Curbside Classic: 2003 Infiniti Q45 – Third Chance Too Late

Infiniti is a brand that has always raised infinitely more questions than answers, beginning with its very first advertisements that featured images of nature and words of philosophy rather than its cars. Perhaps this is why all its models now bear the “Q…” designation?

Regardless, in light of its botched introduction that shrouded its vehicles in mystery and its now confusing AF revised alphanumeric model naming scheme, Infinti built itself up as somewhat of a sophisticated yet understated luxury brand. However during the mid-1990s, struggling sales and the Japanese recession thrust it into a seller of thinly-veiled North American-market Nissans with waterfall grilles and fake wood interior trim.

The early-2000s saw Infiniti take on a more focused and meaningful mission in life, positioning itself as somewhat of a techy Japanese BMW with performance-focused models such as the G sedan and coupe, M sedan, and the FX crossover. While these particular models were quite successful at boosting Infiniti’s overall image and sales figures, one Infiniti model in particular continued its lifelong struggle: its flagship Q45.

Despite a comprehensive third generation redesign that debuted in 2001 for the 2002 model year, the latest and ultimately, final generation Infiniti Q45 barely raised a living pulse throughout its existence. This is somewhat surprising, as on paper, the third generation (MY 2002-2006) Q45 was a substantial improvement over its often derided predecessor (1997-2001).

First and foremost, was its engine. Versus its predecessor’s smaller 4.1-liter V8 — a common criticism given that the car still bore the “Q45” displacement designation instead of “Q41” — the third generation Q45 marked a return to the 4.5-liter displacement of the first generation’s V8.

Now making 340 horsepower and 333 lb-ft torque, up from the 4.1-liter’s 266 horsepower and 278 lb-ft torque, the 2002-2006 Infiniti Q45’s titanium valve 4.5-liter V8 boasted the most powerful standard engine in its class, with significantly greater combined output than V8s in the Lexus LS (4.3L), Mercedes-Benz S500 (5.0L), Jaguar XJ (4.2L), and nearly identical output to V8s in the Audi A8 (4.2L) and BMW 745i (4.4L).

Style-wise, the Q45 debuted Infiniti’s latest design language, marked by sharper lines, rounded sheetmetal, and larger horizontal chrome grilles for a more aggressive, individualistic look. While not unlike competitors’ contemporary efforts with more “big-boned” looking fullsize luxury sedans, the third generation Infiniti Q45 looked decidedly bulkier than its more svelte-looking predecessor. Not helping was the fact that its roofline did indeed look a lot like that of the Lincoln Town Car, an unfortunate similarity as with the new Q45 Infiniti, was trying to shake off the “Japanese Lincoln” derogation of its predecessor.

Inside, the Q45 was plusher than ever, sharing little in common with the firm seats and monotone trim of the original 1990 Q45 except for Infiniti’s signature analogue clock. Drivers were greeted by a broad double-stitched leather-clad bucket with 10-way power adjustments/lumbar support, a leather-wrapped and genuine wood-accented steering wheel with power tilt/telescope adjustment, and electroluminescent gauge cluster.

The front seat passenger received 8-way power adjustments while even rear seat passengers could recline with toasty behinds, should the owner have ticked the right option box. In contrast to the previous generation’s simulated wood trim, all Q45s sported generous swathes of genuine birds eye maple trim on the steering wheel, center console, dashboard, and front and rear doors.

Technology-wise, the 2002 Infiniti Q45 represented a leap that was light years ahead of its rather simplistic predecessor. The early-2000s indeed marked the time when luxury flagships became more than just the largest, most comfortable vehicles within a brand’s lineup, but also cars with the latest plethora of cutting-edge technologies with functional lives lasting barely beyond the car’s first owner.

All Q45s came now standard with a 5.8-inch screen displaying audio and climate controls, with physical buttons and the Infiniti analogue clock mounted just below. Other standard tech items included a 300-watt 8-speaker Bose sound system with active outside noise cancelation, voice recognition controls for audio/climate/navigation, and seven-lens HID headlights that Infiniti claimed were 1.7 times brighter than normal halogen headlights.

For the higher tech, one had to pay extra. Available features included navigation (which upped the screen to 7-inches), front and rear heated seats, cooled front seats, rear audio/climate controls, power reclining rear seats, power rear sunshade, satellite radio, and power-closing trunk, most of which were included with the $8,000 Premium package. Most impressive were the Q45’s available radar-based intelligent cruise control, one of this technology’s first such applications in a production vehicle, and an available rearview camera, its first such application in a production vehicle sold in North America.

Q45’s also boasted dual front and side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags, intelligent mechanical technologies such as vehicle dynamic control (automatic application of braking and reduction of engine power to correct driver miscalculation), electronic torque demand powertrain control, electronic brake-force distribution, and available adaptive sport suspension. Naturally, four-wheel disc antilock brakes and traction control were standard.

Unfortunately, for all the car it was, the third generation Infiniti Q45 was a total flop. Apart from a brief uptick to 5,726 units with its introduction in 2001, sales slid back to their lowest levels ever, with only 2,440 sold in 2003 and a mere 393 sold for the car’s final year in 2006.

On paper, the third generation Q45 was a car poised for success. It was a state-of-the-art, technological marvel of a flagship luxury sedan that was just as luxurious, high-tech, and comfortable as the poster child Lexus LS 430, yet offered greater power and superior driving dynamics. It was just as powerful and in many cases more so than European rivals, offering comparable amenities and performance for far less expensive maintenance. Starting at just over $50K and fully-optioned for around $60K, the Q45 was also a considerable value, costing thousands less than even the LS 430.

Furthermore, it wasn’t as if the Q45 was simply left to wither either. New features were added on a yearly basis, and the car was given a substantial mid-cycle refresh for its 4th model year. These 2005 revisions included new front and rear fascias, hood, bumpers, wheels, as well as a new seat design including piping on the leather, refreshed interior trim, and a revised 5-speed automatic transmission.

So why did the third generation Q45 fail so miserably while competitors enjoyed far steadier U.S. sales? Was the Infiniti brand really that tarnished? — Yes and no. Indeed, a probable cause for the Q45’s failure dates back to launch of both the car and the brand in 1989. Following its infamous botched introductory ad campaign that showed images of nature and breathed soothing words of meditation rather than showing the cars themselves or mentioning any of their tangible virtues, Infiniti got started on the wrong foot.

Adding to this, Infiniti’s unusual initial take on fullsize flagship luxury with the first Q45 that included firm leather seats, unadorned interior door panels, black plastic trim in the place of competitors’ wood, the lack of a traditional grille, and styling that was all too familiar with lesser Nissans was largely unsuccessful. This greatly limited the Q45’s appeal and largely scorned its reputation, especially when compared to the Lexus LS and Acura Legend.

Realizing its severe miscalculation, Infiniti would give the Q45 more traditional qualities, but this only turned it from an avant-garde offering to a forgettable wallflower in the fullsize luxury sedan segment with little in the way of noteworthiness. By the time the truly competitive third generation Q45 came along, neither Infiniti nor the Q45 names had the same prestige pedigree as primary competitors.

The appeal of the fullsize luxury sedan in general during this period of time must also be considered, as it pertains to the Q45’s lack of appeal. While still a segment enjoying relatively strong sales, the market for fullsize luxury sedans wasn’t one that was growing. Buyers of these cars had largely been buying them for years, with upwardly mobile car shoppers consistently choosing large luxury SUVs, or newer types of vehicles like luxury crossovers or 4-door luxury coupes over large luxury sedans.

Without a significant seasoned customer base for the Q45, people were hardly lining up to come test drive one, as most probably failed to care or even know of its existence. By contrast, the QX56, Infiniti’s fullsize SUV which was little more than a blinged-out Nissan Armada enjoyed far greater success with sales averaging around 13,000 units annually despite a nearly identical price tag to the Q45.

While its first two generations had crippling shortcomings, by its third generation, the Infiniti Q45 had transformed into a formidable flagship sedan with few imperfections. Unfortunately by this point, no one seemed to care anymore.

Infiniti’s brief resurgence, with cars like the G35, FX35/45, QX56, and M35/45, proved that Infiniti could carry on without the need for a fullsize flagship luxury sedan. Particularly with the 2005 M35 and M45, a 5 Series/E-Class/A6/GS competitor, Infiniti showed that it could easily offer similar levels of luxury and performance in an more agile yet roomier package than the Q45, and sell about 21 times as many of them per year. The Q45 simply wasn’t needed, and so with that, the its fate was sealed.

Photographed in Hanover, Massachusetts – September 2018

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