We continue the story of Infiniti, Nissan’s troubled luxury brand, as it enters its second decade.
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.
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.
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.
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|
|G25/35/37||Compact saloon, coupé and convertible||58,143||56.2%|
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.