It all started with this car, just over 30 years ago. The two top Japanese carmakers, Nissan and Toyota, were taking their never-ending duel to new heights. Nissan fired first and, at the time, it looked like they had been the better shot. And they did. But being Nissan, they fumbled the rest and let their lead go to waste. It had all started so well…
While Europe and the US were busy trying to counter the Japanese automakers’ lower-end products in the ‘80s, Japan’s economy was going through a long period of sustained growth – though deemed moderate at the time, it was still pretty healthy and the Yens were pouring in. The middle class were making money and, being Japanese, they barely spent it. Well, some did – foreign cars were starting to become a desirable commodity. The biggest domestic cars were under 3-litres and no wider than 1.65m, so Benzes and Jags looked mighty tempting. The Nissan President and the Toyota Century were not really available for purchase, but a BMW 735 was.
The Japanese authorities were ready to relax their stringent regulations. Toyota and Nissan were of course warned in advance (unlike the change of kei car regulations in 1975, which took carmakers by surprise) and started planning new models to fill this new niche. Toyota had the edge. They had been hard at work to devise an S-Class fighter for the global market – the “Flagship 1” programme, initiated in 1983, was already well advanced, though not yet called Lexus. For the JDM, Toyota planned to take the 4-litre V8 they had developed and put it in a slightly enlarged Crown. The S130 Crown was launched in September 1987, but the larger V8 version was not part of the initial line-up. Nissan knew it was coming, though, and wanted to ace out Toyota by launching their “wider-than-ever” luxury hardtop first.
The plan was to do exactly what Toyota were planning to do, i.e. take the existing top-tier car (the Cedric/Gloria Y31, to be launched in June 1987), make it a shade longer and wider, and throw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix – bar a V8 engine. The plan was delayed somewhat, but Nissan allegedly took advantage of this extra development time to tinker with the design and make it even more distinctive. When the Cedric/Gloria Cima was officially launched in January 1988, almost at the peak of the Bubble Economy, it was a sensation.
Finally, the JDM had a car that could rival the foreign makers size-wise. The Cedric/Gloria Cima sat on the standard Y31 wheelbase (273.5cm), but was otherwise different in all measurements. The standard Cedric/Gloria Y31’s length / width / height was 469 / 169.5 / 140 cm, while the Cima’s length / width / height was 489 / 177 /138 cm. It’s also worth noting that the Cima was about 250kg heavier, which is substantial. I guess 20cm extra in length and 7.5cm more width does affect the weight.
Four trim levels were on offer: the Type I, the Type II, the Type II-S and the top-of-the-line Type II Limited. The engine inside these last two wundercars was the turbocharged VG30DET, a 3-litre DOHC V6 providing 255 PS. The non-turbo cars made do with just 200 PS. The sole transmission choice was a 4-speed auto driving the rear wheels. Only the Type II Limited got the air suspension; the others were sprung by conventional coils.
In its first year, the Cima sold 36,400 units and by the time this first generation was replaced in 1991, Nissan had shifted close to 130,000. This was above and beyond Nissan’s expectations. The term “Cima phenomenon” was coined by industry observers to describe the Japanese public’s newfound appetite for high-end domestic saloons. The Bubble Economy came crashing down in 1991-92, but the Japanese carmakers were now on a roll and would no longer be bound by the tight restrictions of yore (although they still were and are to this day, of course).
I’m not exactly sure whether our feature car is a Type II or a Type II Limited. It’s difficult to tell those two apart without checking the engine for a turbocharger. The Type I had a two-spoke steering wheel and the Type II-S had sportier alloys, a different interior and lacked the amaranth leaf hood ornament. Our feature car’s door-mounted electric seat switches look like they came straight out of the contemporary Mercedes. It seems Daimler-Benz noticed and told Nissan as much, so they were moved someplace else after the first year of production. In early 1990, the Cima was given a slightly different grille and a few other minor changes, but things remained quite stable – no need to fix what was obviously not broken.
I’m not overly keen on Nissans in general, but this 1st generation Cima is rather good-looking for its time. In my opinion, it’s a better design than its main rival, the Toyota Crown (S130) V8 Royal Saloon G. The hardtop really makes it work – and the tastefulness of the rear balances out the somewhat overworked front end. I don’t think I’ll be getting too much pushback from the CCommentariat by saying that it is also a much better-looking car than the 1990-96 Infiniti Q45, but that’s faint praise indeed.
For Infiniti was just beginning, in those days. In parallel and in marked contrast to the Cima success story, the new brand’s US launch in 1990 had been rather catastrophic. The Infiniti Q45, based on the Nissan President, was roughly the same size as the Cima but it had the requisite V8 engine. Unfortunately, it was hamstrung by its off-putting styling, as well as a bizarre PR campaign. As a result, Acura and Lexus were laughing all the way to the bank, while Infiniti was stuck in a loop of disappointment. On the JDM (and in several other markets, such as Australia), it was called Nissan Infiniti Q45 and it bombed just as badly as it did everywhere else.
The subsequent Cima Y32 (they dropped the Cedric/Gloria name by then) arrived in August 1991 and had a slightly smaller version of the Q45’s V8. The economic downturn hurt sales, but Toyota’s Crown Majesta fared even worse. In 1996, the Q45 was nixed from the JDM lineup and the Cima regained its top dog status within the Nissan range; eventually, the new generation Infiniti Q45 just became a rebadged Cima Y33, plain and simple.
With hindsight, Nissan could have saved themselves a lot of needless aggravation by rebadging the original Cima as Infiniti back in 1990. Sure, this one only had a 3-litre V6 to combat the Lexus’ 4-litre V8, but at least it had a grille and a better interior than the original Q45. I imagine the lack of B-pillar made that option impossible at the time, but I don’t know whether Nissan ever even thought of the idea.
On the JDM, the 1st generation Cima’s outstanding popularity was never equaled by its successors – not even close. The nameplate had a bit of an eclipse when Nissan nixed it and the President in 2010 in favour of the Fuga, but it reappeared as the Fuga’s LWB hybrid (a.k.a Infiniti Q70L) in 2012. The Infiniti version has just been axed from the lineup and it looks like 2020 might be the Cima’s final model year in Japan. Will a new generation take over? We will have to wait and see.