Infiniti arrived in Europe almost two years ago. Nissan's luxury arm had been enjoying relative success in its sole market the US for the last twenty-odd years, but for Europe, the marque had modest ambitions - a spot of luck given that when it moored on our shores in 2008, the region was on the brink of financial crisis.
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Infiniti has slowly introduced its cars to key European countries, following launches with a sprinkling of identical, well-placed showrooms, each carefully designed to resemble boutique hotel lobbies, and offering very personal and highly rated customer service. There are now 38 dealerships across Europe, and the four in the UK include a recently opened flagship store in London's Park Lane.
While Italy and Spain warmed to the brand instantly, crucial markets like Germany and the UK (admittedly Infiniti only arrived here in 2009) have proved trickier, partly due to the lack of an executive saloon with a diesel engine. The new arrival of the Infiniti M should change all this. The executive express joins a Euro line-up that already includes the large and small FX and EX sports utility vehicles, and the G saloon, coupé and convertible.
Infiniti hopes that the M's individuality - plus the fact that it isn't a mainstream brand - will win over customers who might currently own one of the established heavyweights like the BMW 5-Series, Mercedes E-Class and Audi A5. Nissan Group Design Director Shiro Nakamura calls it 'the seductive alternative', underscoring the message that the car's design is considered one of its key selling points. Based loosely on the evocative 2009 Essence concept car (Geneva Motor Show 2009), the M is a strong representation of Infiniti's new design direction, and it shows a confidence lacking in the previous products.
This is very much a Japanese car. Inspired by nature, the exterior sculpture is full of visual movement taken from the free flowing form of waves. The theme continues in the cabin with strong references to what Nakamura calls 'old Japan'. The sweeping gentle stroke of the Japanese paintbrush has inspired the metal treatment inside the driver and front passenger doors, the leather padding underneath nods to the elegant folds of the Kimono, and materials used on the Samurai sword have inspired some of the colour and trim options inside the M.
There is a strong appreciation of the qualities of light, proportion and material, and there is enough luxury on offer, including soft leather seats as standard, hand-buffed Japanese ash wood trim with powdered silver finish, and a Forest Air climate control system that promises to lift the mood and help with concentration. The cars are highly specified with a whole host of driver assist and safety technology on offer.
The overall look is sporty. This is a front engine, rear-drive car - the front overhang is short, the bonnet is long, and the fastback rear hints at coupé styling. The boot lid has a neat integral 'ducktail' to boost aero efficiency and round off the sporting appearance.
The Infiniti M comes with a choice of powerful V6 3.7-litre petrol and 3-litre diesel engines available in four grades GT, GT Premium, S, S Premium, with a much-anticipated high-performance V6 petrol-electric hybrid to follow in Spring 2011.
Product manager Gert Van Advondt admits that the hybrid won't be a major seller, but nevertheless it is a crucial proposition for raising the marque's prestige in an increasingly ecologically-minded European market. He also hints at a smaller electric car, powered by the next-generation Nissan-built ultra thin and powerful lithium-ion batteries, to join the eco portfolio in 2013. We reckon that an upscale version of the new Nissan Leaf could eventually find its way into Infiniti's upscale showrooms.
Much in the way Jaguar has set itself apart with the wonderfully eccentric XF, the M is a refreshing approach to the executive business car segment, traditionally seen as rather conservative. Can it entice customers away from the established German marques? It could do if it upholds its individuality, and further develops this unique Japanese visual identity.
Let's hope Renault-Nissan's CEO Carlos Ghosn stays true to his words. 'Infiniti is not about doing what everyone else is doing,' he told Wallpaper* back in 2008. 'It is not about copying traditional, conservative notions of luxury. We will not try to be all things to all people, but everything to some people.' To quote Apple boss Steve Jobs: 'Why join the navy if you can be a pirate.'