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.
It’s enormously tricky to try to build a convincing ‘new’ premium brand, especially one that is in fact 27 years old. Infiniti’s new ‘brand values’ were summed up in three words: ‘Human’, ‘Daring’ and ‘Forward’. You can sense the endless round-table meetings and fat marketing reports that were generated to come up with that.
Awkwardly, a Chinese journalist at the press conference claimed to have been at a Cadillac brand launch which also deployed the brand key words ‘human’ and ‘daring’, which goes to show just how hard it is for teams of auto executives and MBA holders to create authenticity.
Even so, Infiniti was pretty convincing that it has long had the lead in driver-assistance and autonomy. It introduced ‘lane keep assist’ in 2001, ‘lane departure warning’ in 2004 and steer-by-wire in 2014.
But what could well give Infiniti the image boost it needs is the rumoured launch of a variable-compression-ratio petrol engine. This technology has been under development at Nissan for a very long time and, from what I could gather, it will really deliver on the promise of the performance and refinement of a V6 petrol engine and the fuel economy of a modern four-pot diesel.
This would be a world-first and the sort of technological breakthrough that really does build a brand image. I understand that the engine will be fitted to the upcoming QX50, which will be a global crossover with exceptional interior space. And imagine that engine in a future QX30. It would offer be a very tempting alternative to a generic German machine.
Infiniti has a long road ahead of it, but genuine technological breakthroughs - ones that have meaning to the average driver - are a far better way to build a brand than endless mission statements. Infiniti’s priority must be to properly market this new engine and the fact that it is a massive engineering breakthrough.