Can Infiniti carry off a Lexus-style image? Maybe, yes.
Introducing a ‘new’ brand to the UK market just five years ago, Nissan could be accused of misjudging its potential, writes Iain Robertson, yet, there is something intangible about Infiniti that lifts it above its Datsun stablemates.
The last time that a major car brand spread its wings in a similar manner to Nissan, was in the mid-1980s, when Toyota revealed Lexus to a mostly welcoming market. Recognising that branding was ‘king’, the Lexus LS400, an unashamed Merc S-Class rip-off, demonstrated that burgeoning giant, Toyota, had not left behind its oriental talent of taking what the west considered to be sacrosanct, factoring in a raft of driver satisfying equipment and lopping a few grand off the potential list price.
The most important aspect of the Lexus introduction is that it was carried out subtly and without falsifying the brand’s place in the market. Everyone, from a ‘youthful’ Clarkson, on a Mediterranean harbour drive, surrounded by flashy yachts and even flashier owners, kind of appreciated the up-market intentions of Lexus, even if they were a tangible tilt at the arrogant Teutonic brands. As the cars would be marketed through a select group of Toyota dealerships, promising a new style of elegant sales and servicing (but, still, alongside the more down-market Toyota models), a useful platform was created. The subsequent GS range drew immediate comparisons with the Merc E-Class, while the iS line-up targeted BMW.
It was not dissimilar to the place in which Audi found itself, marketed, sold and serviced alongside humdrum Volkswagen models. Mind you, it was a situation that altered significantly, when Audi management sought to afford its up-market brand a somewhat more stable and unquestionable position, by separating the brands and placing them in specifically branded outlets. There is no denying how much that helped Audi to double, treble and escalate its business profile. It has certainly never looked back, even though it often tries to deny that its products are merely up-market VeeDubs, possessing identical build qualities but slightly ritzier trimmings at horrendously steeper prices. The sensible car buyer ignores the interlinked ‘Four Rings’ and opts for either a Skoda, or Seat, badge, complete with a several thousand Pounds saving for what is, in essence, an identical machine, thereby leaving Volkswagen floundering, with hardly any sales at all…those brands can consider themselves fortunate that only a few people follow my advice!
Of course the real remit lies in attending to British car snobbishness. Mercedes-Benz has never had to play the badge game, because it has always been a pinnacle brand that simply altered its game to meet demands from other sectors. It is the original classy brand. Even BMW had to resurrect itself from a 1960s malaise of Isetta bubble cars and rear-engined (the 700 model) tiddlers; not a good time for the Bavarian firm that certainly knows how to charge a premium price for its latest models these days.
The irony, for Lexus, at least, lies in the facts of the complex Japanese car market, which is both overcrowded and over-marketed. Factor in the complexities of the US market and some answers present themselves. Even Mazda attempted to launch an up-market brand in Xedos, a few years ago. Yet, Honda can lay claim to Acura with equal aplomb. For the Jap brands, there are several sub-plots at play. The problems arise when grey imported versions of the up-market models carry the down-market badges of their progenitors, although they have not made the major dent, or tarnished the images, in the aspirational brands that might have been expected.
Infiniti is a major brand in North America. It is considered with a degree of equality alongside other US-built ‘foreigners’, with domestic market Fords, Chevrolets and Chryslers. Infiniti has earned its stripes over the pond but marketing it in the UK has proven to be somewhat more involved and potentially sticky. For a start, perhaps it should have followed the Lexus business model, by using a select number of Nissan dealers, roping off a red carpet area and not denying its more basic underpinnings. However, it did not. It went with a large UK retail chain and, much like the abysmally failed Cadillac brand introduction of a few years ago, an expensive but strictly limited number of Infiniti showrooms opened around the UK, starting in Oxford. While the number of outlets is now in double figures and slightly better spread, it has been a laborious process, involving expensive behind-the-scenes ministrations that mean an Infiniti UK customer needs to be a pretty determined one.
Yet, the number of Infiniti cars on our roads is increasing. Slowly but surely. The latest model is the Q50 2.0T Sport. Powered by a direct fuel injection, turbocharged, 2.0-litre four cylinder engine that develops a healthy 208bhp, its performance is certainly adequate. However, it is fitted within an older Nissan platform that suffers from being exceptionally weighty, which only serves to stunt its delivery. As a result, the Q50 will crack the 0-60mph benchmark time in around 6.9 seconds, which makes it marginally slower than its 3-Series and C-Class rivals.
A seven-speed automatic transmission does not help its sporting cause, as, despite the exceptional smoothness of each up and downshift, further aided by the lovely magnesium shift paddles on either side of the steering column, it can only ever hope to be less efficient than a manual transmission alternative. Sadly, that choice is not possible. However, thanks to moderate aerodynamics, the Q50 will breach the 150mph hurdle, just. Slogging around with more than 1.7-tonnes of bulk inherent to it does blunt other aspects of the performance envelope, although 151g/km of CO2 emissions is not tragic and, driven with care, around 40mpg (43.5mpg Official Combined) is possible, although 34mpg will be nearer the mark.
Carrying a price tag of £34,125 might sway attitudes to the right side of ‘premium’ but the car cannot be described as having earned its stripes in the UK, not yet, anyway. The interior is a most pleasant place to reside. The very comfortable driver’s seat is electrically adjustable every-which-way, although, with plenty of space in the rear, it could do with a longer reach to its rails, in order to loose off some vital extra inches to front seat occupants. The driver is fronted by a pair of large and legible dials (speedo and rev-counter, with smaller inset fuel and temperature gauges, all fairly standard fayre), while the centre console is dominated by a top sat-nav screen and a flush-mounted and touch-activated control screen below it. The other minor controls are all beautifully integrated (into the steering wheel spokes, as well) and there is a satisfyingly high quality feel to the electronics, even though it costs a whopping £2,700 to gain the twin-screen and sat-nav options that are fitted as standard equipment on the C-Class Merc.
In truth, I am torn about whether the interior makes muster as an up-market brand as I feel that, although Infiniti is clearly trying very hard, it lacks the follow-through that marks BMW and Audi several vital points above it. Yet, I started this piece by suggesting that Infiniti does possess something about it.
The Q50 is unerringly smooth and unfussed in its driving experience. Its steer-by-wire system is perhaps not as responsive as it needs to be, when pushing on along country lanes, although it is fast enough reacting in town, regardless of which of the three settings is dialled in. Personally, I am not keen on lane assist systems but that of the Infiniti does work almost imperceptibly and is far less ‘clunky’ than some systems I have driven. Although Infiniti would like people to believe that its models are techno-fests, some of the technology is far better resolved by other carmakers.
The car’s handling and roadholding is far better than I expected it to be. Thanks to the twin-tube dampers, in which both bounce and rebound rates are dealt with separately, the Q50 will take bends in both a roll- and fuss-free manner and, while the ultimate accuracy of more responsive steering would help, it is not essential, as the car rides out mid-corner bumps with a fluency lacking in some models costing many thousands of Pounds more. The ride comfort is the real beneficiary and the Q50’s poise is second to none.
Yet, I believe that the car’s real beauty lies in its quiet elegance. Nothing makes an extraneous noise. Of course, you can floor the throttle and hear the engine distantly, working its way up the gear ratios, but trail the throttle, as in a normal cruise mode, and you hear nothing. While this might not comply with its ‘Sport’ designation, actually being more of a competent Grand Touring trait, it does create a satisfying environment that stops the driver from becoming exhausted, especially over longer driving distances.
To be fair, the engine is a delight and its figures make it suitable for the company car scene, being both fairly affordable to live with and to manage. The diesel variant happens to be almost £6,000 cheaper than the new 2.0T petrol, which might make it even more suitable, although the issues related to dealer locations might introduce a limiting factor.
Conclusions: Apart from the Lexus-esque front grille and broader brand aspirations, the Infiniti Q50 is actually a very pleasant, if not quite a stunning motorcar. The 2.0T Sport is eminently easy to live with, although better fuel economy results will come from the diesel version, which has the added benefit of starting at £27,950. The acid test of would I buy one is not as positive as my affirmative response to, could I live with one?