I've just spent a week driving the Infiniti Q50 Hybrid, trying to put the car into context with answers and comments from interviews with executives at the Frankfurt and Geneva motor shows.
Having spent time with Andy Palmer and Johan de Nysschen, respectively Nissan’s British head of product planning and Infiniti’s global boss, it is clear that Nissan is ambitious to turn Infiniti into a global force in the premium market, where investments return bigger profits and the market keeps on growing, despite the global downturn.
In fact, Palmer reckons 50 per cent of the profits in the global car industry come from premium models, with three brands generating 80-90 per cent of that profit.
For Infiniti the starting point has been a model range of SUVs and saloons focused on the US market, but now it is tasked to work in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
The headline grabber is, of course, Infiniti’s ‘title’ sponsor link with Formula 1 team Red Bull Racing, which raises global awareness of the brand name.
And coming are a raft of new models focused on markets where the F1 link can work marketing magic – epitomised by the Q50 and the Eau Rouge concept – plus specific market cars like the new front-drive Q30, based on the new Mercedes A-class and to be built in the UK from 2015.
To improve the appeal of its new models in Europe, Infiniti is also setting-up a dedicated design studio adjacent to Nissan’s London site to create a new generation of models to European tastes, all under the skilful eye of experienced British designer Simon Cox.
Meanwhile engineers at Nissan’s Cranfield engineering centre are adding fire to the Infiniti badge by shoehorning the Nissan GT-R’s 500bhp-plus twin-turbo V6 into the new Q50.
For the time being though, the new Q50 saloon, a BMW 3-series competitor, is the most tangible evidence of what Infiniti is capable of and where it is going. And, to be honest, the report is a mixed bag.
Lots of things are good: styling, interior quality, infotainment, build quality and V6 petrol engine. The touchscreen interior, for example, sets new standards in the class for integrated design, while the lane-following cameras and safety sensors bring interesting new technology.
However, I remain puzzled why a hybrid boasting a high level of electrification, including three levels of adjustable steering weighting, has an old-school, foot-pedal operated parking brake.
In terms of engineering basics, the Q50 suffers inconsistent control weightings, particularly a difficult-to-modulate regenerative braking system, an unnecessarily stiff ride, and adaptive steering, which is hard to adapt to.
While that final edge of engineering sophistication is missing, the inexplicable conclusion is that the Q50 ranks lower in the ratings in the incredibly competitive world of £40k sporty saloons, which is disappointing given Infiniti’s new-found global ambitions.
More positively, I suspect that an intensive six-month development programme by British engineers at Cranfield might turn the Q50 into a more convincing challenger.
That chance at least comes later this year when a new 209bhp twin-turbo four-cylinder petrol Q50 (using a version of a Mercedes engine) is launched.
I wouldn’t write-off Infiniti yet, though, if only because much more has yet to come from a determined, skilled and experienced management team pushing the project hard with a new model pipeline that stretches out to 2018-20.
By that time Nissan will have spent close to $10 billion (about £6bn) to snaffle a hoped-for 10 per cent of the global luxury market – equivalent to about 500,000 cars.
But I still wonder if the long-term strategic direction is yet clear enough, particularly given Nissan/Infiniti’s strong-point in electrified powertrains. Given that Infiniti can’t yet better its main European rivals in details like braking refinement, ride quality and steering feel, maybe it should head out in a new direction?
A late night bar chat with Infiniti staffers meandered around this subject and general feeling was that the ‘i-theme’ was a game-changer for a new breed of electrified luxury and sports models.
What if Infiniti could bottle that same appeal, and mix it with the electrified powertrains that Nissan and Infiniti are already expert in?
There is a chance to bring this vision to fruition and start Infiniti off in a new ‘top-down’ direction around 2019/20 by incorporating elements of the 2012 Emerg-E concept, which exists as the distilled essence of Infiniti, now characterised by a hybrid powertrain directly linked into F1 tech.
Now that could really light up the premium luxury class and stake out new territory to genuinely shake-up the established contenders.