Infiniti looks kind of stalled at the moment. There haven't been any new cars for years. But there are signs of germination from Nissan's up-market marque.
For a start, more and more people have actually heard of the brand. Seb Vettel is the man to thank, what with all those global millions of eyeballs fixed on his Infiniti-stickered car of a Sunday afternoon. Canny deal that: it cost Infiniti a lot less to 'partner' the Red Bull Renault team than it did to buy it, but it's getting almost as much airtime as Mercedes' hugely expensive GP participation.
Then there's the new Q50 saloon, a rear-drive mid-size job. We've already seen it at motor shows, and it’s going on sale in Britain in autumn. It's going to be a long road to carve out a chunk of the Audi A4 or 3-series business of course. But this one has a better chance than Infiniti's previous saloons, partly because it comes with a new fuel-efficient 170bhp 2.2 diesel engine taken from Mercedes.
Then, in late 2014, we'll get an Infiniti crossover, although a very road-biased one. It'll be built at Nissan's Sunderland plant. Think of it as a sort of posh Qashqai. If you will a GoldAmexQardqai. Strangely the Infiniti crossover, likely to be called the QX30, doesn't use Nissan parts even though it'll come down the same line as the Nissans. It's based on the Mercedes A-class/B-class/CLA platform.
Hang on, though. Mercedes will itself spin off a crossover from the same platform, called the GLA. That's already been previewed by a concept car. So why would Mercedes help out a competitor?
Well, Mercedes and the Nissan-Renault Alliance have already got several co-op projects on the go (diesel engines, the new Smart and Twingo, some vans). And Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche once told me, "If people cross-shop an Infiniti it’s with BMW, while it’s Lexus buyers who cross-shop with Mercedes. So helping Infiniti does us no sales harm."
The Infiniti's sheet-metal will be all-new, resembling the Etherea concept. This means a relatively high car, with a hatchback. It will be exported worldwide, and the Sunderland people have said they expect to make 60,000 a year. Which is a modest number, but it's useful profit if Mercedes has resisted ripping them off for the mechanics..
Infiniti also wants to make an EV, based on the Nissan Leaf. But it will have a killer app: inductive charging. Like one of those phone charger pads, you just park the car over a pad installed in your drive or garage. Which avoids the very non-premium business of plugging andunplugging a heavy, dirty and often wet cable. The car's almost finished, but there's a hurdle, says Infiniti's boss Andy Palmer. No agreed standard for the charge pads exists yet, and until it does they won't sell the car.
With the Q saloon, QX30 and possible EV giving some heft to the bottom of the Infiniti range, and hopefully some continuing cred from the Grand Prix team, there should be time to think about a top-end car. There's no exact decision of what the car will be. But they now know what it won't be: a redesigned GT-R.
Previously, senior Infiniti planners had said the company was considering using that mighty driveline. But Palmer now rules this out: "I don't think you can use the GT-R. The target customer is the rich one-child family, especially in China. These people are environmentally aware. They want the best of the best. The noise, vibration and harshness of the GT-R isn't suitable."
Instead, he said, "I prefer the execution of the Emerg-E. The Essence and Emerg-E concepts showed possible ways of moving up." The Essence was the first of Infiniti's run of concepts, a big 2+2 coupe with a fairly conventional hybrid drive. The recent Emerge-e was a two-seat mid-engined electric sports car with a petrol range extender, using a Lotus chassis. Don't expect to see the final result until 2016 though…