It’s hard not to compare Infiniti’s commercial success with Lexus’s, seeing as they are both Japanese luxury brands initially aimed squarely at the North American market and which both arrived there in late 1989. Where Lexus has gone from strength to strength, Infiniti’s track record has been markedly less consistent. Although there’s been some promising growth of late, Infiniti still seems to be on unsteady footing. Let’s take a look at what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong.
The great hybrid cull and non-existent EVs
The qualifier here is that Infiniti’s hybrids were never strong sellers. Still, Infiniti was late to the hybrid game – its first hybrid, the M35h (later renamed Q70 Hybrid) was introduced in 2011, six years after Lexus’ first hybrid. It was an impressive system, mating an electric motor to the acclaimed VQ35HR 3.5 V6 and a seven-speed automatic and producing a combined 360 hp and 391 ft-lbs. It wasn’t as refined as a Lexus GS450h and its trunk space was severely restricted by the placement of the lithium-ion battery pack but it was a rapid, high-tech flagship for the brand. Alas, the hybrid option was axed from the aging Q70 lineup in 2018.
Then came the tamer Pathfinder-derived QX60 Hybrid. Using a supercharged 2.5 four-cylinder and an electric motor, good for a combined 250 hp and 243 ft-lbs, the Infiniti beat Lexus to the hybrid three-row crossover market by four years. Again, it was axed from the US market for 2018, though it lives on in some markets, including China.
Finally, Infiniti saw fit to add the Q70 Hybrid’s impressive powertrain to the Q50 sports sedan. Guess what? It, too, was axed from North America at the same time as its siblings. Their demise left Infiniti without a single hybrid model in that market. Though automakers are investing huge sums in electrification, Infiniti’s first electric vehicle isn’t tipped to arrive until 2022, making the brand a laggard in the luxury car market.
Infiniti could have gotten an EV a lot sooner by introducing a production version of the LE concept. A four-door sedan based on the Nissan Leaf, the front-wheel-drive LE debuted at the 2012 New York auto show. In June 2013, then-CEO Johan de Nysschen said the LE was on hold indefinitely, before being contradicted the next month by Andy Palmer, Nissan’s head of global planning, who said the production LE was delayed “a little bit”. Spoiler alert: the LE never appeared. While it might have sunk without a trace in the US like other luxified hybrid/electric models (see: Lexus HS250h, Cadillac ELR), it might’ve helped the brand in China.
2019 Qs Inspiration concept
Reportedly, all Infiniti models released after 2021 will be electrified. That means they’ll be either hybrid or electric. In the meantime, Tesla is outselling luxury stalwarts, while Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche all have electric vehicles on sale now. Infiniti is coming off the back foot.
A tamer image
Infiniti languished in the 1990s as Nissan populated the brand with hastily rebadged Nissans and softened their sporty image. At first, this wasn’t egregious. The entry-level G20, for example, was the poised European Nissan Primera, while the M30 and, later, J30 were rebadged JDM Nissan Leopards and had no equivalents in North American Nissan showrooms. But then came the I30 which, while based on a JDM Nissan (the Cefiro), was basically a softer, plusher version of the Maxima. The second-generation Q45 (née Nissan Cima) was much less aggressive than its forebear in an unsuccessful attempt to match the Lexus LS400.
Then came Infiniti’s renaissance. The G35 sedan and coupe, based on the JDM Nissan Skyline and sharing a platform with the Nissan 350Z, were a shot of adrenaline for Infiniti, being relatively affordable, dynamically adept and powered by a gutsy V6 engine. The FM platform of the G35 was used for the M35/M45 sedans and the trend-setting FX35/FX45 crossovers. Not every Infiniti of this era was a hit – the third-generation Q45, though more of a sport sedan than before, was a commercial failure – but Infiniti sales soared. In 2005, thanks largely to the new G and FX, Infiniti posted sales of 136,401. That was almost double their 2001 figure of 71,365.
Why the history lesson? Because it seems Infiniti has forgotten the lessons learned during the halcyon days of the turn of the century. The Q50, successor to the G35/G37, was panned by critics for a steer-by-wire system that robs the driver of crucial road feel. The QX50 (née EX) and QX70 (née FX) were left to wither on the vine and have now been replaced by a new QX50 on a front-wheel-drive platform with a CVT. The Q70 has been criticized for being too soft in base trim and too harsh in sporty trim.
So what does Infiniti stand for? It’s true that Lexus has a dichotomy between its plush, front/all-wheel-drive crossovers and its rear-wheel-drive sport sedans but Lexus synergises these two poles through a shared and distinctive design language and the availability of dynamic F-Sport packages on all their models. Infiniti, however, now has two front/all-wheel-drive crossovers with CVT transmissions and unremarkable styling; the QX60, in particular, is perhaps the most minivan-like of all luxury crossovers.
Infiniti still has some desirable, sporty vehicles, like the Q50 and Q60 Red Sport, but some of their recent product decisions are reminding me more of Infiniti’s late-90s nadir than their early-00s resurgence.
Cancelled performance models
At the 2014 Geneva auto show, Infiniti debuted a virile, high-performance flagship. The Q50 Eau Rouge used the Nissan GT-R’s 560 hp twin-turbocharged 3.8 V6 and wore aggressive visual enhancements. It used the seven-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive system from the Q70, suggesting this was more than a mere concept and that the car was production feasible.
The next year, Infiniti shelved the project. Had it reached production, the Eau Rouge would have outgunned the BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. The official reason for the cancellation was the prohibitively high cost of building the car when compared with production volume. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop the rumour mill from buzzing about why Infiniti axed the wild sports sedan that could have really gotten them attention.
Since the Eau Rouge, Infiniti has been showcasing the Q60 Project Black S. Through a hybridized version of Infiniti’s twin-turbo 3.0 V6 inspired by Formula One technology, the Project Black S pumps out the same horsepower as the Eau Rouge did although it employs rear-wheel-drive instead of all-wheel-drive. It also has a lairy look that eschews subtlety for raw aggression. Like the Eau Rouge, it would likely be an extremely low-volume model but it would be a powerful halo for the brand. Infiniti is still investigating the business case for the model but it’s completed the “track-focussed development” stage. Will it reach production?
No performance sub-brand
Almost every luxury brand has a high-performance sub-brand and a sporty sub-brand. Lexus, for example, has powerful, V8 versions of the RC and GS bearing the F nameplate. They also have F-Sport variants of most of their range which, while offering no extra performance, typically add some kind of performance hardware like adaptive suspension or include some visual enhancements.
While Infiniti does offer sporty variants of some of its range, it doesn’t market them under a unified sub-brand name. They introduced the IPL name on the G37 coupe and convertible (later Q60) in 2010. The IPL (Infiniti Performance Line) variants had a different suspension tune, slightly more power and a redesigned exhaust system. Infiniti, alas, restricted the sub-brand to the G37 coupe and convertible – they didn’t even do a G37 IPL sedan. Unlike other luxury brands, too, there was no high-performance line magic to rub off on the IPL. Infiniti half-heartedly marketed the IPL and then dropped the name when the new generation of Q60 was launched, the performance models now wearing Red Sport badging. There was a Q50 Red Sport this time but otherwise the new name – or any “light” variant of it – hasn’t been rolled out across the Infiniti range.
Long model cycles
The QX70 was discontinued in 2017 in the US market, though it remains on sale in some markets. Its dynamic styling aged well but its interior certainly didn’t, nor did its infotainment or features list. That’s because Infiniti barely updated it after its launch in 2009.
The Q70 at least got a facelift for 2015 but it’s another Infiniti that’s looking extremely tired in a cutthroat segment full of desirable alternatives. It was first introduced in 2011 and it likely won’t be replaced until 2021 at the earliest.
The QX50 was finally replaced for the 2019 model year after a decade on the market. Towards the end (2015), it received a wheelbase stretch and a modest facelift but it otherwise looked much the same as when it was introduced for model year 2008 as the Infiniti EX35.
clockwise from top left: Q70, QX60, QX70, Q50
Infiniti’s exterior styling and performance numbers are rarely what ages the quickest. Instead, it’s their interior styling and appointments. Let’s hope a Q50/Q60 refresh lobs soon because their interiors are starting to look old, especially the fussy two-screen center stack.
Since 2010, Nissan and Renault have both had a 1.55% stake in Daimler, while Daimler owns 3.1% of both companies. The tie-up was initially intended to be limited to three projects but Daimler and the Alliance’s involvement ended up extending further and they collaborated on over a dozen different projects.
When Infiniti wanted to develop a C-segment hatchback and crossover aimed predominantly at the European market, they approached Daimler. The result was the Q30 and QX30, which used not only the Mercedes-Benz A-Class’s platform but also its engines and transmissions and a lot of its switchgear. Neither sold particularly well and production of the two hatchbacks is ending this year at the Sunderland, UK factory (Brexit made that decision even easier). Infiniti President Christian Meunier himself conceded they weren’t very successful products and executives have confirmed the two hatchbacks didn’t meet sales expectations anywhere.
Reportedly, the next-generation MFA2 platform of the A family of Benzes was too expensive for Infiniti. New Daimler CEO Ola Kallenius has also said he wants to focus on the company’s partnership with BMW.
While the Q30 and QX30 were never very successful and are now on the way out, Infiniti did get a few other perks from their arrangement with Mercedes-Benz including a 2.0 turbocharged four used in entry-level Q50 and Q60 models. However, Infiniti recently announced it’s discontinuing the engine, leaving their volume passenger cars without a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. In a segment where literally every rival has a turbo four available, that’s not a good look.
Infiniti announced this year they were pulling out of the European market entirely in 2020. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise as they were struggling greatly to get traction and the European market largely remains loyal to their homegrown luxury brands, with even Lexus’ market share a fraction what it is in the US. Shortly after this announcement, executives assured the brand was safe in Australia. Guess what? Just a few months later, they announced they were pulling out of Australia.
Nissan’s corporate struggles may serve only to further impede Infiniti’s growth. Even beyond the scandal that took down CEO Carlos Ghosn, Nissan is struggling. In the first quarter of this year, Nissan saw a 99% plunge in operating profit and sales fell in every major market except China. Operating profit was almost completely obliterated with operating profit down from 4% to just 0.1%, year-over-year.
Like most automakers, Infiniti is betting heavily on the Chinese market for its future prosperity. The brand has been seeing incremental growth in sales of its Chinese-produced models, the Q50L and QX50. In 2017, they sold 48,408 vehicles in China. Their aim is to triple this figure by 2023, introducing five locally-produced models along the way. They’re going to need a serious product infusion to reach that goal.
After seven years being headquartered in Hong Kong, Infiniti moved back in with the folks this year. Recent news reports have also quoted Infiniti executives as saying they want to “find synergies with Nissan”, while the initial press release said the relocation “will further integrate [Infiniti] with global design, research and development and manufacturing functions based in Japan.”
In a Reuters report earlier this year, anonymous sources were quoted as saying there was already a fair amount of platform and technology sharing between Nissan and Infiniti but “there could be more.”
The Chinese Infiniti ESQ, a rebadged Nissan Juke.
The whole purpose of moving to Hong Kong was reportedly to help foster a more “global” image and also to better understand the Chinese market. Considering Infiniti is pinning its hopes on the US and Chinese markets, a move back to Japan seems counter-intuitive. Unless, of course, Nissan plans on increasing the amount of sharing between Infiniti and Nissan models.
That was a lot of doom and gloom for Nissan’s luxury brand. Are they doing anything right?
Record US sales and market share
With Infiniti’s withdrawal from the European market, their plan is to focus on the US and Chinese markets with a secondary focus on smaller growth markets like Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the US, they’re doing well. In 2017, Infiniti posted its highest sales figures ever in the US market and have dipped only slightly since then.
Alas, even this bit of good news comes with an ominous caveat. As other outlets have reported, September 2019 was a disastrous month for Infiniti with double-digit declines across almost the entire range. Most troublingly, that included the relatively fresh Q60 coupe, while the new QX50 crossover – the car that’s supposed to be one of Infiniti’s two biggest sellers – posted a decline of 51.1%. That’s just one month, mind you, but it’s not a good start for a model Infiniti has high hopes for. Infiniti also remains behind Lexus and Acura in sales.
A new high-volume crossover
The QX50 is hardly exciting but it’s exactly the kind of product Infiniti needs right now, competing in the heart of a segment dominated by the Audi Q5, Mercedes GLC and BMW X3. It’s soon to spawn a coupe variant badged QX55.
Though the hybrids and the turbocharged fours have gone, Infiniti still has some excellent engines. The twin-turbocharged 3.0 V6 in the Q50 and Q60 Red Sport models is a real honey. With 400 hp and 350 ft-lbs, the two Red Sport models have more power and torque than all their direct rivals. The ageing Q70 also still offers a burly V8.
On paper, Infiniti’s situation doesn’t seem completely dire. The last two years’ US sales have been strong by Infiniti standards and they finally have a fresh offering in the compact crossover segment. Nevertheless, this is a brand that’s withdrawing from markets across the world and continues to suffer from overly long model cycles. There aren’t really any Infinitis that are top of the class in their respective segments, and recent reports suggest future Infinitis may be more closely related to Nissans.
Infiniti isn’t at its nadir. Its lowest point was in the late 1990s and it rebounded then, and it could do it again. Don’t count Nissan’s luxury brand out just yet.