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Cirque du soleil dancers perform at the debut of the Infiniti Q50 sport sedan at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 14, 2013. (REBECCA COOK/REUTERS)
Cirque du soleil dancers perform at the debut of the Infiniti Q50 sport sedan at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 14, 2013. (REBECCA COOK/REUTERS)

Brand Strategy

Infiniti’s only choice is to make a gutsy move Add to ...

Infiniti, Nissan’s premium brand, is in reset mode.

The aim is to triple global sales to 500,000 a year by 2017 from 170,000 last year. This suggests Infiniti Canada needs to top 20,000 in sales in four years. Juicing sales is no small task. I mean, Infiniti sold less than 8,000 cars to Canadians last year.

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For encouragement, Infiniti can look to Audi Canada. Volkswagen’s big premium brand sold more than 9,000 cars in Canada in 2008; four years later, Audi hit the 20,000 mark for 2012. Big leaps can be made, then. And it’s perhaps no surprise that a former Audi man is leading Infiniti’s global charge.

His name is Johan de Nysschen, who took over as president of Infiniti Global Ltd., last summer. In January, he told me that Infiniti will most certainly become a truly global luxury brand. Days later, at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, he said it again, this time to the world and with emphasis: “I will not rest until Infiniti is universally entrenched as a global Tier 1 auto maker.”

So there you have it. No rest for de Nysschen, which should mean no rest for everyone else at Infiniti – especially the product development people who are now reinventing Infiniti’s lineup. The first of the next wave of new Infinitis will land in dealership this summer: the Q50 will replace the aged G37 which, in North America, accounts for about one of every two Infiniti vehicles sold.

The Q50 certainly looks the part of a car aimed at the likes of BMW’s 3-Series and Mercedes’ C-Class. It will be powered not just by a 328-horsepower V-6 (carried over from the G37), but a hybrid powertrain and that Q50 Hybrid, says Infiniti, will come in an all-wheel-drive variant. Right now, the only gasoline-electric hybrid in the Infiniti lineup is the M sedan, which is rear-drive only. Luxury brands these days are as much about AWD as hybrids and, of course, diesels.

In truth, de Nysschen seems impatient to reinvent Infiniti, top to bottom. The brand has a new headquarters in Hong Kong and has expanded its sponsorship in Formula One racing. Infiniti Red Bull has defending champion Sebastian Vettel leading its F1 efforts, with the global racing series starting up 2013 action on March 17 in Australia.

The F1 connection underscores Infiniti’s global aspirations. To reach that 500,000 sales figure, Infiniti must become a significant presence in markets beyond the United States and Canada. But for the present, Infiniti is essentially a North American brand – with 130,000 of is cars sold in Canada and the United States last year.

The F1 racing move smacks more of Jaguar under Ford’s ownership than Audi as part of VW, however. Except, of course, the Infiniti Red Bull team has F1’s best driver and one of its fastest cars; Jaguar, by contrast, spent millions losing races around the globe – and doing absolutely nothing for the credibility of the Jaguar brand.

Of course, Infiniti will not ultimately be judged by F1 racing results, but by the new models it introduces in the next four years, starting with the Q50. To be successful, Infiniti needs to be bold and expansive with its product decisions. That means the current and incredibly staid lineup will grow both in terms of models and in powertrain and performance variants.

De Nysschen, in fact, has said the Q50 will be more than a V-6 car and more than a hybrid with AWD, too. A turbocharged four-cylinder engine is planned, as is a clean diesel for Europe. De Nysschen says the Q50 offerings will expand within two years or less. Infiniti must fill out its lineup overall, he says, and diesel is part of that push.

“You must have diesel available to be a serious member of the premium market,” de Nysschen said at the Detroit auto show in January, though if and when diesel power comes to North America remains under study.

We do know, as Automotive News reports, that the planned turbo four-cylinder engine will come from the Renault-Nissan Alliance’s technology partnership with Daimler. Infiniti will receive an engine derived from the engine used in the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, says the industry publication. And de Nysschen added that the diesel also will come from Daimler and initially will be sold only in Europe.

“We’re reflecting on the U.S. market,” he said, which means Canada, too. But he noted that Infiniti’s lack of a clean-diesel engine and a small turbocharged engine has been a small disaster. These are two of the most important product segments in the world luxury market.

“We simply lack a vehicle in those segments,” he told Automotive News. “We can’t compete with the world’s most powerful luxury auto companies on a part-time basis.”

De Nysschen told me that Infiniti will add more models between now and 2017, perhaps as many as four, not including various powertrain options. The current lineup will also be completely renewed. The Q50 is just the start of an array of new crossovers, sedans and “some seductive” performance cars.

But it all starts with the Q50. De Nysschen says the car crystalizes Infiniti’s “future design, performance and technology,” along with introducing a new naming strategy. All future Infinitis will wear a “Q” badge, while crossovers and SUVs will be badged “QX-something.” It’s a simple and consistent naming strategy, he says.

If nothing else, the Q50 says that Infiniti is serious about its concept cars. This sedan takes its styling cues from the Infiniti Essence concept. The production car is athletic in its stance, but still on the conservative side. Inside, the Q50 is comfortable and modern. The centrepiece of the cabin is the Infiniti InTouch communications system. It has the dual touch-screens that are coming into vogue across the car business.

Perhaps the riskiest piece of Infiniti’s strategy is the all-in commitment to F1. While F1 has a global footprint, it is largely irrelevant in the United States, Infiniti’s largest market. So U.S. sales are funding a global push by a Hong Kong-based luxury brand – one owned by a Japanese car company – that is using a Eurocentric racing series to help validate Infiniti’s bona fides. And a South African is in charge of all this.

No one will confess to what Infiniti has paid for branding Infiniti Red Bull Racing in 2013, but it surely runs into the millions. After all, Vettel is a favourite to defend his driver’s title, and the team is expected to run a strong defence of its constructors’ title. If so, Infiniti will need a strong and continuing array of world-class models that reflect the F1 successes.

If Infiniti Red Bull stumbles on the race track, it will do little for the Infiniti brand. If Infiniti stumbles with its new models, the company will have spent millions creating buzz around products that do not live up to the brand promise. It’s gutsy, really. But then, what choice does Infiniti have? The brand has been stalled for years and years. It does seem time to take some risks. And that time is now.

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