I think Infiniti CEO Johan De Nysschen must watch The Dark Knight on repeat a lot, because his plans are a lot like something The Joker was fond of saying in that film: "aggressive expansion." It's how he aims to make Infiniti run with the big dogs for the first time ever.
As Infiniti celebrates its 25th anniversary as a brand, it is at something of a crossroads. Despite a few early gems like their high-tech original Q45, the company's strategy in the 1990s seemed to be just bringing various upmodel Nissans from Japan to the U.S., adding leather and a clock, and seeing how it did. Their biggest hit to date has been the G35 and G37 sedans and coupes, but that hasn't been enough.
These missteps have led to a lack of brand identity, not to mention sluggish sales and Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn mulling the idea of killing it off entirely.
But De Nysschen, the ex-chief of Audi in the U.S. and Japan before that, isn't having any of that. The South African-born executive — a smart, bold veteran of the luxury car game with a sharp wit and a willingness to upend the status quo — is leading Infiniti's expansion into China from their new headquarters in Hong Kong, has uprooted the way their cars are named, and is planning a plethora of new models that will use engines from new partner Mercedes-Benz.
In short, "aggressive expansion." De Nysschen has ambitious plans for the brand, plans he hopes will put it on par with Audi, BMW and the rest. His goal is to make Infiniti "an unquestioned member of the club of premium automotive brands," as he puts it.
After having dinner with him (there were other journalists there too, Johan and I don't just hang out) at the Detroit Auto Show, and reading what he said to other news outlets in interviews, I learned some his plans for Infiniti going forward. I have to hand it to him; he certainly doesn't want Infiniti to rest on its laurels, possibly because he knows they don't have many laurels to rest on.
But in a way, Infiniti is in a good position to do this. Having never really established a cohesive brand identity in the past, they basically have a blank canvas to play with going forward. Let's see what they come up with.
De Nysschen has ordered the Eau Rouge into production. When you're a luxury brand, nice upscale sedans and SUVs are great, but it's also hugely important to have something that can look good in the magazine comparison tests against the Ms and AMGs of the world. You need a sword, basically.
He told me they aren't sure what engine it will use yet, but it could possibly be sourced from Mercedes and have eight cylinders or be a turbo V6. Sounds like a recipe for good times.
They're putting out five new cars by 2018. Right now Infiniti's lineup consists of the all-new Q50 sedan and carryover models renamed Q or QX, but a bunch of new stuff is in the pipeline.
Auto Express reports these new cars include a Q60 coupe to replace the current one formerly known as the G37 coupe, a new mid-size QX70 crossover, some kind of luxury flagship car and a high-performance halo car. All will follow the Q50's design language.
First and foremost, though, there's the Q30, which will be built in England and compete with the A3, BMW 1-Series and Mercedes A-Class/CLA/GLA models.
Speaking of the Q30, that's gonna be a big deal for them. Infiniti doesn't really have an entry-level car these days, and the Q30 — a sort of small crossover hatchback — will fill that role. It will have both gasoline and diesel engines.
The Europeans aren't buying many cars these days thanks to their tanked economy, but when they do, small crossovers are their fastest-growing segment. It's why they're buying so many Opel Mokkas, better known as the Buick Encore to us.
Here's what De Nysschen told Auto Express:
Profitability is also something de Neysschen said would come to Infiniti in Europe, before some analysts had predicted: "We make money in the middle east and eastern Europe, but not in western Europe.
There will come a time to be more aggressive in Europe and we are there now."
"Infiniti has to have a positive result for its shareholders," he said. "We break even in Europe by the end of the 2016 financial year."
I'm hoping the production Q30 stays close to its concept. I think it's a great-looking car.
He wants better gearboxes. In addition to improving the NVH qualities of their cars, De Nysschen told me that newer, better transmissions are a goal. They want gearboxes that shift faster and have more gears. Everyone else is going this route as they chase both fuel economy and performance.
And guess what? He wants manuals, too. "There are just some things you need to have," and a proper stick shift is one. There isn't one on the Q50 at the moment, but it sounds like adding a manual option to future cars is a priority.
Direct Adaptive Steering is the future. I drove the Q50 when it launched last year and wasn't a huge fan of their all-electric drive-by-wire steering. To me it felt too artificial, too computerized. Interestingly, another Infiniti executive told me that while several American journalists like myself criticized the system, writers from Canada and Australia loved it. Strange.
One can fully assume this will become more prevalent on other new Infinitis. De Nysschen told me he thinks the electric steering gets better over time, the more the driver gets used to it and adapts to it. Fair enough.
They might be working on a twin-turbo V6. 400 horsepower is the number he offered up. Again, it's not clear if this will be a version of the ubiquitous VQ V6 — which has never been better than it is in the Q50 — or a Mercedes-derived engine.
They're working on a new entry level engine too. These days, Infiniti's smallest motors are their 3.7-liter and 3.5-liter V6s, and those aren't gonna cut it anymore in terms of fuel economy standards, even if they do come in hybrid form. Expect something smaller in the cards.
An Infiniti with a GT-R engine probably isn't happening. "Do not think there aren't people within the Nissan organization who have considered this idea," De Nysschen told me. He said it's hard to adapt that unique engine to cars and transmissions it wasn't designed for, so that's probably a no-go. (At the time I forgot to mention that they put it into a Juke once, but oh well.)
They're eyeing a second plant in North America. Right now Infinitis are made in Japan and the QX60 is made in Tennessee, alongside many Nissans. But another one may be coming soon to the U.S. or Mexico, according to Bloomberg.
And of course, China is a top priority, because duh. Why do you think Infiniti is based in Hong Kong these days? De Nysschen told Bloomberg that's where the company's future lies, same as every automaker, and last year Infiniti's sales jumped 54 percent last year to 17,108 in China. Infiniti will start building the Q50 and QX50 at Nissan plants in China soon.
Their goal is 500,000 cars sold globally by 2020. With these new models comes an ambitious sales plan. In 2012, global sales were below 200,000. Can they pull it off? Time will tell, but new models and establishing a new identity for themselves is the key. It's going to be interesting to see where they go from here.
If the Q50 is any indication, then design and technology won't be Infiniti's problem. They have that covered. What they need to work on is passion, excitement, and that fun-to-drive factor. They've pulled that off in the past with cars like the G35. Add that in with these ambitious plans and they may have a shot at that exclusive club just yet.
Photos credit AP, Infiniti, Jalopnik