By Design

2009 Infiniti Essence

By Design

Programming guru Sir Charles Antony Richard Hoare talked about a different kind of design, but his comments accurately summed up the Infiniti Essence concept car long before it was conceived: “There are two ways of constructing a [software] design. One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.” For its 2009 Geneva show car, Infiniti’s design team chose the latter.

In its complicated shapes, the Essence incorporates enough well-executed, good formal ideas for creation of two or three excellent concept cars. A practiced specialist in simple, straightforward design like Britain’s Peter Stevens (McLaren F1) might even be able to get four admirable automotive objects out of this heteroclite collection of lines, forms, and details. My first look at the Essence was not in the show halls but in a tent in Geneva’s Parc des Eaux-Vives, where the 2008 Louis Vuitton design prizes were distributed. I was overwhelmed by the car’s abundance of shapes and lines – which in and of themselves are highly agreeable.

The Essence sat tail-to-tail with the superb BMW Gina [By Design, November 2008], the formal simplicity of which is utterly compelling. Perfectly constructed, the Essence is a beautiful car, too, but the contrast with the extremely simple, taut-surface, flexible-skin Gina was striking. Its complexity accords with the Japanese view of cars as things to be perceived close-up, not from a distance. There are few great distances for viewing automobiles in the densely populated islands of Japan, so that narrow tent was probably an appropriate space for first acquaintance.

I particularly liked the surface finish, which gives the impression that the whole Essence was carved from a single block of metal and then polished to an almost oily sheen. Shiro Nakamura, Nissan/Infiniti design chief, pointed out that the air vent on the front fender recapitulates a traditional piece of Japanese sports equipment. Such references are to be encouraged, even if they have no resonance with other cultures, and that one looked quite nice on the flowing surfaces. The one piece of absolute originality on the car was the pointed, indented surface of the C-pillar. It seemed a little odd but also curiously interesting. Seemingly, the Essence exists to show a hybrid drivetrain scheme, but it is likely that some of its form will appear in forthcoming production models.

I was glad to see the big Infiniti badge in the middle of the grille. I liked the oversize one on the front of the original, no-grille Infiniti Q45 – by far the best single design to carry the Infiniti name so far. That Q45 was not ready for prime time at launch, and the “rocks and twigs” TV advertising did not work. Sales were slow, so Nissan backed away from its audaciously simple styling. That was a big mistake, never overcome.

1 From this peak, a vertical surface drops down a tiny bit before swelling outward to cover the tire.

2 Shiro Nakamura’s culturally relevant visual reference is nicely done, even if you don’t recognize its significance.

3 This hard edge starts from nowhere, slices straight along the door, and ends at the C-pillar indent.

4 An arbitrary hard line lets the door bottom be inset from the nominal surface, but one must wonder why.

5 This indented surface behind the quarter glass is the concept’s principal originality.

6 Notice that the hard line at the top of the indent breaks with the side glass profile at the rearmost point of the quarter window.

7 Another complexity: the painted area overhangs the lamp, with an undercut flowing forward to nothing.

8 Roof ribs run onto the rear deck as the negative C-pillar surface disappears.

9 This little shelf points toward the side hard line but doesn’t connect visually.

10 The rear window is constrained by the ribs at the roof edge, hindering outward visibility.

11 Exhaust outlets are beautifully integrated into the graphic composition of the rear aspect.

12 There is a strange wiggle in the headlamp’s upper edge, resulting in an indent in the fender.

13 The fender peak derives not from the grille corner but from a chamfered, flat section alongside the grille opening.

14 This external chrome band, recalling a 1950s Vignale Ferrari, sets off the plain grille, with a band at the bottom finishing the framing.

15 The big badge is set back from the leading edge of the opening by a fair amount and is reasonably discreet.

16 These bumper buttresses flow into a surface-change line that disappears below the headlamps.

17 A small negative section separates the fender peak and the surface over the tires.

18 Sensuous curves on the door panels and in the rest of the interior are pleasant and give the impression of opulence.

19 The monk’s cowl cover over the instruments makes them easily accessible to the driver but not to anyone else. It is original and elegant.

20 The flat-bottom steering wheel conveys a sporty impression. And with 592 hp on tap, why not? If the Infiniti Essence was a real production car, it would be very fast.

21 Separation of driver and passenger spaces by color was used in the 1991 Chrysler 300 concept. It’s still a good idea.

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