The auto industry in the midst of massive transformation, and no manufacturer is immune from the disruption. In this new reality, Japanese luxury automaker Infiniti received a big blow recently: It lost Karim Habib, the Lebanese-born Canadian who was Infiniti’s global design chief. He jumped ship in August, 2019, and resurfaced two months later at Kia Motors as the senior vice-president and head of the Kia Design Centre.
Habib was tasked with reinventing the Japanese brand. But is his loss detrimental to the success of Infiniti? Absolutely not. Don’t get me wrong – he is a talented and gifted designer who has a long list of show-stopping vehicles under his belt. After all, he was BMW’s head of design from 2012 to 2017 before joining Infiniti. And I’m certainly proud of his Canadian roots.
But the reality is that he was only there for two years. His loss won’t have a detrimental effect, largely because his replacement, Taisuke Nakamura, has a rich history with the brand. He joined Nissan back in 1993 and has 26 years and counting of design experience under his belt. That’s got to count for something. And it was his influence and hand on the designs of show-stopping concept cars like the single-seater Infiniti Prototype 10, the Infiniti QX Inspiration SUV and the Qs Inspiration sedan – vehicles that stole the show at the 2018 LA Auto Show and the 2019 North American International Auto Show.
Concepts take serious cash. It takes a long time – longer than 2 years – to sketch, build and create a prototype. Habib may have had some input, but it’s clear from talking to Nakamura at Infiniti’s 30th anniversary celebration in New Mexico that it is his blood, sweat and tears in those vehicles. His passion is evident as he walks me around the QX Inspiration and Qs Inspiration concepts.
Those concepts are the key to Infiniti’s future success. Nakamura and his design team have the task of shaping electrification for the brand moving forward – a key to remaining competitive in the ever-changing automotive landscape.
In fact, Infiniti has bold, ambitious plans to roll out five brand new vehicles in the next three years, with three of them electrified.
Those production cars will be based on three concepts – the Infiniti Q Inspiration, the Qs Inspiration sedan and the QX Inspiration SUV. These vehicles will share one platform and have two different electrified powertrains. They’ll be able to accommodate both pure electric vehicle (EV) and gas-generated EV powertrains; the latter will use Infiniti’s VC-Turbo variable-compression-ratio technology. It’ll generate electrical power stored in a battery, which can be delivered to all four wheels through a pair of electric motors. The battery pack is recharged constantly by a three-cylinder 1.5-litre gas generator. Because there’s a generator, there’s no need to plug in to recharge. As a result, plug-in hybrid EVs won’t be part of the plan.
“Electrification is a challenge – we have to change the way we package cars and design cars. Its an opportunity for us to take electrification as a way to leapfrog our competition,” says Eric Rigaux, general manager of product strategy and planning for Infiniti.
Nakamura also doesn’t deny there are challenges with this new wave of electric vehicles coming to the market. But judging by his two concepts – the Qs and QX on display at Spaceport America – Nakamura has achieved that balance. Since there’s no need for an internal-combustion engine or driveshafts that eat up space in the cabin, engineers have more options to configure the layout of a car, and designers have more freedom to create larger, lounge-like spaces that more resemble a living room.
“It’s a very comfortable space, but at the same time we try to integrate high technology seamlessly and visibly. Everything is flowing,” says Nakamura. The interior combines elegance with cool design elements – high-tech screens run along the dashboard, marble covers the floor and self-driving features such as steering wheels and floor pedals disappear seamlessly into the dashboard and floor when not in use. Everything is integrated harmoniously into the cabin to create a calming yet futuristic atmosphere.
But will that balance of design, beauty and technology transfer into the production vehicles? Only time will tell. But I’m banking Nakamura will make it happen.
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