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Jeremy Cato, left, was impressed by Formula One champ Sebastian Vettel's humour and humility. (Glenn Dunbar/Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic)
Jeremy Cato, left, was impressed by Formula One champ Sebastian Vettel's humour and humility. (Glenn Dunbar/Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic)


Can Vettel start Infiniti's engine? Add to ...

In a nutshell, sales for Nissan's luxury brand have been disappointing for essentially all of the two decades since Infiniti was launched in North America. Sure, last year sales in Canada were up 16 per cent, but that's misleading. Infiniti Canada's market share is stagnant at 0.5 per cent, while rivals such as Audi - whose sales numbers were about equal to Infiniti's just a couple of years ago - has nearly double Infiniti's sales. Last year, Audi picked up yet another tenth of a point of market share, too.

Audi has a more extensive product line, so some of the explanation is right there in what the two brands offer. Audi, however, has been far, far more aggressive not just with launching new models into new niches, but also about its marketing and in bringing on dealers to push both the brand's Vorsprung Durch Technik message and the its vision for luxury vehicles coming out of Germany.

Infiniti's marketing, to me, seems timid and its dealers far, far too uninvolved in building some sort of consistent brand message. Infiniti's latest slogan, "Inspired Performance," might work, but we'll have to see.

The real shame of it is that Infiniti has some good products. For instance, the redesigned Infiniti M37 posted an "Excellent" score in Consumer Reports' ratings. The new M37 is CR's top-rated mid-sized luxury sedan, in fact. And ALG says Infiniti boasts the top resale values among all luxury brands in Canada and has done so for three years running.

Infiniti has good products, but not full market coverage with a line of models designed to meet a wide range of tastes and needs. Infiniti still needs fixing, then. Worse, sales in Canada were down 15.3 per cent through the end of May. Much of the problem there is related to supply problems in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The vehicle supply issue will sort itself out over time. The bigger brain-twister remains, however: What is Infiniti?

The F1 tie-in and the IPL launch suggest the brand is wedded to the proven notion that power and sex appeal sell. We all get that.

Yet at the same time, Infiniti is part of an auto industry compelled to develop "green" technologies to meet strict fleet-wide fuel economy standards by 2016.

So, on the one hand, high-performance development is at work, while on the other, the industry is pushing ahead with electric cars, hybrids and the like.

"Every car manufacturer has to develop very different technologies" for electric, hybrid, gasoline and diesel cars, Nissan-Renault alliance CEO Carlos Ghosn told Automotive News.

"These technologies are so expensive no manufacturer can afford to develop each of these technologies," he said, adding, "You can't be a niche brand. You have to be present in the upper segment and the lower segment, and the crossover segment and the four-by-four segment."

And the high-performance segment, if you're Infiniti. To whit, the launch of the latest Infiniti model, the M35h hybrid ($67,300). It is a lovely bit of smart, efficient engineering, a fast and astoundingly fuel efficient luxury sedan (0-100 km/h in less than 5.5 seconds).

The combination of an efficient gas V-6 engine (302 hp) and a 50 kW electric motor (rated at 67 hp) translates into a power train rated at the equivalent of 360 hp. That would not be such a big deal save for this one fact: the sexy-looking and high-tech M Hybrid gets better city fuel economy than a pint-sized, $13,000 Nissan Versa sedan (107 hp).

And then…

I am snapped out of my reverie by Vettel, who turns to me and says something to the effect of, "Let's go, I want to go play." If those weren't his exact words, he makes it clear that only this morning did he first set eyes on Circuit ICAR and he's here to have fun. I am his first victim - uh, passenger.

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