Detroit 2013: One day, Infiniti will be a 'bona fide' luxury brand
North American Vice President Ben Poore tells us why the letter Q is logical and weighs a return to a Q45-type flagship.
With the exception of Acura, which outperformed Audi in the U.S. last year, sales of American and Japanese marques continue to sag behind. Their brand cachets are good enough but nothing extraordinary. And even if their cars are better-built and outperform Mercedes, BMW and Audi for less money, they appear as alternatives, not first choices.
Infiniti, after more than two decades in the U.S., still trails the other Japanese luxury brands in sales. But since former Audi USA President Johan de Nysschen moved to Infiniti over the summer, the company has begun its most aggressive product and marketing launch to date: first with a revamped nomenclature that will start every model with "Q" or "QX," and later, more models to better compete with the ever-growing lineups from Germany.
We sat down with Ben Poore, vice president of Infiniti USA and de Nysschen's right-hand man, at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. He tried calming our confusion over the new names and gave us a taste of what's ahead as Infiniti hunts down the Germans.
MSN Autos: You've spent a lot of effort building up your current models like the G, M and EX. Do customers really want the model names to change?
Ben Poore: We have to do it moving forward. We've run out of alphanumeric characters. We are going to expand our lineup, above and below where we are today, and that basically means that you have to come up with a new way of doing that. We really needed to divorce ourselves from the engine displacements. BMW, for example, in the 3-Series, the 328 no longer means you have a 2.8-liter engine, nor does a 335.
MSN: Right, it's all lies.
Poore: Well, they did it a long time ago and for good reason. So as we expand the lineup to make smaller-displacement engines but with more actual power and output, you can't just tie yourself back to the number of the nomenclature. Frankly, we needed a way to put Infiniti first, and then make a logical sequence for consumers to understand moving up and down the line.
So at first you kind of see why it's a little shocking, like any change. Change is hard. But we've already got recognition inside the company, the retailers are on board, the consumers are starting to understand more and more, and we'll change it all at once, with all our models in model year '14 and it'll be done.
MSN: Will Infiniti again sell a flagship sedan like the Q45?
Poore: I don't think the Q45 nameplate's going to come back necessarily. Remember, so Q50 now is where we're [beginning] the lineup. Q60 are our coupes and convertibles. Q70 is what's currently the M, and there's the ability to go Q80, Q90, et cetera. So if we decide to go above where we are today with the M, then that would take on a nomenclature higher than Q70. You see the logic now? It's very simple up and down the line.
MSN: But you wouldn't do Q100, would you?
Poore: I don't know. I suppose some day you could, who knows? But right now it seems very logical to use the Q plus the two-digit nomenclature. And I think, at this point, you're probably going to have them with the zero on the end.
The 2014 Infiniti Q50, the luxury sedan formerly known as G37, in Detroit. (Clifford Atiyeh/MSN Autos)
MSN: Jaguar used to have a solely rear-wheel-drive lineup, and Infiniti has been very sporty as well, like the G37 and M. Is that something you want to continue?
Poore: All-wheel drive is quickly taking over as the preferred state. We sell well over 50 percent all-wheel drives today, and certain lineups it's even much higher. The line of demarcation used to be the Mason-Dixon line, kind of in the Maryland area, of where you'd go almost 100 percent all-wheel drive, but that's going further south. We're even seeing all-wheel drive being sold in California.
There are segments that we don't participate in today and that we didn't previously. For example, we didn't participate in the 3-row luxury crossover segment until we got into the JX, which will now be known as the QX60. That vehicle, and the requirements for space inside that vehicle, necessitated the need to move to a front-wheel-drive platform. So as we move into other parts of the market where the consumer demands are for different types of powertrains, then we'll absolutely consider going non-AWD. [Editor's note: Infiniti is working on a FWD car, to be built in the United Kingdom, that will be smaller than the Q50 and will also build 4-cylinder engines alongside Daimler in the U.S.]
The market necessitates it. [Editor's note: Hence the Mercedes CLA and upcoming front-wheel-drive BMW models]. I think you could be completely dogmatic that you're going to sit "only rear-wheel drive," but that's not what we're saying at all.
MSN: Would you keep the manual transmissions in cars like the Q50?
Poore: We don't have a manual in [the Q50]. We have a manual transmission today in our coupe and convertible, and I don't dismiss that we might bring it back for this [model]. It's a very small mix, but it doesn't mean there isn't a potential market for it.
MSN: What German brand are you aspiring to?
Poore: Our aspirations are to become a bona fide member of the global premium automotive club. Today, there's really only three brands with that designation, and that's BMW, Mercedes and Audi. You can argue that we have some luxury brands here that are Japanese, and that's true, but they're not truly part of that global automotive premium luxury club. That's what we're going with at Infiniti.
MSN: Is the intent to increase sales dramatically within a certain time frame?
Poore: To set a specific timeline on it, I think, is dangerous. Whenever that happens, it's going to happen. Our job more really is to grow our brand right now, than it is to say, "Well, I'm going to go for this exact volume." We've said globally that we'd like to aspire to 500,000 units. But I'm more concerned where my brand is in 2020 than where my volume is in 2020, to be very frank.
Edited from a longer interview.
We have never had an Infinity dealer here in Anchorage, Alaska. When GM shuttered Saturn, our local Saturn dealership (which was very nice and trendy looking) sat vacant collecting dust. One day I drove by and noticed just like that, we had an Infinity dealer! Then 4 months later I drove by and just like that, it was gone.
They did such a poor job introducing the mark to the new market they didn't even last 4 months up here. That's pretty sad.
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