Curbside Classic: 1990-96 Infiniti Q45 – How Not To Launch A Luxury Car Brand

(first posted 5/15/2018)      Judging by that title, you might think I’m talking about Infiniti’s infamous North American launch. That launch was announced with a series of cerebral and uninformative commercials, Nissan’s luxury brand coming into existence with a rather blandly-styled flagship and a dated companion coupe. Believe it or not, the brand’s Australian launch was even worse.

I’m not even sure you could call it a brand launch. The Q45 was badged as a Nissan Infiniti Q45, as it was in Japan. Advertising called it the “Nissan Infiniti”. Even the taillight assembly had a little Nissan badge added to it. And the Q45 was sold in showrooms alongside Pulsars and Micras costing a seventh of the price.

Toyota had established dedicated Lexus dealerships but, although the Q45 cost roughly the same as the rival LS400, Nissan sold it through four of their regular dealerships. That’s right, just four in the entire country. And although Nissan had no problem introducing a $AUD140,000 car to their showrooms – a whopping $60k pricier than the next most expensive Nissan, the 300ZX – they hemmed and hawed about whether they should offer their Full-Active Suspension (FAS) system. This system, a world first for a production car, employed 10 sensors which sent signals to microprocessor-controlled hydraulic actuators at each wheel in lieu of shock absorbers. Highly impressive for its time, it would have increased the Q45’s price in Australia by 10% so it was nixed. It seems Nissan thought they’d find buyers for their $140,000 sedan but those buyers would find a $154,000 asking price a bit rich.

If Nissan thought buyers were going to wander into a showroom and plonk down BMW 540i money on a Q45, they were dreaming. Over four years, Nissan sold around 132 Q45s. In 1995 alone, Nissan mustered only 11 sales. In comparison, Lexus’ best year for the LS400 resulted in around 400 sales.

It all came down to two things: the price and the badge. Toyota could convince buyers to spend the same amount of money on an LS400 because it wasn’t badged as a Toyota and buyers didn’t have to mingle with the hoi polloi shopping for Corollas. Not only did Toyota have a highly desirable new product, it wore a new brand name that was free of any association to something as inexpensive as a Corolla.

Buyers looking through a full-line Nissan brochure, however, would have seen a full-size sedan with a Nissan badge and thought it was the brand’s rival to the Mazda 929 or Honda Legend. Those flagship offerings from rival brands, however, sold at 50-60% the price of the Q45.

Nissan was never going to sell many Q45s in Australia with such a simultaneously ambitious and unenthusiastic effort. So lackluster was Nissan’s attempt to sell the Q45 here that the local car magazines never even bothered to subject it to a full test drive.

Even in the US, where the Nissan logo was nary to be found in an Infiniti showroom, the Q45 struggled against the LS400. Australia never received the early Q45 models with their austere, wood-free interior and grille-less front end. Although developed and launched almost entirely in tandem, the Q45 quickly disappeared into the LS400’s shadow.

Infiniti’s avant garde advertising didn’t help the Q45 in North America, nor did a list price $3k higher than the LS. The styling was smooth and modern, if innocuous, but the front end was uncomfortably reminiscent of a Passat or Taurus. The LS, in comparison, looked as stately as an S-Class.

The LS400 seemed to hit the sweet spot in terms of sizing, comfort and all-round competence. The Q45, in contrast, had its flaws. Interior room was merely average for a car that measured 200 inches long with an S-Class-rivalling 113.2 inch wheelbase, and the Q45 lacked the kind of sumptuous rear cabin room expected in the class. The Infiniti was also quite heavy at a smidgeon under 4000 pounds, around 200 pounds heavier than an LS400. The Q45 did try to make up for that extra weight with extra power: the DOHC 32-valve 4.5 V8 produced 278 hp at 6000 rpm and 292 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm. This put the upstart Infiniti at almost the same level of power and torque as the BMW 740i and Mercedes-Benz S420 and allowed it to hit 60 mph in under 8 seconds.

Lexus had challenged buyers’ perceptions of how much they should have to pay for a world-class, full-size luxury sedan. Infiniti tried to go even further and challenge what a world-class, full-size luxury sedan should look like. Unsurprisingly, the Lexus’ Mercedes-derivative styling was more on the mark.

The MY1994 update was Nissan acknowledging their mistake, adding a chrome grille, woodgrain trim, front seats with less bolstering, and a softer suspension tune. Unfortunately for Nissan, it didn’t arrest the Q45’s gradually sliding sales in the US. The unfavorable exchange rate had affected most Japanese imports and had slowed the LS’ sales momentum: it went from 36k units in 1991 to 22k units in 1996. The Q45 experienced a similar slide but from a lower base: from 14,623 units in 1991, the Q45 fell to below the 10k mark in 1995.

By 1995, Infiniti’s North American Q45 lineup consisted of the base sedan, Q45t and Q45a. A sign of more cuts to come, the mid-range Q45t lost its four-wheel steering that year. It did, however, retain its alloy wheels, performance tires, and thicker front and rear stabilizer bars. The flagship Q45a came standard with traction control and the Full-Active Suspension. For 1996, the Q45a was dropped and FAS was no longer offered. The Q45a had cost around $4k more than a Q45t due mostly to its standard FAS, which also added 150-200 pounds of curb weight. Considering the regular Q45 was already quite a good steer, the merits of spending extra money for the FAS, however technically impressive it was, were dubious.

These feature deletions, along with the softer suspension tune of the ’94 model as well as earlier steering and transmission tweaks in ’92, were evidence of Infiniti’s course correction. When Nissan had designed the Q45, they had been looking more towards BMW for inspiration for the Q45 rather than Mercedes-Benz. That sporting focus showed in the Q45’s adept handling, firm, controlled ride, austere interior, and the Q45a and Q45t’s features lists. It was becoming clear, however, that the adulation for sporting dynamics existed predominantly in the lower end of the luxury market. At the Q45’s level, sybaritic comfort was more desirable.

Alas, Nissan had already sunk so much money into the Q45 and the launch of the Infiniti brand. Although overall brand sales had increased with time, Nissan had projected 90,000 annual sales for the entire Infiniti brand by 1995. The actual tally ended up being just shy of 60,000. So, when it came time to replace the car, Nissan took a more cost-effective path. The second-generation Q45 was twinned with the new Y33-series Nissan Cima and shared the same platform as the Leopard, Cedric and Gloria sedans.

It’s rather telling that the first-generation Q45’s upscale, long-wheelbase equivalent, the President, continued to be sold and positioned atop the new Cima in the Japanese Nissan lineup. The Cima may have been an improvement over its previous JDM-only generation but its new Infiniti twin ended up being a step back in many respects.

Infiniti seemed to have stood for something at first but, as the 1990s wore on, the brand morphed from an adventurous if somewhat schizophrenic brand into a blander Acura rival. The Q45’s character lobotomy didn’t even pay off in terms of sales, although it was likely more profitable. A third-generation model debuted in 2002 packing a gutsy 340 hp V8. Although more faithful to the Q45’s original mission, it was an even more dismal sales failure than its predecessors and the Q45 nameplate was dropped in 2006.

Although the Q45 failed, Infiniti started to turn a corner in the early 2000s with the introduction of the G35 and FX SUV. Subsequently, Infiniti has continued to grow. That growth hasn’t always been steady and the brand has had some notable downturns this century, staying adrift of Lexus in sales. Nissan has been confident enough in the brand, however, to introduce it to markets outside of North America. That includes Australia, where it officially launched in 2012. This time, there were dedicated showrooms and no Nissan logos to be found. Sales have been slow and steady – a rocky start led to some hasty price cuts – but it’s a far cry from the Q45’s performance here.

The first-generation Q45 may have matched the class leaders in performance, handling, quality and refinement but it wasn’t enough to convince more buyers to choose it over the LS400, let alone the Germans. Perception is everything. It didn’t look like what a luxury car “should” have looked like and that’s probably why it didn’t meet sales expectations in North America. As for Australia, well, nobody wanted to spend BMW 540i money on something with a Nissan badge on it, no matter how good it was.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1990-92 Infiniti M30 – To Infinity And Nowhere

Curbside Classic: 1989-91 Lexus ES250 – Lexus’ Learning Curve

Curbside Classic: 1992 Lexus LS400 – With All Due Respect