Curbside Classic: 1997 Infiniti J30 – Jellybean Jealousy

IMG-20120216-00942Special thanks to James Cavanaugh for the photos of this 1997 J30.

As Destiny’s Child so eloquently put it, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly”. Now of course in the song, they were referring to a woman’s derrière. Yet when used under a different context, it’s a rather fitting statement to describe the Infiniti J30, a car whose jellybean-like styling and focal rear end, most people were not ready for.

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Launching a new brand from scratch, let alone a new luxury brand is no easy task. It must be carefully orchestrated, with proper marketing, a clear image, and above all, an appealing product. Unfortunately for Infiniti, it failed to hit any of these targets spot on when it launched in 1989, the same year as its ultimately more successful rival, Lexus.

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Whereas Lexus gracefully waltzed onto the dance floor, balancing a pyramid of champagne glasses and all, Infiniti stumbled about like the party guest who had a few to many glasses of bubbly.

Initially launched with the Q45 and M30, Infiniti started off in the wrong gear with its now infamous ad campaign that failed to even show pictures of its cars. Especially in the pre-Internet days, there were far fewer sources for the average buyer to know what an Infiniti looked like without seeing one in person. Consider this strike one.

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Once people did see the cars, they were less than enamored. In the case of the Q45, this was rather unfortunate, as Infiniti’s flagship was really quite an excellent car, offering impressive performance, a high quality interior, and a host of notable technologies. Sadly, most potential buyers were put off by the Q45’s somewhat bland exterior design and stark interior. Strike Two.

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The second model available upon launch was the M30 coupe. Much like Lexus had done with the Toyota Vista-based ES250, the M30 was a last minute placeholder, in this case, a hastily rebadged Nissan Leopard. With even less memorable styling and only two doors at a time when the coupe market was sharply declining, it came as no surprise that the M30 was a flop. Not even a convertible model could help, and the M30 was withdrawn after selling only about 12,000 over four years. Strike Three… You’re Out!

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Luckily for Infiniti, the automotive industry doesn’t go by the rules of baseball. The brand’s third model, the G20, sounded more promising. Sized like a 3-Series and rightfully priced considerably less than other Infinitis, the 1991 G20 aimed to capture the ever-growing class of entry-level luxury car buyers. But a 3-Series it was not. With its non-premium looks, underwhelming performance, and lack of many luxury features available on competitors, the G20 may have better-served Nissan as a more conventional looking Altima (whose shape was not unlike that of a larger Infiniti waiting in the wings).

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That Infiniti is our featured car, the 1993-1997 Infiniti J30. As Infiniti’s first mid-size luxury sedan, the J30 sought to go up against at a number of middle-weights like the Acura Legend and newly-introduced Lexus GS, as well as cars like the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class.

Offering a rear-wheel drive layout, 210-horsepower 3.0L V6 (from the Nissan 300ZX), four-wheel independent suspension, and available Touring package that included firmer suspension, a smaller anti-roll bar diameter, and the Q45’s four-wheel steering, on paper, the J30 would have appeared to have the makings for a competitive touring sedan.

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Yet in reality, performance was nothing all that special. With some 3,600 pounds of bulk, the V6’s respectable 210 horsepower and 193 lb-ft of torque moved the J30 to sixty in a somewhat leisurely 8.9 seconds – not terrible for its class, but hardly noteworthy. Despite any theoretical handling advantages of its rear-wheel drive, most reviews of the base J30 found the rear difficult to control when steering at higher speeds. Unlike its Japanese counterpart, the Infiniti J30 was not available with V8 power.

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Learning from their mistakes with the Q45, designers created Infiniti’s best interior yet with the J30. With its attractive layout, soft gathered leather seats, polished burled walnut trim, and contrasting color schemes, consisting of darker upper dash and a lighter shade lower dash and seats, the J30 offered one of the most handsome and inviting interiors of its class.

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Reflecting the J30’s initial $34,000 sticker price was a host of luxury, convenience, and safety amenities, including the aforementioned leather and genuine wood trim, 8-way power front seats, heated front seats (made standard after 1993), automatic climate control with digital controls, premium Bose sound system with CD and cassette, analogue clock, tinted window glass, sunroof, and dual front airbags.

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But if Infiniti was generous with the interior trimmings, it was stingy on the space offered in the J30. Despite riding on an eight-inch longer wheelbase, the J30 had less front- and rear-legroom and headroom than the G20. With its sloping rear end, trunk space was a paltry 10.1 cubic feet; considerably less than most compacts. The car’s rear-wheel drive layout also resulted in an obtrusive driveshaft hump.

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Of course, to even discover the J30’s performance and interior (both for better or for worse), one had to get past the J30’s rather unusual exterior styling. While the styling of earlier Infinitis may not made many lasting impressions, the J30’s look triggered responses from admirable to stomach churning. 

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The J30 was designed under a team of designers, headed by Keiichi Shinohara, at Nissan Design International in La Jolla, California. Long before the term “four-door coupe” was ubiquitous in automotive vocabulary, designers set out to create a “personal” luxury sedan with coupe-like styling cues. As a matter of fact, in Japan, where this car was sold as the more exotic-sounding Nissan Leopard J Ferie, it actually replaced the coupe-only second generation Nissan Leopard (which was the M30’s donor).

Coupe-like styling or not, from the start of the project, in 1988, NDI’s goal with the J30 was to create a car with distinctive design language, visually separating it from the larger Q45. In this respect, it is safe to say they succeeded.

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The J30’s design was characterized by an ellipse-like (“jellybean” to you naysayers) profile, that eschewed the usual high decklid, in favor of a rounded, sloping trunk. The overall look was very Art Deco, as far as the automotive industry is concerned. Drawing parallels to historic cars including 1950’s Hudsons and early-’60s Jaguars, the J30’s distinctive rump instantly became the focal point of the car’s design.

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The ovoid shape of its silhouette carried over in the J30’s grille and flanking twin projector headlights. Although it hardly made for an exciting or aggressive face, props to designers for continuity.

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This continuity continued into the interior, with the instrument panel mimicking the grille’s inset placement.

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Despite a thought-out design, the fact was that it was love it or hate it, and it appears that more peoples’ opinions leaned towards hate. If you look at most mid-size luxury sedans of this era, you’ll notice that despite all displaying their own design language, nearly every one possessed a wedge-like profile and traditional three-box design, with a long, low hood, a high deck, and short overhangs. Additionally, most of these sedans were able to exude a degree of aggression with their athletic stance and styling elements. The J30, however, possessed none of these qualities.

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Whatever shortcomings the car had in performance and interior space, it was above all, styling that caused the J30 to fail. In a class where most buyers prefer conformist style, the J30, with its blob-like shape was simply too off putting for most, and for many, too ugly. It’s similarities to the compact Nissan Altima didn’t help either.

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Predictably, sales never took off. After selling just over 20,000 in ’93 and ’94, sales dipped to 17,899 in ’95, and continued to fall to 7,564 in ’96 and 4,594 in ’97, the car’s final year. No direct replacement appeared, but during that time, Infiniti had begun selling the more conventionally-styled Maxima-based I30, which quickly became the brand’s top seller. It wouldn’t be until 2003 that Infiniti would have another mid-sized rear-wheel drive sedan in its lineup, the reincarnated M45.

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Given its low sales numbers and lack of much enthusiasm for it, not many J30s exist on today’s roads. Although it may be one of the least remembered Infinitis, the J30 will forever go down as one of the most unusually styled cars from the 1990s.

 

Related Reading:

Infiniti Q45

Infiniti M30

Infiniti G20

Infiniti I35