted the BMW 3-Series. Unlike its prosaic Primera-based predecessors, the G35 was based on the highly regarded Nissan Skyline and was available in four-door saloon and two-door coupé variants. The G35 was powered by a 3.5 litre V6 engine, mounted mainly behind the front axle line for optimum weight distribution. It was offered in various states of tune, the highest producing 298 bhp (222 kW). The transmission was either a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual gearbox. The styling of both saloon and coupé was clean, handsome and purposeful, certainly Infiniti’s most convincing designs to date.

The G35 was greeted with highly enthusiastic reviews. It won Motor Trend magazine’s 2003 Car of the Year award and was one of Car and Driver magazine’s Top Ten Cars in 2003 and 2004. Finally, Infiniti appeared to have a hit on its hands and strong sales ensued. A total of 371,960 cars were sold from 2002 to 2007 inclusive, making the G35 Infiniti’s best seller by far, accounting for 52% of the marque’s total sales over those years. By way of comparison, BMW sold a total of 703,541 3-Series models in the US over the same period, so Infiniti sales in this segment were a credible 53% of those of the market leader.

Infiniti achieved another hit with its 2003 mid-sized crossover, the FX35 / FX45(3). This model was closely based on the G35 architecture but had what would now be called a crossover-coupé bodystyle, with its arching roofline and shallow DLO(4).  Like the G35, it was a conspicuously clean and handsome design, which was also offered as the Nissan Murano. A total of 128,764 were sold from 2003 to 2007 inclusive.

2003 Infiniti FX45 (c) auto-abc.eu

A 2004 addition to the Infiniti range that was lifted straight from Nissan was the QX56 full-size SUV. This was simply a Nissan Armada with a nose-job. The QX56 was sold until 2010, when it was replaced with the second-generation Armada, again with an Infiniti front end.

In 2005, Infiniti replaced the failed 2002 M45 with a new model based on the JDM Nissan Fuga. This was a much more credible challenger for the BMW 5 Series. It was offered with a choice of 3.5 litre V6 and 4.5 litre V8 engines, designated M35 and M45 respectively. An ‘x’ suffix on either model name denoted the four-wheel-drive option. It was very positively reviewed by the motoring press at launch, even outscoring the 5-Series and E-class in some comparative tests, but conquest sales still proved hard to achieve.

When the Q45 was discontinued without a replacement in 2006, the M45 became Infiniti’s flagship model. The M35 and M45 remained on sale until 2010. Total sales from 2005 to 2010 inclusive were 110,279 units. In comparison, BMW sold a total of 289,132 5-Series models in the US over the same period.

2007 Saw the launch of the next generation G35 saloon, based again on the Nissan Skyline, with the coupé following a year later and, for the first time in the range, a convertible version in 2009. The engine range was widened to include 2.5 and 3.7 litre V6 units, with the model designations G25 and G37. Although based on a new platform and heavily updated mechanical package, the new models were a notably cautious evolution of their handsome predecessors, and sales continued at a similar level.

2008 Infiniti EX35 (c) autoblog.com

In the same year, Infiniti launched a slightly smaller crossover, the EX35. This was just 85mm (3½”) shorter in wheelbase and 224 mm (9”) shorter overall than the FX35, but was differentiated from the latter with a rather more conventional SUV roofline, so was nearly as spacious inside as its larger sibling.

A second-generation FX crossover-coupé followed in 2009. Like the G series, it was, stylistically, a cautious update. The larger engine option was increased in size to 5.0 litres, hence the new FX35 and FX50 model designations. Like the G series, sales continued at around the same level as its predecessor.

After its second decade, Infiniti had made some further headway in the vital US market. Sales by model line are shown in the table below:

Infiniti US Sales in 2010
Model: Type: Sales: Percentage:
M37/56 Mid-size saloon 14,618 14.1%
G25/35/37 Compact saloon, coupé and convertible 58,143 56.2%
QX56 Full-size SUV 11,918 11.5%
FX35/50 Crossover-coupé 10,420 10.1%
EX35 Compact crossover 8,312 8.1%
Total: 103,411 100.0%

Comparing 2010 with 2000, Infiniti had increased annual US sales from 78,351 to 103,411. Market share had improved more significantly, from 0.50% to 0.89%(5), but the company remained a marginal player. Moreover, its models were largely similar to Nissans sold elsewhere (and, in some cases, in the US) so it was fair to ask how many customers would simply have bought the equivalent Nissan, had Infiniti simply not existed. In other words, was Infiniti anywhere near viability as a stand-alone marque(6)?

The story will continue to the present day and conclude in Part Three shortly.

 

(1) Nissan bought a 15% stake in Renault in 2001. At the same time, Renault increased its stake in Nissan to 44.4%.

(2) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.

(3) The numbers refer to the two different engine sizes available, a 3.5 litre V6 and 4.5 litre V8.

(4) The 2008 BMW X6 is generally regarded as the first crossover-coupé, but the FX35 / FX45 predated it by five years.

(5) By 2010, the US auto market had still not recovered fully from the 2008 Global Financial Crash, so Infiniti’s growth in market share outpaced the growth in sales.

(6) Infiniti had been selling vehicles in certain European markets since the early 2000’s but sales were miniscule. In 2010, European sales totalled just 2,393 vehicles, representing a 0.02% market share.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

24 thoughts on “Beyond Infiniti (Part Two)”

  1. It’s amazing when I see the FX45 in the picture here. In 2003, I thought it was a completely exaggerated design with its large wheels and tiny windows. In the light of recent design trends, the cabin suddenly appears light and airy, and the whole car refreshingly unaggressive. How perceptions have changed…

    By the way I think the Nissan Murano might be technically related to the FX45, but it’s an entirely different design, no body panels are shared as far as I can see.

    1. Good morning Simon. Yes, Infiniti hit a purple patch in design terms in the early 00’s. The 2001 Q45 and 2002 G35 are also clean and handsome designs to my eyes. Not that it did the company a great deal of good in sales terms, of course, particularly in the case of the Q45.

    2. The Murano and FX are actually completely different. FX has a longitudinal engine layout, while the Murano has a transverse engine.

    3. I have a soft spot for the 2003 M45. RWD, 340 bhp V8 power, clean (and, in black, sinister looking) styling…unappealing it´s not.

  2. Is there ANY logic at all to the naming conventions? It’s just word and number spaghetti as far as I can see; if you get cross just trying to understand the range it’s not going to increase the likelihood of opening your wallet.

    1. Hi David. Yes, it is highly confusing and apparently random, at least the alphabetic part. In Part Three we’ll cover Infiniti’s 2013 rationalisation of its model designations, which helped (a bit).

  3. the 2002 M45 may have been a sales flop, but I have a soft spot for it. it has a bold design, although the rear is awful. and it could be had in some odd colours.

    that said, I still prefer a Hyundai XG30/XG350 of the same vintage.

    1. You can add me to the M45 fanclub – it might not be perfect, but its still pretty nice!
      Would have been perfect stretched out, widened and lowered a bit (taking it up to XJ/7/S class), and with the taillights slightly lower.
      The stance is just a tiny bit to tall and narrow.

  4. Great minds and excellent timing, Eduardo and b234r! The rear end is indeed a bit odd:

    That rear bumper to wing panel gap is not ideal, though it’s difficult to imagine how to handle it better. Is the shape of the side DLO (which reminds me of the Hyundai XG30) slightly at odds with the geometric lower body?

    1. In retrospect, one can already make such a summary. And if it is written with a cynical undertone, as is the case here, the reader also has fun.

      But the problem is different. As the leader of an (automobile) company, you have only two options.
      Plan A: Stay in a niche and offer a product that appeals to 100% of the customers in that niche.
      Or
      Plan B: Offer something that everyone else offers. And end up with a lot of effort at under 10% market share.

      In hindsight, it almost looks (to me) as if Nissan followed Plan A. Not consistently enough, that may be.
      But no one knows what plan Nissan followed and whether their plan worked.
      Maybe Nissan’s strategy with Infiniti picked up the bulk of the niche customers, and that was just a few thousand (or ten thousand) customers/vehicles.
      We always measure success in absolute numbers, never in relative numbers. In the end, however, 100% of all potential buyers may be better than a few percent of everyone else.
      We don’t know, we only know: decisions are difficult and in hindsight one is smarter.

    2. Hi alewifecove. Interesting, thanks for posting. I’ll keep my powder dry regarding my conclusions on Infiniti’s until Part Three, which will be published shortly

    3. Aha, perhaps DTW is not quite as uninfluential as we think? 😁

    4. I think the TTAC author missed the point which Bruno has already made, Infiniti has been merely a sales channel of the parent company. After more than three decades, there isn’t any consistent underlying philosophy, heritage, or set of values which uniquely define the Infiniti brand. Some of the cars have had their own special and delightful personalities, even soul, then again so have many Nissan-branded vehicles.

      I don’t even think that the marketing efforts have been especially sincere. For example, I suspect that millennial Skyline/G35/G37 happened to tread on 3 Series territory because it was a specific reaction to the Toyota Altezza/Lexus IS. By comparison, the original Datsun 510 seems to have been directly inspired by the Neue Klasse coupes.

  5. The first RWD G and the first FX were indeed Infiniti’s best exterior designs. However, their interiors were dire, with vast expanses of cheap feeling and looking plastics. Other Nissans of the era such as the contemporary 350Z, Maxima and Quest suffered the same malady, probably due to Ghosn’s attempt to cost cut his way to profitability at Nissan. The Quest at least was adventurously styled.

    By the way, when Infiniti rebadged the Pathfinder to create their first SUV, they insisted its name be spoken as “Q by four”, as in 4×4.

    1. Hi Ben. “Q by four”? That must have been really annoying for the poor sales guys. We’re they instructed to correct potential customers when they said “QX4”? It wasn’t as though Infiniti was an easy sell in the first place.

      It took me years to realise that the KTM “X-Bow” was meant to be articulated as “Crossbow”. 😨

  6. Perhaps Nissan’s failure with Infiniti was plain old overreach? Toyota has a market cap about 10 times that of Nissan right now and things probably weren’t that different 30 years ago. Is it any wonder Lexus was given the resources to create a world beater while Infiniti had to make do? Honda/Acura had far more modest ambitions, except with the NSX. Mazda got it right, deciding to ditch their premium Amati brand before it could bankrupt them. Funny, then, that the best premium junior executive to come out of Japan was Amati’s quickly rebadged Xedos 6.

    Aside from Lexus, the only other successful premium marque to emerge from the past 30 years is Audi. And that required the might of VW and maniacal single-mindedness of Piech to pull off.

    1. That’s an interesting point. It’s very hard to develop a ‘traditional’ luxury brand.

      One could argue that Range Rover, Tesla and Volvo have either become or strongly built upon their status as successful premium brands in the past few decades; however, they have quite big USPs.

      Range Rover benefited from the rise of the SUV, while Tesla had remarkable success in making EVs work and be desirable. Volvo upped its design game and also benefited from SUV success.

      It’ll be interesting to see what Genesis does – it looks as though they’re going for design and customer service.

      I wonder how Vignale’s doing.

    2. Hi Ben. That’s an interesting hypothesis. The difference in market capitalisation between Toyota and Nissan in 1990 was a factor of four (US $40Bn vs US $10Bn). At the end of 2019 it was five (US $165Bn vs US $32Bn) but your point is still valid: Toyota certainly had the resources to throw everything at the LS400 to challenge Mercedes-Benz on Stuttgart’s own ground. Infiniti tried to establish its own ground, rather than mount a direct challenge.

      The final instalment of this series will be published tomorrow, so I’ll keep (the rest of) my powder dry until then!

    3. Hi Charles. Your mention of Vignale (which, hilariously, autocorrects to ‘Big Name’ on my Android keyboard!) reminded me of BMW’s ‘black label’ nonsense of a couple of years ago. The plan was that their showrooms and service areas would be segregated so that customers for the (IIRC) 6,7 and 8 Series models and their ‘X’ crossover and SUV equivalents would get a more ‘bespoke’ service than the hoi polloi buying their cheaper models. It seemed to be the perfect way to annoy the majority of your customers while making the minority feel uncomfortable.

      Hopefully, it never got any further than the ‘dumb ideas we should pretend we never had’ stage. Does anyone know what happened to it?

  7. Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Genesis. They all sound like ’80s rebrands of of accountancy multinationals. Amati was cultural misappropriation, probably better suited to top-end consumer electronics.

    Those of us on the west are most oblivious to the complex plethora of Japanese car sub-brands and nuanced outlet networks. Amati didn’t happen, Eunos and Xedos. Toyota were the (uncharacteristically off-the-wall) car participant in the WiLL conglomerate, then tried something similar with Scion in the USA.

    As for unhappy Infiniti, I find myself wondering if Nissan considered reviving gone-but-not-forgotten Prince, or broadening the PMC-instigated Skyline sub-brand.

    1. Nissan opting to create Infiniti instead of reviving Prince does raise some eyebrows in retrospect, not that things would have necessarily played out differently for Nissan had they revived Prince short of significantly differentiating it from Nissan.

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