I've liked what Nissan's luxury division Infiniti has been up to in the last several years, but I've never figured out what the company really wants to be when it grows up.
Nissan launched Infiniti in North America in 1989 to fight off Toyota's Lexus and Honda's Acura which were selling luxury cars against the big German champions. Lexus did very well and Acura did not bad, but Infiniti's big soft boats were a dud. So in the mid-90's Infiniti decided they had to follow the German path, in particular BMW. I'm sure they tore apart dozens and dozens of Bimmers to see what made them go. It's too easy to say it was only about reverse engineering, but I can give you a list of Infiniti models in the last ten years which have been so BMW-like that a blindfolded driver couldn't tell the difference (don't try this at home).
Yet still sales languished.
I have a theory on this which has not made me popular with Infiniti execs to whom I have explained it free of charge. I think it's the name. People don't take a $60,000 car seriously with that silly "Infinity with an i" nameplate. It's so 80's. "To infinity...and beyond." It sounds like a long forgotten disco or strip-club. Mercedes-Benz. Bayerische Motoren Werke.Those are solid sounding names that have cachet. Infiniti was probably created by a committee of lawyers in Japan
But let's get back to the story. Now, after launching their new performance division named Infiniti Performance Line, or IPL, and spending a bundle to sponsor Red Bull Racing for Formula One, Infiniti has pinned its hopes on a female-oriented kiddy-hauler. Hello? Which way are we going here folks? Is it Sebastian Vettel or Mommy-next-door?
That's the dilemma of marketing. A lot of cars are good so you have to decide on the character -- the brand value -- of what you're trying to sell. Nissan did a great engineering job with Infiniti when they were building Japanese BMW's, but somehow it didn't seem to work. So now they've done a 180 degree turn and produced a soft, luxurious, safety-loaded, Mommy-friendly mini-van (oops, sorry -- crossover) that may well sell like hotcakes, but will confuse me even more about the question raised long paragraphs ago -- what does Infiniti want to be when it grows up?
It's not a problem that Nissan suffers alone. Toyota is apologizing all over the place for having built boring cars with huge numbers of recalls for the last decade. "We're back" they proudly exclaim. Honda has certainly lost its perch as the most innovative of Japanese car companies and its Acura brand has been going around in circles for years. Mazda, tiny and financially at risk after serious styling mistakes, has bet the farm on performance and economy with SkyActiv. They've taken a stand and we'll see how they do.
But Infiniti is going two directions at once. Formula One and the IPL performance stuff and now the JX35 which is a comfortable, but slow seven passenger minivan without sliding doors that will cost you fifty grand. It's where a lot of affluent people shop as the thousands of Lexus RX owners will testify. The Infiniti JX is definitely a worthy competitor. In fact it's just like the Lexus -- not the BMW.
The interior is a nice mixture of leather, wood and metal with comfortable seats and a surprising amount of room. There are three rows of seats and unlike most so-called seven passenger vans you might actually get seven passengers into this one because the back row is quite accessible. The second-row seats tilt and slide forward to make room to climb in...even if there's a child seat strapped onto it.
All the safety features you can think of are on the JX including the world's first back-up collision intervention system. This system uses radar and sonar to pick up things you probably can't see when backing up and will automatically hit the brakes to avoid a collision. It's not foolproof, but it is a good feature that I think we will see more often in the future.
The JX35 has a 3.5-liter V6 with variable intake timing that puts out 265 horsepower. It's connected to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) which improves fuel economy while making the driving dynamics even duller. But Mommy isn't going to be driving on the race track so who cares?
I do. Just when I was getting used to Infiniti's Japanese BMWs -- I mean its performance-oriented vehicles -- I have to adjust to a mushy and rather elegant family cruiser that doesn't attack corners but rolls sluggishly into them. And it will likely out-sell every other Infiniti in the showroom. It proves why I'd never make it in marketing.
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