Curbside Classic: 1999 Infiniti Q45t – The Japanese Lincoln?

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Introduced the same year as Toyota’s Lexus division, Nissan’s Infiniti brand never achieved the runaway success of Lexus, and this has largely been the plight of Infiniti ever since. Nissan’s luxury brand has had several notable victories, such as the G-Series, but over the course of its now quarter-century history, Infiniti has largely come up short when it comes to compelling products and high sales figures. 

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This isn’t to say that Infinti’s vehicles are inferior in quality or luxury features, because they’ve always been competitive in these respects. It’s just that for most of its history, Infiniti’s had a tough time standing out as something exciting in a crowded field of luxury vehicles, and presenting itself as more than just “a luxury Nissan”. Never making the inroads that Acura and Lexus accomplished early on, Infiniti has suffered from lack of notoriety and substantially lower sales over the past two and a half decades. 

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Whereas the Lexus LS 400 appeared to embody a balance of everything buyers of a flagship luxury car wanted, in comparison, the original Infiniti Q45 seemed to fall flat on its face, largely a result of its bolder, but more subjective qualities. Although it offered better performance, the 1990 Q45 turned off many potential buyers by its avant-garde styling, starker interior, and less comfortable ride. Despite attempts to address these issues in 1994, the Q45 remained but a shadow of the LS’s popularity, with Lexus selling more than twice as many LS 400s annually, for every year of the first generation Q45.  

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Adding insult to injury, by this point in time, Nissan as a whole was in a downward tailspin. Following a massive 1980s expansion in an unsuccessful attempt to usurp Toyota as Japan’s largest automaker, Nissan was left in an especially weak standing just as a global recession hit, affecting Japan particularly hard. With the Yen’s value skyrocketing against the U.S. Dollar, Japanese automakers were forced to raise prices of their vehicles. Sales took a beating from this, and in 1991, Nissan’s net operating profit fell a massive 64.3 percent. By 1994, net losses amounted to nearly $2 Billion U.S.D. 

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In order to combat this, Nissan implemented a massive cost-cutting program across the board. In conjunction with factory closings, massive layoffs, and heavy loans from the Industrial Bank of Japan, this cost-cutting program began producing positive results almost immediately, and by 1997 Nissan posted its first profits since the decade’s beginning. Predictably, this cost-cutting extended beyond manufacturing costs, and forced Nissan to reduce quality of materials and the expensive development of new vehicles. Even the flagship Infiniti Q45 was not immune to this.

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Given the automaker’s then-advantageous financial standing and its high hopes for a world-class luxury sedan, Nissan spared little expense in the development of the first generation Infiniti Q45. However, investing heavily into an exclusive platform, an all-new highly-advanced V8 engine, unique styling, dedicated interiors, specially designed seats, and numerous technologies including hydraulic active suspension and four-wheel steering yielded significantly less return on investment than Nissan had bargained for. 

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As a result, Nissan could not take the same laissez-faire attitude when it came to developing the second generation of its Infiniti Q45. Investing in an all-new dedicated platform and styling was out of the question. Instead, the Q45 was now based on the slightly smaller Japanese-market Nissan Cima, sharing its platform, engine, styling, and interior. The JDM Nissan President, based on a long-wheelbase version of the 1990-1996 Q45, continued in original form through 2002.

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Moving to the Cima’s platform meant that the Q45 lost two inches in wheelbase, although interior volume was increased by two cubic feet and rear seat passengers gained 3.9 inches of legroom. Power from a smaller 4.1L v8 also down a modest twelve horsepower and sixteen pound-foot of torque, to 266 and 278, respectively. While few lamented at this minor loss of power, some pundits criticized Infiniti for not renaming the car “Q41”, reflective of the new engine’s smaller displacement. Thanks to the 4.1 liter’s lower weight, as well as weight-saving measures taken with the car’s suspension, its overall weight was down over 200 pounds from the first generation Q45, resulting in similar acceleration despite lower output.

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Cost-cutting also dictated a loss of the original car’s advanced four-wheel multilink suspension, in favor of a cheaper and lighter McPherson strut suspension up front. Q45t (Touring) models gained an Active Damper Suspension, which allowed drivers to choose between normal and sport settings for the shocks’ reaction to steering and road surfaces. Despite this, the second generation Q45’s suspension was decidedly tuned more for comfort, a greater nod to the precedent set by the LS. Unlike the Cima, which offered all-wheel drive, American market Q45s were strictly rear-wheel drive. 

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Also shared with the Cima, second generation Q45 interiors carried a far more traditional appearance than the swoopy, cockpit styling of the first generation. Leather seats no longer looked like modern Italian furniture. Instead, Infiniti opted for wider and softer seats with French-stitched gathered leather to address complaints over the previous seats’ lack of adequate comfort. Although placement varied by model and year, all second generation Q45s were adorned with copious amounts of wood trim.

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Regrettably, unlike later model years of its predecessor, this wood was of the plastic variety. Along with the lack of dual-zone climate control, this was rather appalling in a car priced at $48,000 (roughly $68,000 in 2015). Also gone from the new Q45’s interior was an elegant analogue clock – one of the original car’s most favored and praised details. To much relief though, an analogue clock would return in 1999. The new model did add additional leather to the door panels, and made greater use of soft-touch padded surfaces and contrasting color schemes, however it just didn’t exude the same presence as the original, looking more like it was cribbed from the $28,000 I30.

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Styling of the new Q45 was also significantly more conservative than the original, possibly another attempt to make it more Lexus-like in appeal. In fact, apart from grilles and badging, the Q45 and Cima’s exteriors were identical. This was likely not a huge issue for American Infiniti buyers, considering the Cima was not sold on this side of the Pacific. Additionally, taking into account that these were the earlier days of Internet and that the average Q45 buyer was 58.5 years old, with one-third over 65 years of age, many likely had no knowledge of the Cima whatsoever. With this in mind, having the Q45 share its body with a lesser Nissan still did take away a slight bit of special-ness from the Q45.

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The Q45’s front fascia was graced by a larger chrome waterfall grille and more upswept flush headlights. High-intensity discharge projector units became standard in 1999. Moving along the side, the 1997 model now featured a more formal greenhouse with a gracefully concave roofline, echoing the full-size Chrysler C-body hardtops of the mid-1970s. Large chrome door handles tended to evoke the look of vintage European luxury cars. 

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At the rear, gone were the rather futuristic full-width taillights, replaced with more ordinary-looking horizontal units. The 1999 freshening also eliminated the trunk-located taillight portions, replacing them with separate reverse signals and a larger chrome piece over the license plate. The styling of the second generation Q45 was by no means as emotional as the original, but in your author’s opinion, it still was a very elegant and attractive design. Especially considering the second generation LS 400 was so evolutionary in design that it was hard to distinguish from the original, the Q45 certainly had its strong points. Particularly in the 1999-2001 Q45t models, with their larger 5-spoke wheels and more subdued chrome trim, the Q45 sported a lean, athletic look that was not found in the LS. 

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Unfortunately, buyers still didn’t warm up much to the new Infiniti flagship. While sales for the 1997 Q45 were up over 75 percent (to an staggering 10,443 units), by the following year they were back on the steady decline. Truthfully, the 1997-2001 Infiniti Q45 was a mostly competent all-around luxury sedan, but it lacked any notable qualities to generate attention and buyer interest in either the car itself, or the Infiniti brand. 

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Unsympathetic to Nissan’s financial situation, in the minds of most consumers and journalists, the 1997-2001 Infiniti Q45 was a sign that the automaker had grown complacent in producing a run-of-the-mill luxury sedan in the place of a awe-inspiring technological marvel of a flagship. Some critics even went so far as to dub it (in highly unflattering manner) “The Japanese Lincoln” or even worse, “The Japanese Buick”. It would appear that Nissan’s approach in giving the Q45 a more subdued, Lexus-like personality was a losing battle, much like the more daring original. 

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In reality however, it wasn’t really the conservative styling of the second generation LS that was continuing to win over buyers. In fact, sales of the very evolutionary second generation LS were actually down significantly from the first generation, a result of its aging styling and climbing price. Instead, it was the strong brand equity and image that Lexus established early on that gave its vehicles a greater sense of prestige and recognition, thus continuing to drive sales. Lacking this distinction, the second generation Q45 was hardly the car to boost the allure of Infiniti in the same way as Lexus, and it faded quietly into the background more than ever before.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1990-1996 Infiniti Q45

Curbside Classic: 1991 Infinti M30

Curbside Classic: 1997 Infiniti J30

CC Capsule: 2002 Infiniti I35