Axon’s Automotive Anorak: Why Infiniti didn’t make it in Europe
Choose from a menu of Roast Beef, Swedish Meat Balls, Lasagna, Sushi or Bratwurst, and I’d wager that the vast majority of British meat eaters would favour any of the first four choices over the latter option.
Select a new car with a premium badge though and the German ‘Bratwurst’ option will almost certainly be the preferred choice for most Brits, the Roast Beef (Jaguar), Swedish Meat Balls (Volvo), Lasagna (Alfa Romeo) and Sushi (Lexus and Infiniti) barely meriting consideration for too many blinkered buyers of premium-branded saloons, coupes and SUVs.
The Chateaubriand (Citroen C6, Renault Vel Satis, Peugeot 607) and Cheese Burger (Cadillac) premium options gave up trying to compete in the British and Continental European premium new car sector some time ago. In the case of the posh Japanese brands, however, Lexus and Infiniti have persevered. Lexus, for example, first appeared in Europe with its impressive LS400 luxury saloon 30 years ago in 1989, making small but important inroads into Europe.
With other once mighty and respected premium car marques such as Saab, Lancia and Rover already laid to rest in the early part of the 21st Century, the dominance of the ‘big three’ German prestige brands (Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz) has continued to grow, with perfectly viable and capable alternative products from Jaguar, Alfa Romeo and Volvo, for example, struggling to fully compete as a result.
Now for the UK and European markets, another premium car marque is falling victim to the German segment dominance, with Nissan’s prestige car brand – Infiniti – announcing its withdrawal here (and across the Channel) at the end of this year, with South Korean Hyundai’s toe-in-the-water Genesis posh brand also quietly stepping out of Europe. Production of the likeable Infiniti QX30 and Q30, both of which are currently built in the UK at Nissan’s Sunderland plant, will stop in July 2019.
In North America (plus their home Far East markets), Infiniti and Genesis will continue to be sold, and hopefully thrive, giving the German marques a run for their money, as does Toyota’s Lexus luxury brand, plus Honda’s Acura.
If you’ve spotted a Genesis recently on UK roads, you can award yourself 1,000 I-Spy points, as these are an incredibly rare sight here. If you’ve seen an Infiniti though, you can count yourself lucky, although your points tally will only run to 50 or so. Last year (2018), Infiniti suffered the largest decline in UK new car registrations of any manufacturer (down 79 per cent), with just 750 new Infiniti’s registered. The situation in mainland Europe wasn’t much brighter for the brand, with sales dropping in all markets.
Since Infiniti’s late launch into Western Europe just over a decade ago (almost 20 years after the USA, and unfortunately timed to coincide with the 2008 global economic recession) Nissan’s wannabe prestige brand has struggled to find its identity and make its mark with upwardly-mobile European premium sector buyers, despite the demise of would be alternative ‘discerning buyer’ competitors such as Saab and Lancia. After a decade of under-achievement, the announcement of Infiniti’s withdrawal from the UK and Europe didn’t come as a huge surprise, particularly given the current plight of its embattled parent marque; Nissan, with the CEO Carlos Ghosn Japanese imprisonment controversy, Ghosn being Infiniti’s CEO.
Nissan’s choice of Infiniti models designed to tempt Western European premium car buyers away from their more mainstream and predictable German models always felt ill-conceived. The initial lack of Infiniti diesel engine options (when Derv was still all the rage), plus bland, instantly-forgettable mid-size saloons based on boring domestic Japanese Nissan models, such as the M saloon (later and confusingly renamed the Q70, if you can remember either model without having to Google it) struggling to compete with established segment leaders such as the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
Throwing your Infiniti car keys onto the bar at your local tavern would probably fail to elicit any particular response from your chums, whereas a set of Audi, BMW or Mercedes keys would either lead to admiration from most, or loathing in the minority of cases. But for the Infiniti, phah… Nobody really knows (or cares) what the Brand is or what it stands for. With virtually zero marketing support – apart from Formula 1 Red Bull and more recently Renault sponsorship – the car buying public never really got past the ‘an Infiniti, what is that?’ conundrum.
When Lexus launched onto the European scene 30 years ago, the early consumer perception of this ‘invented’ brand quickly switched from being ‘an upmarket Toyota’ to a desirable premium brand in its own right, helped by superior car and customer care quality to the established European marques, regularly topping reliability and consumer satisfaction surveys such as those conducted by J.D. Powers et al.
For Infiniti though, the Brand’s marketeers half-hearted efforts failed to capitalise on the (high) quality of its products from launch, just as they failed to create an exciting and aspirational profile and unique identity for the marque. Some (but not all) of its models could have convincingly lived up to an exciting and aspirational Infiniti image, especially the distinctive and (should have been) desirable FX (later QX70), which at the time of its introduction was one of the best and most stylist premium SUVs available on the market, even with the initial lack of an essential-for-Europe diesel engine option to really help conquest sales away from posh rival SUVs.
Infiniti production models became increasingly less dependent on Nissan styling, and the Brand excelled at concept cars, presenting some of the best, most original and elegant prototypes seen in recent years, such as the Essence and Triant.
Infiniti’s withdrawal from Europe is a sad one in my view, the decision prompted by the substantial investment required to meet new EU Co2 legislation, combined with low sales. Infiniti was one of the few distinctive premium brands left to take on the tiresome predictability and tedious dominance of the German posh brands in Europe. To Infiniti and beyond? Sadly not for us Europeans…