Infiniti at 30: How Its Past Will Shape Its Future

Moving forward, it’s going to be all about the EV.

In 1989, a few months before Nissan officially launched the Infiniti luxury brand, the nascent automaker attempted to build hype and interest through a rather unconventional advertising campaign. A series of television spots ran, each depicting a different scene in nature—a sun-dappled pond, a distant flock of birds flying in formation, etc.— with a calm, soft-speaking narrator extolling grand notions of luxury, design, and a driver's relationship with a car.

Compared to the in-your-face, surround-sound advertising model we're accustomed to today, this experimental campaign sounds like a failure. Indeed, even contemporary critics weren't impressed, although, according to the December 1989 article in the New York Times, this $60 million ($124 million in 2019 bucks) campaign was an unexpected success. At the time of that publishing, "more than 60,000 people, many more than expected, have dialed the toll-free number in the ads to find out the location of the nearest Infiniti showroom."

Still, the flagship Q45 that launched alongside the M30 never sold in the same incredible numbers enjoyed by the rival Lexus and Acura models in the same era. It wasn't really until later in the 1990s and early 2000s when the brand really began to capture sales. By the mid-2000s, Infiniti became a byword for cutting-edge driver's tech, incorporating some of the earliest examples of backup cameras, adaptive cruise control, and active hydraulic suspensions. Buoyed by the success of the enthusiast-beloved G35 and later G37, Infiniti was considered the Japanese BMW for a time.

The automotive industry has been chugging along for more than a century, yet it's incredible to see how much it can shift in less than a decade. Since 2014, the shift toward electrification has become a full-fledged inevitability, perhaps nowhere more obviously than among the German luxury makers. Mercedes, Audi, and Porsche have all launched dedicated EV products—a big hat tip must be given to Tesla for waking them up—along with multiple hybrid and plug-in-hybrid variants based on their existing portfolios.

Yet the Japanese automakers are more reserved than ever before, seemingly abandoning the thinking that permeated their lineups in the 1980s and 1990s, when impeccable quality control and reliability blended with weird, experimental design and tech to give those very same Germans (not to mention the American companies) absolute fits. Aside from a handful of hybrid models over the years, the "big three" of Japanese luxury are still scrambling to launch their first all-electric offerings to the allegedly EV-hungry market.

Not one to be left behind, Infiniti is hustling to rework its entire lineup for an EV-centric future. Starting this month, Infiniti is celebrating its 30th birthday, a milestone it celebrated by throwing a blowout bash in the desert, giving media and VIPs an inside look at the past, present, and future of the brand. Held at Spaceport America in New Mexico, brand leaders stepped us through what to expect from the next five years.

By 2021, Infiniti hopes to electrify its entire lineup, offering either a full EV or hybridized variant of each member of the brand family. Wondering what that looks like? Check out the Q Inspiration, the Qs Inspiration, and the QX Inspiration concepts. These three design studies are our best look at what comes next, each packing either a hybrid or EV powertrain, and riding on the same dedicated platform. The fully electric powertrain will incorporate one electric motor in the front, one in the rear, and a sizable battery pack somewhere in the middle. Of course, considering we don't even have a name for these future cars, we don't have any information on range, power, price, or performance.

The gas-electric hybrid is perhaps more intriguing, at least in the near-term. This new setup will incorporate a new "gas-generated EV system" Infiniti is calling e-POWER. These hybrids incorporate a much smaller battery pack than the full EV counterparts, as well as a 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbocharged powerplant with the automaker's variable-compression engine technology that serves as a generator to feed power to the smallish 3.5- to 5.1-kWh pack.

If this sounds familiar, it's similar to the powertrain found in the Chevrolet Volt and some variants of the BMW i3, although Infiniti's version packs quite a bigger punch. When combined, the two motors put out between 248 and 429 horsepower, depending on trim and vehicle. Snag one with the higher output, and you're rewarded with a zero-to-62-mph run as quick as 4.5 seconds.

Don't be put off by the idea of a rattling, noisy gas generator ruining the silent, halcyon EV experience. Infiniti promises you probably won't even notice it, on account of all the extra work it put into isolating that 1.5-liter from the interior cabin. By itself, the engine is claimed to be "uncommonly smooth," a byproduct of a "multilink" design that removes the need for traditional balance shafts. The engine is also said to be "fully encapsulated," with fluid-filled mounts to dampen as much as possible. If this wasn't enough, there's active noise cancellation inside the cabin to counter any errant internal-combustion sounds.

According to Infiniti, this new electrified frontier signals big things for the evolution of its design language. Arguably the most stylish Japanese luxury automaker, next-gen Infiniti designs will benefit hugely from ditching the conventional internal-combustion engine. With no more bulky powertrains to package, the automaker promises a radical shift in exterior design, complimented with more "spacious, lounge-like cabins."

So, expect big things from Infiniti in the coming years, with the shift recalling those zen, productless ads from 30 years ago, when the narrator claimed design echoes nature. Moving forward, though, we take "nature" to mean electrification. "An automotive designer looks at the shapes of nature, the soft lines, and because he sees things a certain way, those lines suggest an automobile design that's honest and natural. It's where the driver is more important than the car itself. And what is discovered watching nature is an ancient Japanese notion of what is beautiful—it's called Infiniti." Here's to 30 more, Infiniti.