One sunny day back in 2009, a group of journalists drove to a brand new Reading dealership, the first shopfront in Britain for the luxury arm of Nissan, Infiniti. It was an impressive building but the cars inside were anything but: a range of very strange looking big cars, all with petrol V6 or V8 engines, and sporting weird cherrywood veneers in lurid shades of orange.
Fast-forward to 2015, however, and Infiniti sales were up 60 per cent year on year in December, at 1,195 (in America they sold 147,600).
The range is now populated by the sort of cars Europeans buy: hatchbacks, SUVs and crossovers, and there is a choice of diesel engines added to the mix. Phew.
The latest model to join the marque, the Q30, is undoubtedly the most promising model in the range to date. A vast hatchback with a raised ride height, it sits between the hatchback and crossover classes, with a QX version taking it properly into crossover territory arriving in the summer.
Can the Q30 compete with the Audi A3, BMW 1-series, Volvo V40 or Mercedes A-class, with which it shares so much of its architecture and switchgear, thanks to the Nissan-Renault Alliance’s partnership with Daimler.
Such is the size of this car, it doesn’t feel appropriate to compare it with the A3. Sit inside and there is width, height and length for four very tall adults. The boot space is class-leading. The interior design is now the paragon of sobriety, with dark leathers and suedes complementing each other, neat stitching and flaring lines along the dash and doors. Mercedes owners will recognise the switchgear, the electronic buttons for seat movements on the door and the parking brake below the steering wheel.
On the move, the most striking element is the silence. This car feels more like a saloon, such is the lack of noise and vibration. The suspension is a pretty much perfect alignment of softness and rigidity, providing support and feedback with comfort. Oh, that all hatches could do it this well. Infiniti say they tested 50 suspension calibrations, which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest – a lot of work has gone into getting this right.
So has Infiniti finally made a car for the British customer? If its DNA is anything to go by, one would hope so: designed in the Paddington studio in London, engineered at Cranfield and manufactured at Nissan’s Sunderland plant, where 300 jobs, £28m and a new test track have been dedicated to Infiniti, it’s a truly British affair.
Two petrol and two diesel engines are on offer – the petrols are 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre turbocharged units, while the diesels are 1.5 and 2.2 litres respectively. There’s a choice of two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, automatic or manual transmissions and three trim levels, the top of which, Sport, has its own badging and a slightly lowered suspension.
The 1.5 diesel is expected to be the best seller; we tried that and the 2.2 diesel and found the smaller unit a better fit for the characteristics of a hatch, lively and responsive with the manual gearbox.
Standard specification levels are high and include 18-inch alloys, Bluetooth, DAB radio, a 7in touchscreen, aircon, and, impressively, city automatic emergency braking. The range starts at £20,550.
I’m happy to say, this car is an actual contender, and I didn’t think I’d say that back in 2009. There are now 10 dealerships nationwide, from Maidstone to Glasgow, plus a pop-up store with a test-drive facility in Westfield shopping centres, and an authorised repair centre will shortly open in Exeter. Over the next 18 months, the network will expand to 25 dealers. The residual values are pretty good for the segment – CAP predicts a 39pc retained value after three years/60,000 miles.
For anyone looking to escape the inevitable pull of the German Big Three, put this on your list.