Nissan created Infiniti automobiles from scratch back in 1985, when the company’s executive team decided to develop a new performance-oriented luxury brand for the U.S. market. To accomplish this, a group known as the Horizon Task Force was created inside Nissan to develop the parameters within which the brand would function. More than just a new kind of car for Nissan, the goal of Infiniti autos was to also introduce a new ethos when it came to the quality of a customer’s purchase and ownership experiences.
The client-oriented policies of companies such as Four Seasons Hotels and Nordstrom department stores were analyzed. Elements of each were infused into what the Infiniti brand management team came to refer to as the Infiniti Total Ownership Experience. The look of the original Infiniti showrooms was patterned after the décor found in luxury hotels. The deferential treatment afforded customers of high-end department stores became the rule at Infiniti dealerships—in both sales and in service.
Further, it was decided Infiniti owners would be given free loaner cars when their cars were brought in for servicing—a policy the brand follows to this day. And, a policy very quickly adopted by many other luxury marques in their attempts to compete. The idea was to create a complete atmosphere of service and luxury around the brand.
In July of 1987, the name Infiniti was settled upon. The design of the logo—an oval with two lines leading off to an infinite point—was to symbolize the forward-looking nature of the marque. They wanted Infiniti cars thought of as always looking into the future—striving always to improve, to go beyond, to stretch towards—well— infinity. Policies in place, brand name established, flagship car developed, the first 51 Infiniti dealers opened their doors to customers on November 8, 1989.
When those customers arrived, they found a very distinctive flagship model—the 278-horsepower V8 powered rear-wheel drive 1990 Infiniti Q45 sedan. The Q45’s 4.5-liter V8 was one of the most powerful engines in the class when it debuted. Further, the Q45 could be had with four-wheel steering, a limited-slip differential, and an active multi-link suspension system. From the outset, the Q45’s aim was to place just as much emphasis on performance as luxury. And indeed, the Q45 was capable of dashing to 60 miles per hour in 6.7 seconds from rest.
Unfortunately, this message was never properly conveyed.
The Infiniti brand was launched with an advertising campaign that ultimately became the textbook example of how NOT to introduce a new automobile to the marketplace. In its quest to convey the newfound attitudes customers would encounter at Infiniti dealerships, the introductory campaign was devoid of any mention or images of the car. Instead, it delivered a Zen-based discourse featuring images of running water, ripples in a pond, and haystacks in a field.
While the ads stood out, people had no idea what product they were for because you never saw the car in them. Fold in the unconventional styling of the Infiniti employing a cloisonné badge in place of the ultimate prestige cue for any luxury car—the grille—and the Q45 was hamstrung right out of the gate. Once the late-night talk show hosts started making fun of the ads, the Q45 was pretty much sunk.
Which is sad, because that first Q45 was a brilliant car.
The Italian firm Poltrona Frau, noted for its work for Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Lancia, did the Infiniti flagship’s interior. Crafted to appeal to the sense of touch, it used padded surfaces throughout the vehicle. For visual enhancement, the design relied upon stark color contrasts such as a pearl white exterior with white leather upholstery, interior door panels, and carpeting; against a black center console, dash and floor mats. The traditional wood and chrome accents found in luxury cars were omitted in line with the Infiniti’s mission to redefine the luxury experience.
But most people simply didn’t get it.
However, there was a small core group of people who did, so Infiniti’s sales gradually accrued over time. Although not as rapidly as its rivals’ at Acura and Lexus. In an effort to broaden the marque’s appeal, the Q45 was reworked for 1993. A grille was grafted onto its nose, its ride was softened—basically the car was declawed. The M30, the Q45’s sister car was poorly received as well. Underpowered and saddled with less than attractive styling, the M30 did find some buyers, but not in abundance.
The brand soldiered on, introducing new models along the way—but it wasn’t until the introduction of the 2003 Infiniti G35 the marque really took off. Based on Nissan’s front-midships platform (shared with the Nissan 350Z), the G35 was in essence a front mid-engine sports sedan. Buyers liked its neutral handling, strong performance, and exhilarating exhaust note. Once enthusiast magazines declared it a reasonable substitute for BMW’s 3 Series, the car sold extremely well.
Infiniti automobiles also did a pseudo-SUV on the same platform that year. The FX45 and FX35 crossover models combined outstanding handling and performance with the tall profile of an SUV and the carrying capacity of a station wagon. All of this was wrapped in a muscularly curvaceous styling language. Infiniti’s marketing team referred to the model as the “Bionic Cheetah”.
A G35 coupe followed, aligning Infiniti cars even more closely with the trajectory of the BMW 3 Series product strategy. The G35 Coupe was basically a more luxurious Nissan 350Z, so it performed extremely well. These developments finally brought droves of shoppers to the Infiniti brand. Once they discovered the original Infiniti customer service philosophy was still intact (which was something completely new to most of the buyers brought in by the G cars) the deals were sealed.
Sadly, though it went through three generations of adjustments—each generation getting progressively farther and farther away from the original concept—the Q45 never really caught on in huge numbers in the U.S. market. Sales were discontinued after the 2006 model year. Ironically, this happened just as the G35 was getting consumers to recognize Infiniti as the performance-oriented luxury brand the original Q45 was designed to represent.