I’ve just been on a quick trip to Japan for a look into the future of Infiniti, Nissan’s premium brand. If you know much about the brand, you’d probably be forgiven for being pretty cynical about its prospects.
After all, Infiniti was launched in 1989, the same year as Lexus, and had similar aims: a new brand, dedicated to luxury, quality and upmarket dealer service. But while Lexus has a history of notable models and a reputation for mega-quality, Infiniti does not have nearly the brand recognition of its rival.
It’s no surprise. Infiniti has been almost entirely confined to the US. It’s also never had anything like the distinctive products from which Lexus has benefited over the past quarter of a century. It’s also had a fair few oddities, such as the 1990 US-market Infiniti G20, which was a badge-engineered version of the then-new European market Nissan Primera.
In the 2000s Infiniti was repurposed to be a direct rival for BMW. It launched the genuinely iconic FX coupé-crossover in 2003 and the highly-regarded G Coupé. Both were based on the rear-drive Front Mid-Ship (FMS) platform, which had the engine placed well back in the engine bay.
I tried them in Japan and both were first-rate driving cars. However, the global credit crunch in 2008 stymied Infiniti’s attempts to achieve take-off velocity and global sales dwindled to around 90,000 units in 2009.
Infiniti is on the up, however. Last year it sold 215,250 vehicles globally, some 16% up on the previous 12 months and the first time it has broken through the 200,000-unit mark.
The US is still the biggest market, where the branded sold 147,600 units, up 14% in 2015. China is a new market for the brand, but the less traditional and younger premium car buyers there are starting to take to Infiniti, with 40,200 cars sold there last year, 34% up on 2014.
Western Europe remains a problem for the brand, with just 7000 units sold in 2015, although that’s a significant 45% up on the year before - and the Mercedes A-Class-based Q30 hatch and QX30 crossover have yet to get properly rolling.
Infiniti and Daimler are also opening a factory in Mexico next year, which will make QX30s for sale into the US. With that market going crazy for compact crossovers, it looks like another boost for Infiniti sales.
Much of the presentation I attended in Japan consisted of the company bosses trying to convince journalists that Infiniti has a real philosophy that can be built on over the next few years as it renews its entire model range.