IT WAS THE Ishtar of new-car launches. Gentle winds rustled through the trees, babbling brooks spilled through a glen, and a pervasive feel of feng shui wafted through the TV into our living rooms. Only, where was the car? You would think that after spending millions of dollars creating a brand-new luxury vehicle - the Infiniti Q45 - Japanese parent company Nissan would give us a peek at the product. When they finally did, at the 1989 Detroit Automobile Show, it was too late.
To be sure, the "Q" was an interesting car. It featured firm suspension tuning, a powerful V8 engine, and quick-shifting automatic transmission - sort of like a Japanese BMW, if you will. But the luxury market had been put off by Infiniti's odd TV commercials and its nondescript styling. Where was the vault-like chrome grille? The cushy leather upholstery? The wood trim? The image?
Twenty years later, Infiniti is still looking for an identity.
"If you ask most Americans what the flagship Mercedes or BMW or Lexus looks like, they'll be able to tell you," says automotive historian John Matras. "But ask them what Infiniti's top of the line looks like and they won't know. In fact, I don't know myself."
That's because there is none. In 2006, the Q45 was canceled, leaving Infiniti an anomaly - a luxury line without a luxury vehicle in the traditional sense of the term. Obviously, in the prestige market, this is a distinct disadvantage.
"There is some truth to that," says Damian Zajac, who has sold cars for 19 years, the last eight representing Infiniti of Ardmore. "It's a truism that a lot of people 'buy the badge' when they're looking at luxury cars."
On the other hand, says Zajac, what Infiniti lacks in cachet, it more than makes up for in technology, quality and engineering.
"You get a bigger bang for your buck. Most people aren't aware, for instance, that Infiniti is one of the best built cars on the road."
Indeed, the 2008 J. D. Power Associates quality rankings place Infiniti first or second in numerous categories. The compact EX crossover vehicle, for example, placed first in the Entry Premium segment where its competition includes the BMW X3, Acura RDX, and Land Rover LR2. Infiniti's QX, a full-sized SUV, ranked first in the large premium segment of the 2008 Power survey, while the M performance sedan tied for first place in the midsize premium vehicle segment. Besides quality, Infiniti also offers a wider array of options than competitive German marques. These include such amenities as rearview cameras, reclining rear seats, lane departure warning, and voice recognition navigation. At the same time, says Zajac, the instruments and controls in Japanese automobiles are known for being more user-friendly than those in European cars.
"Once people come down to the showroom and see what Infiniti offers today, they're impressed," says Zajac.
Even so, the challenge - given the marque's historical lack of pizzazz - has been to get buyers into the showroom. This is likely to change dramatically with the new, metal-roofed G37 convertible due to arrive in showrooms in the next few months. Sleek and sexy, the droptop seems to be the car that was waiting to emerge from the popular G37 sports coupe all along. But the metamorphosis from coupe to convertible involved far more than chopping the roof. The first priority, says designer Shiro Nakamura, Nissan's global design director, was maintaining the good proportions of this car. "Normally with this kind of metal top configuration, it is not easy to store the roof and make the car's overall styling attractive."
To achieve the desired effect, all the sheet metal from the end of the doors to the car's tail was replaced. New rear fenders now flare out slightly to accommodate the retractable roof, while the rear track also was widened and the taillights redesigned. "From the rear quarter view, it looks different from the G37 coupe - it is its own car," Nakamura said.
The convertible's power will be ample with a 3.7-liter V6 putting out 330 horsepower. Pricing has yet to be announced, but like its sedan and coupe siblings, the G37 convertible will cost less than a comparable BMW 3 series. After all, Infiniti does not yet carry the cachet of the German marques.