Curbside Classic: 1986-92 Nissan Leopard (F31) – Failed Feline

The second generation Leopard, which our North American readers might know better as the Infiniti M30, is not a very common sight on either side of the Pacific. Nissan did not make all that many and over three decades of attrition has shrunk those numbers even more. And yet fate has made yours truly cross paths with several examples over the years. Having found three Leopards, and not meaning to get into some kind of feline breeding venture, a long-form CC about the F31 was the only way to go…

The Infiniti version was only around for three years (1990-92), so early model cars like the title pic or this somewhat tattier white example, might look a little off. Especially the nose.

But a post 1988 facelift car like this one is exactly like the Infiniti – minus a couple of details and badging. Now that we’ve introduced the menagerie, let’s delve into the origin of the species.

The first Leopard, based on the 910 Maxima, was launched in late 1980. Nissan really wanted a luxury two-door more than anything else, to counter the upcoming Toyota Soarer and the Mazda Cosmo.

However, the all-powerful pen-pushers at the Ministry of Transport (not the MITI, this time) thought there were too many models being created, so Nissan devised the Leopard as both a coupé and a saloon, claiming it was replacing the outgoing Bluebird GT. Though originally planned with the North American market in mind, the first Leopard was a JDM exclusive. It sold decently, but nowhere near as well as the Toyota Soarer.

For the second generation, unveiled in early 1986, Nissan deleted the saloon and changed the chassis, using the Skyline/Laurel’s well-proven bones instead. The usual array of trim levels was applied, of course. Our white car is a mid-range XS-II and the gold cars are of the Ultima persuasion – the older one even being the “Ultima Grand Selection” variant.

The trims in these Leopards was in direct correlation to the engines within: XJs had the base 2-litre V6 (115hp), XSs – as the one above – had the same but turbocharged (155hp). For their part, the Ultimas had the 3-litre, which initially produced 185hp.

Later Ultimas, like the one with BBS wheels in this post, were given a 200hp V6 and could also be ordered with a turbo, which provided a cavalry of 255 – pretty good for the time. All engines bar the earliest base V6s were given a 4-speed auto as default transmission.

Pre-facelift cars have a more affirmed character, in my view. The square-cut front end and those quirky taillights are more organic to the whole design than the rounded edges of the post-’88 cars.

This rear end would be the more familiar one to our North American CColleagues. The Leopard coupé started its transpacific trek late in life, coming to the other side of the ocean only in 1990 to flesh out the Infiniti range.

At least, that’s part of the reason. The question would not necessarily have arisen had the F31 Leopard been a runaway hit in its home market. But the Nissan PLC failed to make much of an impression in Japan, while Toyota Soarers were selling like hotcakes.

This lack of success was puzzling to Nissan, who tried everything to turn the Leopard into a serious Soarer rival. The styling was nice and conservative – with a pretty distinct hint of BMW 6-Series in profile. Both the regular car tax band and the oversized one were catered to, with the 2- and 3-litre V6s.

The car could be optioned with impressive-sounding gizmos, such as the “supersonic suspension” that scans the road ahead and adapts the dampers electronically. They even managed a product placement coup by supplying Leopards to a popular detective TV show. Alas, nothing seemed to work; despite the booming economic climate, sales remained sluggish.

Not that the Infiniti-badged F31s did that much better. It seems the American public was just as unfazed as the Japanese one. And that’s in spite of having the benefit of a drop-top variant that Japan never got.

For whatever reason, Nissan never bothered trying to export the Leopard to places that traditionally might have welcomed it, such as Southeast Asia and Australia, nor did they give Europe (a much tougher nut to crack, admittedly) any consideration.

American sales stagnated to 17,000 units in three years, while Japanese customers bought a little over twice that amount, but over six years. It seems the appetite for the F31, be it called Nissan Leopard or Infiniti M30, was pretty even in both markets.

So why was the F31 such a failure? The answer is not straightforward. One of the main gripes the Japanese press had against the early cars was the interior, with that tall cliff-like centre stack. It was deemed rather poorly styled, especially for a luxury coupé.

And there is definitely something to be said for that. Even Nissan must have listened, because they tried to address it when they gave the car a facelift.

This is the revamped version – much more organic, albeit not necessarily up to the Mercedes level that was Nissan’s aim. Plus, they changed the dash, but left the chunky square-cut gear shifter alone, which makes it kind of stick out like a sore thumb.

But aside from that, it’s difficult to pinpoint the reason why Japanese car buyers, their pockets then full to the brim with yens, shunned the Nissan in favour of the Z20 Soarer (over 140,000 units sold during 1986-91 – solely in Japan).

Only the top-of-the-line Soarer, with its air suspension, had some sort of technological advantage. For its part, the Leopard had more horsepower, decent dynamics and was arguably a fresher design.

The picture was different with the Infiniti version, which was more of a placeholder than anything else. The F31 was already pretty dated when it was drafted into the range, so expectations were probably not that high to begin with.

The twist in the Leopard’s tale (har har) is that it was not done tumbling down. Nissan changed tack again with the Cedric/Gloria-based third generation and switched to a dumpy four-door design, known as the Infiniti J30. This time, American sales dwarfed Japanese ones 30 to 1, so much so that I have yet to see a single gen 3 Leopard in the wild here.

Nissan redressed the issue somewhat with the fourth generation, but its life was cut short by the Renault buy-out and the 20-year-old nameplate was taken to a farm upstate. The third and fourth generation leopards were symptomatic of the dysfunction within Nissan management in the ‘90s, but it’s hard to make the same case for the F31, because it was actually a pretty decent car.

The supreme irony is that, nowadays, the remaining second gen Leopards are highly valued in Japan and have become the poster child for the entire Leopard nameplate. Third and fourth generation Leopards are rarer still and the first one, which sold decently well, is a bit too old and peculiar to fill this role.

The F31’s starring role on TV, capable and easily modifiable underpinnings, as well as its classic looks, means it is now finally getting some recognition – though the white car in this post also shows that some have yet to be rescued. The genus may now be extinct, but some Leopards will live on for a while yet.


Related posts:


Curbside Classic: 1990-92 Infiniti M30 – To Infinity And Nowhere, by William Stopford

Curbside Classic: 1992 Infiniti M30 – Swallowed Up In The Memory Hole, by Jeff Nelson

Junkyard Classic: 1992 Infiniti M30 Convertible – Hidden Under A Rock Behind A Tree, by Jim Klein