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Infiniti takes on the German 'big boys'

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DETROIT -- As new luxury car sales cool off in booming markets such as China and Russia and grind to a halt in Europe, automakers have once again turned to North America, where sales of premium cars and trucks fail to wane.

In what was the best overall new vehicle sales year ever in Canada since the record 2002, all the leading luxury brands in 2012 -- Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz -- had their best years on record. This is one of the reasons why Nissan's Infiniti luxury brand decided to relaunch itself at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

After its initial success in the early 1990s, Infiniti has been a perennial also-ran in the highly profitable luxury classes. And while sales for the Japanese luxury brand were up 15 per cent last year compared to 2011 (to 7,993 new cars and trucks sold last year in Canada), that's still far behind sales leaders such as Germany's Mercedes-Benz and BMW, each selling more than 30,000 units.

But the global reboot of Infiniti, involving a new model naming system, new models and an upgraded dealer network, is aimed at taking on the German brands that director of Infiniti Canada Wendy Durward calls "the big boys."

As much as luxury customers buy into the experiences or lifestyle a brand may promise, the tangible product is the first touch-point. And the first new Infiniti that embodies the brand's upscale goals is the 2014 Q50, the entry-level sports sedan that made its world debut at the Detroit auto show and goes on sale in Canada this summer.

As per the job description of the car it replaces, the outgoing G, the Q50 has been designed to steal buyers away from the big boys -- the most notable being BMW's 3 Series, which 11,234 Canadians bought as their new car last year, compared to just more than 3,000 Infiniti G sedans sold.

So who better to talk to about the new Q50's challenging mission than the man responsible for the car's design, Infiniti's global design director Kogi Nagano.

Nagano said one of the biggest challenges for his team was designing a car that could be sold around the world. While his designers are responsible for the overall design of each Infiniti product, his team is spread out among three studios in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. So the new Q50 was a truly global design effort.

"The Q50 builds on the success of the G," he said. "The G was a core global car in our lineup. We can't lose the core of that product."

In that regard, he said his team worked on making the design of the Q50 more "authentic" for luxury buyers.

"That means a rear-wheel-drive platform, unmistakable proportions and a good stance on the road," explained Nagano as he walked around the 2014 Q50 Hybrid model on display at Infiniti's Detroit show stand.

It's been almost three years since the Infiniti Essence show car debuted, but the new Q50 is the first production model that bears that concept car's design themes. One of the Essence's key features translated to the Q50 was its face.

"Consistency is a big part of premium brand," Nagano said. "So, on the Q50, we have continued with the three-dimensional graphics of the Essence's front grille -- the shape, and the detailing of the waved mesh pattern surface within the grille -- and this will appear on each new Infiniti going forward."

Even at night, it's important to distinguish what brand of luxury is quickly approaching in the left-hand lane, so Nagano's team also spent a lot of time developing the visual identity of the Q50's headlight design and their almost human-like look.

As important as the Q50's exterior design is for that all-important first impression for buyers, once customers settle into the sedan's cockpit they also want a very high level of quality and sophistication, Nagano said. Arguably, the biggest changes between the old G and the new Q50 are inside.

"Even for the interior, we tried to create a new identity for Infiniti. One way was by creating one space for the driver and one space for the passenger, divided by this double-wave form," he said.

Infiniti's head pen also says one of his team's biggest challenges was how to introduce the new pair of touch-screen monitors that replace Infiniti's previous central controller interface.

"The ergonomics are a big departure. The biggest change is with the centre console, and we spent a lot of time developing and researching how people will interact with it."

One of the features luxury car buyers expect is a high level of perceived quality, a feature that can be convincing in something as simple as tight gaps between adjoining body panels. And this was another design-to-production battle Nagano fought hard for.

"A big challenge for us with the production and manufacturing people was the stamp on the door panel. This is a deep cut from the Essence. We also really focused on a tight wheel-to-fender lip space as well."

If Infiniti really does want to play with the big boys, Nagano and his team will need to keep winning those design battles.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2013 E2

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