TheInsider

INFINITI OR BEYOND?

LIKE LEXUSíS EPOCHAL LS400, INFINITIíS Q45 SEDAN, LAUNCHED AS THE JAPANESE CAR INDUSTRY REACHED THE APOGEE OF ITS DIZZYING CLIMB TO PRODUCT LEADERSHIP IN 1989, SET EXPECTATIONS THE BRAND THEN CONSISTENTLY FAILED TO MEET.

Within a few years of the Q45 luxury saloonís expensive launch, the Infiniti badge had also been slapped on a Nissan Pulsar trimmed with wood and leather.

Inept? Cynical? Nissanís management of Infiniti was probably a bit of both. And now itís reaping the bitter harvest. Once a potential threat to the luxury car elite, Infiniti, like Lexus, is now a bit player as German heavyweights Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi ride a global boom in luxury car sales, and swagger into market segments once the preserve of mainstream brands such as Ford and RenaultÖ and Nissan.

Exhibit A: More than 70 percent of buyers of the C-segment Mercedes-Benz CLA and Audi A3 sedans in the US are new to either brand. A small Mercedes or Audi for about the same money as a slightly bigger Honda or Chevy? For many Americans, particularly image-conscious Gen X

Inept? Cynical? Nissanís management of Infi niti was probably a bit of both

and Gen Y buyers, thatís a no-brainer. Pundits predict luxury brands will grow their share of the highly lucrative US market from 10.2 percent to 11.4 percent by 2020.

But thatís just part of the story. Premium brands account for 10-12 percent of global vehicle sales, but as much as half the global industryís profits.

Thatís why Toyota boss Akio Toyoda is now very much hands-on at Lexus, why FCAís Sergio Marchionne is spending money on Alfa Romeo, and why a frantic Ford is now reportedly developing a new rear-drive sedan for its much-abused Lincoln brand.

Itís also why Nissan hired former Audi US boss Johan de Nysschen in 2012 to head Infiniti. And the South African-born de Nysschen hit the ground running. He mandated a logical naming protocol for the Infiniti line-up, ordered a replacement for the G37 Coupe (the Q60, previewed at the Detroit Show) and for the FX SUV (the QX70) to be redesigned, and stuffed a Nissan GT-R engine into a Q50 sedan to create the Eau Rouge concept, a putative AMG-fighter.

Then he abruptly left.

The stylish Q60 concept, 90 percent of which will make it to production, shows the direction de Nysschen planned to take the brand. (The little winglets aft of the front wheels wonít be on regular Q60s, say Infiniti sources, but instead preview a real-life Eau Rouge version that is under development.)

De Nysschen has been running Cadillac since last September, spearheading GMís push to make its premium brand a legitimate Benz, BMW and Audi rival. And the day after he started work in Detroit, it was announced Infiniti chairman Andy Palmer Ė also Nissanís most senior product executive Ė had left to become the new CEO of Aston Martin.

Though not stalled, Infinitiís makeover is sputtering. Insiders say the number of new models de Nysschen had planned to roll out by 2020 has been halved, and worry that the new CEO, former BMW exec Roland Kruger, wonít have the juice Palmer had to fight his notoriously tightfisted, unsentimental boss Carlos Ghosn for the resources Infiniti needs to become a legitimate global luxury brand.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Be warned, Carlos.

The GT-R legacy

ALTHOUGH itís 10 years this year since Nissan fi rst showed the R35 GT-R prototype, the current Godzilla remains Japanís benchmark performance car. Itís the reason Honda and Toyota engineers insist their new sports cars Ė the NSX and the production version of the FT-1 concept Ė will be more about agility than raw acceleration.

But the GT-Rís dominance begs the question: What does Nissan do for an encore?