Infiniti is on a mission to find a distinctive voice, and the company’s new Q Inspiration concept is an expression of this. Presented last month at the North American International Auto Show, the study car is rich with references to the future of the Japanese marque. Despite recognition in the US and throughout Asia, Infiniti – Nissan’s premium arm – is somewhat misunderstood in Europe. Q, and the production cars that follow, may change our perception.

The concept car proposes an unconventional design theme that breaks away from the usual three-box saloon style; it explores a human-focused interior inspired by elements of Japan and looks at Infiniti in the ever-advancing age of clean autonomous driving. The project was led by Karim Habib, who from his base in Atsugi, Japan leads Infiniti’s design teams in Beijing, San Diego and London.

Infiniti Q Inspiration concept car

An advanced VC-Turbo engine powers the car​

Discussions over project Q had already begun before Habib joined the company in July. A clay model had been conceived to explore the coupé proportions, the shorter hood and elongated body. ‘I had never worked on these proportions,’ he begins. ‘I wanted to challenge myself – explore a different kind of elegance. So, I started on the surfaces, the volumes and graphics. The idea was to keep a simple and clear design that is also a bold product.’

Infiniti’s advanced VC-Turbo engine powers the car. Habib says this shift towards more compact and less intrusive powertrains liberated his team to work with alternative forms ‘with flowing gestures, more engaging in character and more enriching in experience’, he says. ‘It heralds in a new era for Infiniti models.’

Infiniti Q Inspiration concept car

The front grille is framed by striped LED lights

There are some exciting ideas being explored here too, such as the prominent front grille framed by striped LED lights. Habib offers in explanation: ‘With the headlamps we avoided playing with animation and jewellery. Instead it is about emulating the concept of Japanese restraint.’

Then the light design is supposed to pull the viewer in like an infinite mirror. ‘In terms of production, this is too advanced but the idea of these infinite mirrors is something we would like to develop.’ The grille design opens and closes depending on how much air the car needs to cool the engine. ‘We have a chance to explore the air intake as we head towards e-power with our cars.’

The slim seats of the Infiniti Q Inspiration concept car

Each passenger sits on slim seats in their own unit

The absence of a conventional B-pillar here – every car designer’s dream but tricky to produce – and rear-hinged rear doors help create a wide, open space where each of the four passengers sit on slim seats in their own unit replete with individual floating touchscreen. Habib conducted the design process much like an architect, imaging the interior space around the movement of occupants. ‘We are trying to create a new design philosophy based on people and experience. Here it is about maximising the space for the feeling of wellbeing – a sanctuary.’

The compact engine also enabled the team to conceive a flat interior floor which, together with the minimal fully-digital dashboard, resulted in a vast empty space. ‘Our first reflex was to fill it up, but then we realised we had a chance to work with these empty and negative spaces.’ For instance, the centre console appears to be floating with the thin layer above highlighting the empty space below. Elsewhere, the floating armrest brings the empty space below to the forefront. This concept is rooted in Japan, he says. ‘I am particularly inspired by the residential architecture in Tokyo, and the use of small spaces, and negative space.’

Digital dashboard of the Infiniti Q Inspiration concept car

The dashboard is minimal and fully digital

Until his relocation to Japan last summer, Habib, a Canadian of Lebanese descent, had been living in Munich where he was chief designer at BMW responsible for many of the new models including the 7 Series. He admits his new environment is having a profound impact on his sensibility. ‘I’m being inspired by my daily surprises,’ he smiles. ‘It is my honeymoon phase and everything is so nourishing here.’

These include noticing new material applications that he would like to introduce to his cars. It feels right for a company like Infiniti to break away from conventional applications of luxury materials and Habib is aware of this. ‘To create the feeling of wellbeing we must work with warm materials – traditional or new,’ he says. ‘There are also certain materials that are clearly recognised as being Japanese and I’m excited to work with some of these ideas without being obvious.’ Straw, for instance, and the Japanese weave technique or burnt wood that is applied to the façade of certain buildings here to be more resistant to harsh weather. ‘It is fascinating to observe. The question is how to bring something like burnt wood into the car? It all has to make sense in an automotive setting.’

Wideview of the Infiniti Q Inspiration concept car

‘The idea is to create cars for people not just to make machines’ – Karim​ Habib

Habib admits after 17 years at BMW, he welcomed the move and was excited to be working on an entirely new brand, within a new culture ‘to take in the art, architecture, design and culture of another place.’ Unlike BMW, Infiniti is a youthful company with a short history that began in 1989 when Nissan started selling more premium models to US customers under a new badge. Now Infiniti is separately managed from Nissan, and exports to over 50 markets, with grand ambitions especially in China.

‘It is a fascinating brand with amazing highlights,’ says Habib. ‘With the first creation, the company used images of birds flying with a narrative that talked about the importance of building machines for humans and being inspired by nature. The idea is to create cars for people not just to make machines. This is what drives the brand.’

Some vehicle designs were particularly brave too. For instance, the first Q45 didn’t have a front grille and the FX45 was, in 2000, one of the first sporty shooting-brake SUVs on the market. ‘The designs were inconsistent, and there is no hiding this, but there are a lot of raw diamonds in the inconsistency,’ he says before adding, ‘Infiniti design is consistent now, but it still needs to be developed. My mission is to nourish the brand. It is about working across the visual inputs and outputs, the ads and dealerships. We participate in all these areas now. It is a lot of fun.’

Concept view of the Infiniti Q Inspiration concept car

With its Japanese aesthetic, Q Inspiration intends to enrich the quality of life 

In the future, Habib advises us to look out for a trio of concept cars that will reveal Infiniti’s evolution based on experiences. Whereas Q Inspiration is about enriching the quality of life with strong roots in Japanese aesthetic, the second concept car will look at how technology can make life easier. This will be followed by one that tackles the idea of engagement and driving pleasure, completing the evolution with the final concept of ‘enchanting - a poetic idea which we’re still finalising’.

Infiniti has also announced plans for a fully electric car by 2021 and a mix of electrified and hybrid e-Power family by 2025. ‘I am happy to be part of the journey,’ Habib adds. ‘I have been a car designer for over 20 years and as much as I love old classic cars, I like to bring the car as a product forward and make it relevant. My thoughts are that there is room for all types of vehicles. Driving around Tokyo in the week you see small utility cars, then on weekends Lamborghinis! These two extreme products can co-habit in society – each has its own purpose and this may indicate the future.’