I know it’s rude to throw shade on a sweet, innocent multinational carmaker on their birthday, but I don’t think it’d do anyone any good to hide it: Infiniti is a disappointment. I don’t actually think the cars it makes are necessarily any worse than those from Acura or Lexus or even BMW or Cadillac or anyone else in their general category; the reason I feel this way is because it started so strong, way back in 1989. Infiniti started with an actual, distinct vision and character, which then then proceeded to ignore and let wither over the years. Let’s look back at the original vision of Infiniti, specifically how it was expressed in the original Q45.
Where Lexus and Acura mostly seemed like just up-market versions of Toyotas and Hondas, Infiniti came out of the gate with a little more depth and intrigue. The original ad campaign, while often panned as pretentious, was boldly oblique and mysterious, but, looking back on them, really conveyed the overall tone that this new auto-entity was trying to achieve. Take one of the more infamous commercials, just called “Water”:
Sure, it’s kind of overly precious, but there’s a real concept being conveyed here, one that’s perhaps better—if still obliquely—expressed in this other commercial:
They’re not showing any cars, but by watching these there’s an idea that comes across: a car as Something That Matters. Not a status symbol, or an out-and-out performance machine, but something that is an expression of a craftsman’s art, a machine designed by people who really care about what they’re building, and in doing so infuse a sense of their own identity into it.
It’s a different approach to luxury, certainly for the time. It’s a nuanced approach, and perhaps strange for a mass-produced automobile, but the sentiment, I think, is powerful: objects, machines like cars, have a certain gravity and dignity. Why not buy something that people actually give a damn about?
The first-generation Q45 certainly felt like such a machine.
Your first look at it made it clear its goal was not to be another clone of more established premium cars of the time. Just compare it to the Lexus LS, introduced the same year, 1989. The Lexus has the large grille that still signifies the identity for many, if not most, carmakers, and fairly conservative proportions, tasteful detailing, but overall it could just be a fancier, larger Camry.
The Q45, on the other hand, feels very different. Most notably, the front end is free of any grille at all, with just some oblong headlamps and a prominent central badge. The door handles are worn like jewelry, ovoid and interesting, the greenhouse is more arched with lots of glass area, and the rear has a slight downward taper, also unusual for that era.
It’s a clean, sleek look, not jarringly different, but just different enough to stand out. It doesn’t really feel like other premium cars of the era, and that was the point.
Infiniti consulted with Italian furniture maker Poltrona Frau (they still collaborate, it seems) for the car’s design, which explains some of the unusual choices, and the firmer seating and other interior design decisions.
That big front badge is also worth discussing, because it manages to encapsulate what Infiniti seems to have been going for remarkably well. It’s pretty huge by car badge standards, which makes sense as it’s standing in for the grille.
It’s sort of shield shaped, a bit, and it has the basic Infiniti logo in the center, but that logo is set on an ornate field of delicate vinework. It appears to be a sort of modern version of Japanese Cloisonné, an enameling and decorative process used for traditional pottery. It’s not the sort of thing you normally would see on a car from the late 1980s.
While American manufacturers loved ornate frippery on all kinds of cars in the 1970s, this feels different. It’s constrained to one spot, the badge, and it’s subtle until you notice it, then you can’t not see it.
I love it, personally.
The way the Q45 drove and performed also shared in the overall tone of Infiniti. It wasn’t just a more comfortable and more powerful version of Nissan’s normal cars.
The Q45 was based on the Nissan President, their Japan-market high-end car, and as such was a rear-wheel drive platform with a big 4.5-liter V8 making an impressive 278 horsepower. It could get from zero to 60 in a quite good 6.7 seconds, but it wasn’t just a luxo-muscle barge.
Every one came with a limited-slip transmission, and had a multi-link suspension setup that could lift or lower the car as speed demanded, and keep it cornering nice and flat.
Compared to the Lexus, the Infiniti had a firmer ride, and was usually considered a lot more engaging and rewarding to drive. It wasn’t a big, cushy ride—it was actually surprisingly capable, handling-wise.
Again, this all fits with the idea that there are things that can be done right, with a specific vision, as opposed to just doing what everyone else is doing.
Sadly, though, like so many of the really interesting things in this world, not enough people appreciated them. It didn’t take long for Infiniti to slap on a big-ass grille like everyone else, tone down the handling, and basically begin the slide into making yet another big luxury sedan that you’d need special drugs to give a shit about.
By 2006, the Q45 had slid into something that you could slap almost any premium carmaker’s badge on and no one would notice. I do like the strangely large headlamps, but overall, that interesting vision was gone.
Now, Infiniti has a new identity of sorts, with that massive grille, and occasionally in concept cars you get a glimpse of these old ideas.
Still, I’d love to see that alternate reality where Infiniti stuck to their original vision, and their logo would always recline in a field of vines.