20 years of Infiniti in North America

Since its inception, Infiniti’s goal has been to establish a new concept of automotive luxury, where a personal and rewarding driving experience is more important than the car alone.

These words, which encapsulate the vision behind Infiniti’s Inspired Performance, could have been written last year, last month or even today. Yet their origin is nearly 20 years ago, penned in reference to the new luxury performance brand that had first opened for business on Nov. 8, 1989, with just 51 retailers and two models sharing the decidedly different looking showrooms.

Those dealerships had a true luxury feel – now common in auto retailing – with a reception desk, open offices and an equal emphasis on sales and customer service. The vehicles themselves were also unique, with their focus on Japanese craftsmanship, quiet luxury and an unmatched driving performance.

Much has changed in the two intervening decades. Showrooms have expanded to make room for full range of luxury performance vehicles, including a coupe, convertible, sedans and SUVs. Yet the original inspiration remains — of a Total Ownership Experience, of Inspired Performance — even as that handful of original dealers in the United States has expanded to include state-of-the-art Infiniti retailers in 35 countries around the globe.

“A dream that started 20 years ago in the United States is now the blueprint for a global luxury automotive brand,” said Toru Saito, corporate vice president in charge of Global Infiniti Business Unit. “In the beginning, Infiniti was an innovator in design, performance, technology and in taking care of our customers throughout the entire ownership experience – just as it is today.”

 While Infiniti sales officially started in 1989, plans for Infiniti took root in 1985 with the creation of a top secret “Horizon Task Force” — a group formed within Nissan with a view toward creating a new performance luxury brand. With existing U.S. and European luxury brands already well entrenched in the American marketplace at the time, investment costs would be high, along with the risk. Given the opportunity to start with a “blank sheet of paper,” the Horizon Task Force took an expansive view.

They looked at luxury vehicles both from a product perspective and the entire purchase and ownership process.

The Horizon Task Force singled out for closer study a handful of leading service companies outside of the automotive field, including Federal Express, Four Seasons Hotels and Nordstrom department stores. Ultimately, the Task Force’s findings had a direct influence on everything from the design of the first Infiniti showrooms, which had the look and feel closer to a luxury hotel than a car dealership, to the brand identity process all the way down to details such as the design of business cards and parts and accessories packaging.

This new customer-centric philosophy — later named the “Infiniti Total Ownership Experience” — would be applied to service policies as well, and included the then-unheard of amenity of offering free service loan cars.

The name chosen in July 1987 for the new performance luxury brand symbolized the desire to be always looking forward – to new horizons. With a fresh spelling and a badge with its two central lines leading off into an infinite point on the horizon, Infiniti – with four “i”s – was born.

From a product perspective, Infiniti launched in the U.S. with two models — the breakthrough Infiniti Q45 performance luxury sedan and the driver-oriented M30 coupe.

The 1990 Infiniti Q45 and the 1990 Infiniti M30

 With those two models, Infiniti gave the automotive world notice that its product philosophy was based on originality, performance, quality and an enthusiasm for driving.
But Infiniti sales were slow due to their introductory advertising efforts. The company's initial campaign aimed to bring about brand awareness with Zen-influenced spots that focused on nature and tranquility. However, the ads didn't show the actual cars, and many believe this omission did no favors for a company that was hoping to have buyers recognize and clamor for its vehicles.

Both the Lexus LS400, which came out at the same time, and the Q45 were potent enough to go toe-to-toe with the Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ sedan, and Audi V-8. Both offered refined performance from exotic — at the time — 32-valve V-8s, spacious interiors, and both promised Japanese reliability at a price that would undercut the Germans.

While similar in purpose, the Lexus and Infiniti were nonetheless polar opposites in philosophy. Lexus took the low-risk route by mixing a contemporary Cadillac's reputation for refinement with Mercedes' legendary poise. The result was a smooth, powerful, rolling isolation chamber.

The Infiniti Q45, on the other hand, was a rolling risk. From the long, low, design, to the giant belt buckle badge, to the notable absence of a gaudy front grille; to the scalloped leather seats; to the stark interior devoid of wood trim; to the laughably pretentious ads that showed photos of placid rocks and zen-like brooks without even showing the car, the Q45 could not have been farther from the luxury-car mainstream.

Unlike the Lexus, the Q45 also came down on the hot-rod side of the equation, with taut suspension and a 278-horsepower screamer of a V-8 that made the Q45 the unquestioned class performance leader.

On the one hand, there was an extremely competent but stodgy competitor that played it safe; on the other, a fast but weirdly risky competitor.

Original price for the Q45 — $38,000.

The M30 coupe was saddled with an inadequate power to weight ratio, featuring a 162-horsepower V-6 and a weight approaching 3,500 pounds. It sold for about $23,500. And the M30 convertible weighed even more, due to massive amounts of body and chassis reinforcements.

1992 Infiniti M30 convertible

1992 Infiniti G20

Where Infiniti was most influential in the early years was in the implementation of Total Ownership Experience. In its first decade of operation, Infiniti was an industry leader in customer satisfaction, winning numerous awards, including the highest rank in J.D. Power and Associates’ Customer Service Index (CSI) study three times and consistent top three finishes in the major independent sales and service studies.

In 1991, Infiniti introduced a third model, hoping to attract entry level luxury sedan buyers with the Infiniti G20, based on the Nissan Primera. It was outfitted with a 2.0-liter 140-horsepower 4-cylinder engine.

In 1992, Infiniti introduced the edgeless and rounded J30, which again offered a single engine, a 210-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6.

1993 Infiniti J30 sedan

1996 Infiniti I30

Infiniti replaced the J30 mid-sized rear drive sedan with the I30 in1996, but as with the J30, and M30, continued to offer only one under-powered engine, a 190-horsepower V-6. The I30 was built on a front wheel drive platform shared with the Nissan Maxima. Infiniti made major changes to the I30 in terms of appearance and performance in 2002, upgrading the engine to the more powerful 255 horsepower 3.5-liter V-6, which incurred a name change to the vehicle, calling it the I35.

n 1997, Infiniti released the QX4, modifying and adding luxurious accommodations to the Nissan Pathfinder, giving the lineup a mid-sized SUV.This made Infiniti one of the first makers (apart from SUV specialists, Jeep and Land Rover) to offer a mid-sized luxury SUV — predating the release of the Lexus RX 300, Acura MDX and the Mercedes-Benz ML320.

1997 Infiniti QX4   

2003 Infiniti Q45

The QX4 was released after Acura's introduction of the larger SLX — a rebadged Isuzu Trooper — and the Lexus LX — a rebadged Toyota Land Cruiser. Like a traditional SUV, it was based on a truck platform, which gave it a competitive edge against the aforementioned competitors for its off-roading abilities.

By 2000, Infiniti was facing extinction and the company rededicated itself to developing a dynamic and powerful line-up of sporty luxury cars. Car and Driver reported that Infiniti executives invited members of the motoring press to a meeting where they "swore never again to take their eyes off BMW."

Although this effort began with a completely redesigned Q45 flagship for the 2002 model year, it was the G35 that turned sales around for Infiniti in 2003. A sports sedan far exceeding the capabilities of its G20 predessor. The G35 became an instant hit, and was named Motor Trend Car of the Year in 2003.

2003 Infiniti G35 coupe and sedan

Infiniti QX 56

As the decade rolled on, two additional models were added in North America – the full-size, North America-built Infiniti QX luxury SUV in January 2004 and the Infiniti M performance luxury sedan in May 2005. In late 2007, the Infiniti EX joined the lineup, followed by second-generation versions of the G and FX. The dramatic G Convertible debuted in summer 2009. A second-generation Infiniti M has been announced for spring 2010, with Infiniti’s first hybrid, the 2011 Infiniti M Hybrid, set to follow about a year later.

"While the automotive landscape has changed over the years, our tradition of offering the highest levels of performance, luxury and customer care has remained constant,” said Ben Poore, vice president, Infiniti Business Unit. “With a slate of innovative new products ahead and a renewed commitment to customer service, we’re looking forward to next 20 years.”

2009 Infiniti G37 and 2009 Infiniti FX50