“The Magnification of Inspired Performance”
The Japanese luxury carmaker had something it wanted to make clear in its 2009 Geneva press release: “What Essence is not is merely an indulgent birthday present from Infiniti to itself“, it asserted, immediately planting the germ of doubt into those of a more cynically minded bent.
2009 marked Geneva’s 79th motor show. Infiniti was present that year, celebrating twenty years since its inception. To mark this auspicious milestone, they displayed Essence, a petrol/electric/hybrid concept GT coupé. Essence’s mission it appears was twofold. To showcase a new design ethos, forecasting a range of more exciting vehicles to wear the Infiniti badge, but also to generate excitement around the brand as it made a late entry into the European market.
Nissan’s upmarket sub-brand needed to make up for lost ground. Having made its US debut in 1989, it arrived concurrent with, yet somewhat on the tail of Toyota’s more impactful Lexus nameplate. Over the intervening two decades, while its Toyota City rival became an accepted member of the ‘prestige’ firmament, Infiniti, owing in part to Nissan’s US-centric focus, not to mention a somewhat half-baked commitment to product development, remained something of an also-ran.
Nissan, never as strong or well-resourced as Toyota, probably bit off more than it ought by attempting to go head-to-head with Lexus. By 2009, not only had it the carmaker been forced to enter an alliance with Renault, but Nissan management had also come to the realisation that they needed to work harder on execution. But reinvention required a figurehead, a brand halo, so to speak. Enter concept-Essence.
According to Nissan’s telling, the project began with head of advanced product planning, Francois Bancon and his team brainstorming the profile of the putative Essence customer. This they established as being a passionate, highly successful 42-year-old risk-taker, someone who enjoyed life’s finer things but wasn’t interested in shouting about it. “We wanted a car that aspired to become a cult“, Bancon suggested.
Despite its somewhat tortured marketing background, the Essence design was a bit of a stunner. With such classical long-bonnet, rear-biased cabin proportions there are few excuses, but even allowing for this, Infiniti’s styling team, led by Senior Vice President of Design, Shiro Nakamura, certainly earned their retainer. Employing Infiniti’s Dynamic Adeyaka principle, the sinuous, muscular surfaces, minimal overhangs and planted stance lent Essence a powerful, yet wholly graceful appearance.
While the car’s flowing wingline and lithe surfacing would henceforth be reprised across Infiniti’s range, a number of style cues would go on to become signature features. One being the razor-edged ‘ledge’, upon which the side glazing appeared to balance, in contrast to the undulating shoulder line below. Another was the counter-intuitive reverse-outline kink in the stainless steel three-quarter DLO surround, which lent the canopy a palpable sense of acceleration. These flourishes were entirely in keeping with the concept’s flamboyant style but would not necessarily stand more prosaic repetition.
In a nod to heritage, aspects of Japanese art and culture were drawn upon with lines and details said to be inspired by the wide brush strokes of Japanese calligraphy. Additionally, the designers highlighted the fact that the trim around the side air vents was based on the shape of the kanzashi, a hairpin used by women when wearing the kimono.
Inside the cockpit, which was divided into two defined compartments for driver and passenger, materials like leather and Alcantara were perhaps to be expected, whereas hand-painted wood inspired by traditional Japanese lacquerware was more of a novelty. Nissan’s PR made much of the fact that even the leather seams on the seat backs differed from left to right to reflect the manner in which Japanese men and women tie their kimonos. Inside the boot compartment, (which incorporated a sliding floor), fitted luggage was courtesy of atelier, Louis Vuitton.
Power was derived from Infiniti’s 3.7-litre V6 engine, fitted with twin turbochargers and direct-injection boosting power to 440PS (434bhp). The hybrid drive’s electric motor was positioned between engine and transmission, drawing power from a compact lithium-ion battery pack in the boot area, enhancing this output by an additional 160PS (158bhp), giving maximum power of 600PS (592bhp).
Had Essence carried a more prestigious badge, it might have made more of an impact in 2009, but that is not to say that it was ignored, certainly not by the wider international design community. Because while each were very much their own design, Jaguar’s 2013 F-Type, Maserati’s concept-Alfieri from the following year and even Aston Martin’s 2016 DB11 could be said to have at least faintly imbibed from the Essence concept. Mazda’s voluptuous 2010 Shinari study also could be said to have illustrated certain similarities in surface treatment.
Nissan did not intend to productionise the design, for not only did they lack the resource to do so, but Infiniti had no ambitions in that end of the market. Indeed, within the press release, Francois Bancon let that particular cat rather firmly out of the bag, while simultaneously contradicting Nissan’s PR. Because when you strip away the marketing fluff, Essence was exactly what Infiniti said it was not: an indulgent birthday present to itself.
Creating an arresting concept study is in many respects, the easy part. Transferring those themes in ever decreasing circles across a range of saloons, CUVs and hatchbacks is a good deal more challenging a task and one the Essence design, strong as it might have been in isolation, proved unable to sustain. Moreover, concept-Essence underlined a more fundamental failing of brand-Infiniti. The lack of clear focus and the will to deliver upon it.
Today, Infiniti, much like everyone else appear to be a predominantly CUV/SUV offer, with a leftover sports sedan and coupé as fading tokens of its past. No longer a presence in Europe (who never really took to the marque) and a marginal one in the United States and China, its broader future looks uncertain.
It takes a lot more than one great concept to build a brand.
 They’re never ambivalent, risk-averse introverts in marketing-land, are they? Nowadays, such an individual would not be shopping for elegant, indulgent GTs, of that we can be certain.
 “Imagine juxtaposing flowing water with the stark outline of a canyon landscape”, the Infiniti press release gushed.
 Could we even discern a precursor to Mazda’s acclaimed Kodo design principle here?
 “Essence is a brand icon. It is driven more by a conceptual approach than by any design execution. It isn’t a teaser for a new model. It is solely dedicated to Infiniti brand promotion, to demonstrate and advocate the Infiniti unique values.” Francois Bancon, Infiniti.
5 thoughts on “Birthday Present, Birthday Past”
Very nice, but the low point of the “shoulder line” needs to be nearer to the back, to reflect the arc of the window line.
Thanks for reminding me of the Essence, which I’d completely forgotten about, Eoin.
Those were the days, when (theoretical) halo models came in the shape of dashing sports cars.
By the way: Was Johan de Nysschen (sic?) in charge of Infiniti’s fortunes at the time?
Johan de Nysschen became CEO of Infiniti on July 1, 2012. So no. This appontment followed some years as Marketing Man, er, President for Audi of America. His farcical career at Infiniti which moved its head office to Hong Kong and deleted Nissan oversight was a bust. Formula One? Good Lord, sponsoring Red Bull? After less than two years of wasting money at Infiniti, he then somehow managed to Cadillac. There he demanded and got product autonomy from GM, so moved Head Office to New York City and located it in his other super idea, the Cadillac coffee shop in Soho. Four years of that messing about and GM let him go.
A dunderhead of major proportions, I believe he eventually wound up back at VW, from whence he has since retired, no doubt to collective sighs of relief all around the automotive world.
Many thanks for a very interesting article Eoin. What a stunningly good looking machine! I will stick my head above the parapet by saying that I find the styling of the Essence to be much preferable to recent Ferraris. There, that should put the cat among the pigeons…
Here in the industrious North East, in a new, prestigious wing of the Nissan plant, they started building Mercedes A-Klasse models prior to building its Infinity sibling. Nobody bought the Infinity despite bespoke dealers being established. So if nobody was buying Infinity where they make them, what hope elsewhere? Maybe, this birthday present to itself should have been more useful to the rest of the forgettable range. Certainly the A-Klasse sold itself so the platform and powertrains weren’t the issue.