Curbside Classic: Infiniti Q45 – l’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, And Doggonit, People Like Me

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You can’t help but pity Nissan who, after making a good name for itself, saw its reputation and influence sink following its name change and a string of dowdy cars. Despite a high level of quality and inspired model line-up during a short-lived renaissance in the early ’90s, profits began to dwindle and with twenty-three year’s hindsight, the story doesn’t get much rosier. When you consider how hard they tried, it’s especially sad given how many resources went into what was possibly their most ambitious model, the Infiniti Q45.

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Nissan, of course, wasn’t unique in pulling out all the stops during their late ’80s product development.  Japan had been experiencing unprecedented growth, and following a 1985 treaty with other major powers, had to contend with the deliberate devaluation of the US dollar concurrent with a natural appreciation of the Yen.  There was enormous incentive to elevate the sophistication of Japanese automobiles across the board, given the inevitable price increases.  The ensuing period created some impressive machinery, evident in such over-engineered mainstream efforts as the Toyota Previa, and even more workmanlike cars like the Subaru Legacy and second-generation Isuzu Trooper displayed a drive upmarket.

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Nissan also wasn’t the the only Japanese automaker to suffer from some degree of an inferiority complex at the high end of the market, but may have felt it more than some others, namely Toyota and Honda.  While all three decided that separate nameplates were necessary to sell luxury cars, Nissan might have been unique in having also gained a reputation for dullness with its mainstream models.  Cars like the Stanza and Sentra were dangerously conservative and increasingly seen as also-rans.  The Yokohama-based company therefore faced a situation where it needed to update its very, very plain bread and butter models while proving itself to be a world-class producer of first-rate luxury automobiles.  While it was a big challenge, it must have seemed very doable, with all the easy money on hand and a strong home market.

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When it came to the Nissan’s newest wave of cars in the very late ’80s, it was obvious they had done their homework and the solution to the company’s most ambitious desires, when finally introduced, was a convincing effort to create the best sedan possible for the price ($38,000).  And while it was conceived with European competition in mind, first and foremost, the new Infiniti had a distinctly Japanese, high-tech vibe to it.  This latter trait may have proved to be its undoing.

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The most obvious place to begin is with the Q45’s styling, but before doing so, I’d like to challenge readers to abandon–however briefly–the notion that Japanese cars suffer derivative design.  Can we see bits and pieces of other cars in the Q45?  Of course; the most commonly suggested source of inspiration was the Jaguar XJ40, but there are also similarities with the Audi Typ44 and even the Ford Taurus.  But as anyone who’s ever been self-aware of their own prejudices can attest, one often looks for evidence to support stereotypes, and you have to wonder if the Jag, the Audi or the Ford were ever as widely accused of co-opting other carmakers’ design cues.

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The Taurus was hardly the first grilleless design, nor was the Audi the first popular sedan with a six-light greenhouse.  The take-away here is that true originals are quite rare and that new cars are hardly ever developed in a vacuum.  I’d hardly call the Q45 characterful–and it wouldn’t be unfair to call it blunt from some angles–but it’s a handsome, recognizable shape, with an athleticism imparted by a strong shoulderline and large, simple taillights.  It’s a shame Infiniti erred on the side of restraint, though, because they ultimately would up with too subtle of a design.

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A less subjective aspect of the Q45’s image was of its excellent performance.  As Japan’s then number-two automaker, Nissan allocated substantial resources for a dedicated engine and platform, ensuring that from the first test drive, their new sedan would be taken most seriously.  To that end, a 32-valve, quad-cam design was an obvious choice, though a healthy 4.5 liter displacement, all-aluminum construction and variable intake valve timing were leading-edge touches.  As expected, it was routed to the rear wheels using a four-speed automatic which, until 1993, started out in second gear.  With 292 naturally aspirated lb-ft of torque and optional traction control (and then, only after 1990) this was a wise move, as was standard fitment of a limited slip differential, but slow sales prompted Nissan to make all sorts of changes, some good and others, not so much.  Performance, at any rate, was class-leading.  The engine was rated at 278 horsepower, reportedly rated conservatively.  Typical test results saw a top speed limited to about 150 miles per hour, with sixty reached in about seven seconds flat and the quarter mile completed in about fifteen and a half seconds at over ninety miles per hour.  That was fast car territory.

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Powertrain performance was clearly excellent and the chassis was up to par.  Oddly enough, the Lexus LS400 tended to get the nod over the Infiniti when it came to at-the-limit handling, but that could have been a function of its lighter weight and more modest power.  The difference here was academic, though journalists’ impressions of the Q45’s road manners ranged from highly favorable to slightly dissatisfying.  By the time renewed competition surfaced in the form of the BMW 540i and Mercedes 400E/E420, the Infiniti was off most journalists’ radar and besides, had begun suffering the effects of dumbing down through taller gear ratios, softer chassis tuning and even a slower steering ratio.

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For those who were paying attention, though, two interesting options were offered.  The first was a touring sedan which boasted, among other things, an electric rear-wheel steering feature to enhance stability at higher speeds (also seen on the S13 240SX and Z32 300ZX).  The second, much more impressive, feature was a “Full Active Suspension,” the first such system offered in the US market.  Finding a car so equipped is rare, as it was a $5000 option, and a complex piece of machinery which few current Q45 owners would be likely to repair today, though to be fair, such could also be said for the simpler (and not necessarily comparable) Lexus air suspension system.

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Driven by a central, high pressure hydraulic pump, the FAS system could push down individual tires to maintain a level ride, negate pitch and roll, and vary damping all at once.  Working only during rebound–and not jounce–it was technically only a semi-active system, but was far more advanced than any variable shock-valve damping or air suspension in its ability to actively move the suspension through its travel rather than restricting the ability of pavement imperfections and G-forces to do the same.  Coupled with a four-wheel multilink design and rear-wheel steering, it was very impressive, but at about twenty percent of the car’s overall cost with a fuel mileage penalty to boot, it was somewhat of a flop.  Given such systems’ inability to change a car’s reaction to small, high frequency pavement imperfections, and the low-likelihood of test drives at triple digit speeds on imperfect roads, it’s unlikely potential customers could notice a difference.

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What potential customers likely did notice, unfortunately, was the misguided interior decor.  For all the criticism directed at LS400 for its derivative exterior styling, Lexus did an excellent job at establishing its own interior design language, not only through its electroluminescent gauge package, but also with matte-finish LCD displays and well-spaced, near-flush switchgear.  It would appear that Infiniti did not learn from Audi, who was compelled to redesign its 5000’s interior, likely before the 60 Minutes fiasco.

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Not only did the Infiniti’s interior not include wood, it also suffered from an abundance of padded vinyl finishes which imparted a cold look.  The quality was there, but the overall look was waxy.  It photographed very well and must have seemed inspired during the design process, but in the real world, it came across as antiseptic once the newness wore off.  It’s all very Sharper Image, bringing to mind the furniture of the late ’80s which fell out of favor quickly and has yet to come back in style.

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Our featured car, with its rear spoiler and rare five-spoke wheels, is of indeterminate trim.  The lack of a height adjustment knob in the console means this does not have the active suspension, but I wonder if it could be equipped with four-wheel steering.  With a two-tone interior (as envisioned by design consultant, Poltrona Frau) and single airbag, it’s an early production car.  In fact, it could even be an early 1990 model, given the seat adjustment buttons on the door (which were changed after Mercedes complained).  That ghastly pink steering wheel cover–ribbed for no one’s pleasure–doesn’t say anything positive about the current owner’s sense of style.  Not visible is the matching pink car seat in the rear.  Like any proper, massively depreciating luxury car, the Q45 rapidly found its rightful place in the very bottom of the used car market, alongside the likes of the BMW 7-series or Lincoln LS.  A slow-selling machine, the Infiniti was moved off the lot using generous lease deals and the result is often as you see here.  Failure is always depressing, but witnessing the collapse of very grand expectations can be a crushingly bleak spectacle and I was honestly surprised to find this car at all.

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Twenty-four year old LS400s, on the other hand, remain a relatively common sight.  They were brisk sellers, with higher resale, often benefitting from attentive owners.  And why not?  They were brilliant machines.  They were also, in comparison to the Infiniti, somewhat cynically conceived, offering not a single challenging element as far as their character or appearance was concerned.  And while they did a handy job of establishing a new brand, I’m not so sure the reputation has endured; these days, chaste RX350s and ES350s pay the bills for Toyota’s luxury brand.  Sales of the IS, GS and LS sedans are unimpressive, perhaps reflecting an eroding status.  Continued healthy sales (for now) of high-profit Camry derivatives will at least enable some future effort to restore competitiveness should the company reassess its priorities.

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That is something which certainly cannot be said for poor Nissan, who lost a pile of money in bringing forth a host of technically and aesthetically progressive cars in the late ’80s and early ’90s, only to have customers go elsewhere in search of glamor–even when the result was as well developed as the Q45.  It’s difficult to blame them, given the success enjoyed by more daring newcomers like the Audi 5000 and Saab 9000 in higher-priced segments.  What they didn’t understand, unfortunately, was that newcomers in an even more established, traditional market can’t afford to make waves.  Customers might be willing to pay a lot of money for prestige, but in such an image conscious field, few have enough faith to invest in a new concept which has yet to prove its snob appeal.  In this sense, launching Lexus was already a gamble, and hindsight clearly proves Toyota’s humble, almost apologetic approach to have been wiser, at least initially.

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The rules obviously are obviously different depending on what audience is being targeted.  The irony is that, after spending the 1980s boring more open-minded buyers in mainstream segments–the same people who made Honda dealers a fortune–Nissan chose to aim its boldest statement at the most fundamentally insecure social climbers; the exact sort most ready to discount the Q45 based on its national origin.  In doing so, it would seem they overestimated their customers.

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