Intensifying Design at Infiniti
With 26 years under its belt, Nissan’s Infiniti brand is firmly entrenched in the premium segment. And the luxury marque has designs on reinventing itself with a host of new models waiting in the wings.
There have been plenty of hits and misses along the way, as well as sales slumps, bumps and surges. Lately, the news has been mostly good. Extremely good. Through September, Infiniti has posted 13 straight individual monthly sales records—including gains in all major markets.
So what’s next?
“We’re at the beginning of a substantial change,” says Keith St. Clair, director-product planning and strategy for Infiniti U.S. “It’s a complete renaissance and the cadence has already begun.”
Styling will play an important role in Infiniti’s future.
We’re Styling Now
From its inception, Infiniti stood out from Nissan in terms of performance—starting with the original V8-powered Q45 sedan—technology and high-end interiors. It even had its own quirky marketing (remember those early Zen-like rock commercials) strategy, albeit with mixed reviews.
But the marque has sometimes struggled to find its design identity. That’s true, in part, because Infiniti didn’t have its own design team separate from Nissan until this past September, when Infiniti opened a new studio within the Nissan Design America (NDA) complex in San Diego.
Infiniti Design San Diego joins similar centers in Beijing, London and Atsugi, Japan, which serves as the brand’s design headquarters.
The effort is led by Alfonso Albaisa, who was named Infiniti’s first executive design director in 2013. Albaisa joined NDA in 1988 and served as its director for several years in addition to leadership stints at the London and Japan studios.
For the record, Infiniti describes its design philosophy as a mix of “power and artistry” that is “bold yet nuanced” with emotional and technical aspects. Sound a bit scattered? Perhaps, but that’s sort of the (starting) point. More precisely, the goal is to integrate contrasting elements into a “harmonious duality” with distinctly styled cars.
The strategy is underscored by the makeup of the designers themselves. At NDA alone, 14 different nationalities are represented between the Nissan and Infiniti teams.
“Infiniti is unique and we’re in our own place. We’re a mix of many cultures, so dualities are very natural for us,” Albaisa, who is Cuban American, said earlier this year.
NDA was ahead of its time when Nissan opened the San Diego facility in 1979, when it was one of the first automotive design studios in California. And befitting California, the studio has a relaxing atmosphere and features open courtyards, high ceilings, sand volleyball, and a roof-top tennis court. More importantly, designers are encouraged to spend time away from work to pursue other passions—everything from surfing, racing, traveling and cooking.
“It’s a very creative environment that supports a good work-life balance,” notes Rick Plavetich, NDA general manager. “We work hard and play hard.”
In addition to dozens of new production and concept cars, NDA designers have penned a variety of non-automotive projects over the years, ranging from coffee cups, golf clubs, preschool furniture, and medical devices to light aircraft and a 150-ft. yacht.
All for One
With the launch of the new studio, about one-third of NDA’s staff of 60 now is dedicated to Infiniti. Most of the new team was already working on Infiniti programs, but there is an even greater brand focus now.
“We’re building on what we have with an emphasis on performance and driver engagement. And there will be even more differentiation from Nissan to come,” says Sean McNamara, senior manager-product planning for Infiniti Americas.
To complement the NDA veterans, Infiniti Design San Diego also has made a few new hires in the last year.
“When we hire someone we want them to be part of the family,” Plavetich adds. “It’s a really collaborative space.”
There’s also spirited competition. At the onset of a new program, design teams at each of the four global studios will develop and submit exterior/interior proposals. The winner takes the lead on the project and brings new vehicles to fruition.
Each studio has its own person-ality. Drawing on Europe’s long history for premium goods, the London team is said to be particularly strong when it comes to proportions and the balance of shapes. The Beijing unit is cited for being more daring as car ownership becomes more widespread throughout China, while the San Diego studio capture’s California’s carefree lifestyle and Mexican influences as Infiniti expands south of the border.
The Atsugi facility near Tokyo oversees the process and works closely with advanced engineering to ensure emerging technologies are reflected and integrated into new designs.
The next-generation of Infiniti cars and crossovers take their cues from recent concept models for the Q30, Q60 and QX30, as well as the Q80 design study. The concepts feature bolder exterior styling, with fluid lines, sloped windshields, elongated headlights, sculpted flanks and coupe-like profiles.
The 2016/2017 rollout started with the just launched QX50 crossover. Styling changes are minimal, but the new model adds value and much-needed rear-seat room.
The production version of the compact Q30 was revealed at the 2015 Frankfurt auto show and is due to hit the streets in Europe later this year, followed by a mid-2016 launch in the U.S. A by-product of Renault-Nissan’s partnership with Mercedes, the sporty Q30 shares a front-drive platform with a variety of compact Mercedes models, including the tiny A-Class.
No major changes were made to the 2016 QX70 crossover, while the QX80 adds new “signature edition” packages. Production of the Q40 sedan and Q60 coupe and convertible has been discontinued.
The Q50 sedan will get a turbo-charged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Other upgrades will be announced in December.
The QX30 crossover is planned for a mid-2016 launch. The rest of the updated lineup, including the Q60 and QX60, will be revealed throughout 2016.