What do you see when you watch Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull car burn up the world’s Formula One tracks?
Yes, of course it’s a very fast machine being driven expertly by a young German man at the top of his profession… but what else do you see?
For many people, that’s it. Others may subconsciously absorb the distinctive red and blue team colours and name of the energy drink and some may notice the name of sponsor Infiniti and its logo of the pie with a slice missing. But it seems many people, in this country at least, don’t actually know that Infiniti is the name of a car company.
This isn’t so surprising because while it has a presence in 50 countries around the world, including the United States where it’s been for 25 years, Infiniti’s cars have been in the UK for only five years. Last year, it sold only 385 models here. This year, it expects some 800 to take to the road.
Still a modest total but stand by, because if Infiniti gets its way, that’s all about to change. Next year, it aims to boost sales more than six-fold, increase the number of dealer centres around the country from the current nine, including possibly a second Scottish one in Aberdeen, raise its profile and launch more new models from the current six-car range.
The brand is Japanese, the upmarket partner of Nissan – a similar relationship as Lexus has with Toyota – although last year it relocated its global headquarters to Hong Kong. Cars are built in Japan and the US although next year some production will begin in China and at Nissan’s massive British plant at Sunderland.
Recently, Infiniti opened a dedicated design centre in London which is aimed at giving a more European flavour to future models. It’s got a new president, Roland Kruger, who has jumped ship from BMW and, before that, was part of the team that designed the interior of the Smart while with Mercedes. His German background is important because Infiniti want people to see them in the same exclusive bracket as BMW, Audi and Mercedes – “in selected driveways rather than every driveway”, as a senior executive put it.
The latest offering is their existing four-door saloon, the Q50, with a new two-litre direct injection petrol engine from Daimler but tuned by Infiniti engineers to join the existing line-up of a 2.2-litre diesel and a high-performance hybrid powertrain. It combines bags of power with superb torque – the same as a BMW 328i – with good economy and mid-range emissions through a smooth seven-speed automatic transmission.
The result is an upmarket luxury car, crammed with standard equipment and excellent performance. Under the surface there’s a lot of clever technology, including the world’s first steer-by-wire direct adaptive system which does away with mechanical connections between the front wheels and the steering wheel. The result is a remarkably smooth drive where the digital connection filters out any negative feedback like road vibration and leaves the driver to focus on what’s described as “pure” steering with greater response.
It reduces weight and increases safety by doing away with the column and also cuts the cost of producing left or right hand drive models. It means you can adjust the resistance of the steering, the number of turns from lock to lock according to the driving conditions, and it is even ready for the arrival of autonomous, self-driving cars at some point in the future.
It also has the world’s first Active Lane Control setting which goes further than simply warning a driver if they stray over a white line on a motorway or dual carriageway. A camera reads the road ahead and controls the steering to keep the car on a correct course – even round gentle curves – unless the driver intervenes.
The test car was the Sport version so was already well-equipped but it also had the £2,080 Safety Shield pack option with intelligent cruise control, blind-spot warning, advanced emergency braking and predictive forward collision warning.
Another £2,760 brought the Multimedia pack of navigation system, a superb BOSE premium audio with 14 speakers and DAB digital radio. The Visibility pack of adaptive front lighting and around-view monitor with object detection and parking guidance added another £1,040. The rather small electric glass sunroof was another £880 and the Venetian Ruby metallic paint job was an extra £660 to complete a hefty £7,420 extras bill.
The car looks good, with hints of the German competition, but it’s going to take a while to acquire the desired aspirational status.
But this is just the start of Infiniti’s offensive, which will see eight new models over the next five years, starting with the eagerly-awaited compact Q30 which will be built in Sunderland on the Mercedes A and B-Class platform and is due on our roads at the end of next year. By then, Infiniti should mean more than an anonymous name and badge on a very fast Formula One car.
Car Infiniti Q50 2.0T Sport Automatic
Price £41,545 as tested
Engine 1991cc 4 cyl inline 16v 208 bhp 258 lb ft
Performance Top speed 152mph. 0-62mph 7.2 secs
Economy 43 mpg combined
CO2 emissions 151g/km