WHEN YOU THINK OF CARS FROM BMW, AUDI OR MERCEDES-BENZ, WHICH COUNTRY IMMEDIATELY SPRINGS TO MIND? GERMANY OF COURSE. FORD, JEEP OR CHRYSLER? USA. HYUNDAI OR KIA WOULD BE SOUTH KOREA. WHAT ABOUT MAZDA, TOYOTA OR HONDA? NOW, WHAT ABOUT INFINITI?
You’re wrong. Infiniti is not Japanese, even though it’s the luxury offshoot of that very Japanese company Nissan. Neither is it American, despite Donald Trump’s countrymen accounting for more than two-thirds of Infiniti’s sales since the luxury brand started 27 years ago.
Considering Infiniti’s ambitions, one could draw a strong connection with China, where Infiniti sold 25,000 cars in 2015 (its first full year there) and was 51 percent up through the first quarter of 2016. But China is not the right answer, either.
All the other global brands I named are headquartered in the country with which they are most strongly associated. But to call Infiniti a Hong Kong brand would also be wrong.
Infiniti, you see, is a global brand, owned by no country, successful in all. At least that’s the vision of ambitious CEO Roland Krueger, a 50-year-old BMW veteran who took over when Andy Palmer defected to Aston Martin in September 2014.
Krueger believes Infiniti does not need a national identity to succeed internationally. He believes prosperity lies in the once-Japanese, Americacentric sports luxury carmaker becoming the first global automotive citizen. “We are developing into a global brand,” Krueger told Wheels over dinner in Tokyo. “A global brand with local relevance.”
He’s identified design, technology and performance as the three tenets of Global Brand Infiniti. “We want to be the leader in some technologies and some of the performance. And our design… It started with the show car Essence.
Design will become a true differentiator.”
Krueger knows that every facet of the company must live the ‘technology and unique design’ mantra or it will fail.
“It starts with us, the people who make Infiniti.
If we have a clear understanding, then the engineers will put that into the car, the designers will, everyone will, and then the car will deliver on that. That is up to us.”
By the time you read this, news will have broken of Infiniti’s innovative Variable Compression Technology (VC-T) engine, a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that can vary compression between 9:1 and 14:1 to prioritise fuel efficiency or performance, and produces a competitive 200kW yet uses 27 percent less fuel than similarly powerful conventional engines.
Unlike Infiniti’s unpopular Direct Adaptive Steering, VC-T promises desirable real-world benefits. Australians will see it first in the QX50 sedan update in 2017, then progressively in other models.
I asked Krueger if this engine has performance potential as well. He grinned but refused to answer directly, saying instead: “Do you see me smiling?”
Infiniti has struggled for traction in Australia since launching in 1989 with the big Q45. Last year’s sales came in at a paltry 574 units, well behind obvious rival Lexus (8691) and the three German powerhouses that each sold more than 23,000.
Krueger is driven, no question. And convincing.
He has convinced me that Infiniti is tackling its identity crisis. But he hasn’t convinced me that Infiniti can be successful. Only the next generation of its cars can do that.
In 2013 Roland Krueger became the fi rst German to ski solo to the South Pole, an 890km journey that took 50 days. As if that wasn’t hard enough, he dragged all his supplies on a sled weighing 130kg. Oh, and the icy surface of the South Pole is actually 2835m above sea level, so the entire journey was literally an uphill battle akin to scaling Kosciuszko. The man clearly brings a rare level of determination to Infi niti.