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Infiniti won’t abandon any segments: Bancon

Next please: The next cab off the rank for Infiniti will be a production version of the QX50 concept.

Product boss commits to slow-selling Infiniti sedans but SUVs, EVs will drive growth

26 Sep 2017

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in HONG KONG

INFINITI expects its growth heading into the next decade will come from new-generation SUVs such as the imminent QX50 and next-generation QX80 due in 2019, backed by some as-yet unannounced high-performance electric vehicles (EV) and updates to its passenger car range.

The Nissan-owned luxury brand experienced its best year in 2016 with more than 230,000 sales globally, but it remains well off the pace of arch rival Lexus, as well as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

While there is an over-dependence on the long-established US market with the thirsty Nissan Patrol-based QX80 SUV, key European (and Australian) volumes continue to underperform due to the muted consumer reception to the BMW 3 Series-rivalling Q50 and Mercedes-based Q30 and QX30 twins.

Infiniti vice-president of product strategy Francois Bancon admitted that the brand needs to reinvent itself as a company that produces smarter and more progressive vehicles than its rivals, adding that such products were in place and coming over the next few years.

“When you manage a portfolio for a premium brand you have to question yourself constantly,” he told GoAuto at Infiniti headquarters in Hong Kong last week.

“We used to have, let’s say, nine products in our portfolio, and some were good, some less good, and now we are considering how to redesign our portfolio.

“As you know, the QX70 (mid-size SUV formerly known as the FX) for example, QX80 to some extent, and Q60 (sports coupe) in a different category, they (currently) make the Infiniti story basically. These cars, unfortunately, and especially the QX80, are going to have a harder time (moving forward).

“While we are working on (a QX80 replacement), there will need to be a (stronger consumer support) shift in this category, since we are going to keep this product for the US, Middle East and to a much lesser extent Australia (because) it is an important model.

“So then we have to ask ourselves how do we redefine the portfolio and we have to be impassioned, step-by-step. Obviously, the SUV/crossover is the number one segment in the premium world, so we are going to go there.”

While the QX70 has been relatively popular in the US since it was launched as the radically designed FX in 2003, it has failed to replicate the same success in most other markets, so Infiniti will drop the series for the time being after this year to make room for the slightly smaller and all-new QX50.

The QX50 is due to have its global debut at the Los Angeles motor show in November, with sales set to commence globally next year.

“We’ve already teased the next-gen QX50 and it will be launched very soon,” Mr Bancon said. “It’s huge work for us because it is a huge challenge but also a huge hope.

“We will be disrupting the category a little bit, especially on technology we already expand the Variable Compression powertrain (fitted to a new-generation 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine that promises to achieve similar consumption figures to a turbo-diesel), which allows us to keep the internal combustion powertrain but in a much smarter way.

“That’s going to be step one… and of course, we have to make sure the top SUV range is going to continue in the future, and this needs a redesign that we are now investigating.”

Infiniti previewed the updated QX80 at the New York motor show earlier this year where it ripped the covers off the bold QX80 Monograph Concept.

Mr Bancon said he was confident about Infiniti’s progress in the field of EVs, hinting that, amongst others, a specialised stand-alone vehicle expected in about 2019 will provide stiff competition for Tesla and other rivals. A prototype is said to be in the pipeline for next January’s Detroit motor show.

“We want an EV that demonstrates and amplifies our brand values, and not just for an opportunistic or tactical points because regulations state so,” he said.

“EV is a technology we believe in, we know the limits, we know the difficulty – and I’m talking about battery EVs here, but we are OK to develop this if it supports and magnifies the brand, and that’s what we are working on now. Let’s say we have a couple of big ideas to develop this.”

Despite the SUV and EV focus, Mr Bancon was adamant that Infiniti’s slow-selling response to the BMW 3 Series and 5 Series sedans will remain in the range in the foreseeable future.

“With sedans, even if it is not growing in the US, it is a little bit more stable in China, and the Q50 category will remain a big deal so we are not going to give up in this segment,” he said. “And the same goes for the ‘E’ sedan segment, where we never quite convinced in this category with the current Q70 we know this. We’ve been a bit more successful with the Q70L Chinese version, but we have to find a solution for this.”

The facelifted Q50 was unveiled earlier this year with substantial improvements, while its coupe sibling, the Q60, was enhanced at the Geneva Motor Show back in March with a high-performance hybrid powertrain, inspired by Formula One energy recovery systems, and known as the Black S.

The aim was to underline Infiniti’s motorsport connections and how it can use F1 technology to outwit German super-sedans such as the BMW M3 and Mercedes-AMG C63.

Finally, with slower-than-expected sales of the Q30 and QX30 hatch and crossover siblings, Mr Bancon also indicated that the next-generation models may abandon their Mercedes A-Class ties and instead employ underpinnings from within the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance – namely those mooted for a future Megane small car series.

He further added that Infiniti has undertaken plenty of soul searching in order to find exactly where its place in the world is.

“So, we are not abandoning the sedans or any other segment,” Mr Bancon said.

“We are trying ways to (redefine) each segment. Less hardware driven, more customer driven. Who are the people around the world in the premium segment and what are the products they are expecting? “This is what we are doing now, we already know the big direction, so it’s not so surprising, so we need to find the right answer for these.

“We are after all a small company and cannot do 20 things at once.”

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