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What Might Have Been: The Infiniti Q45

January 12, 2012 by Matt

Infiniti Q45 Q-45 White Early

The early first-generation (’90-’96) Infiniti Q45 is an absolutely fascinating, compelling car. It’s just a shame its automaker didn’t have the resolve to commit to the concept.

The year was 1990. Toyota and Nissan, following Honda’s lead with their Acura luxury sub-brand, had just created upper-crust divisions of their own, Lexus and Infiniti, respectively. For their part, Lexus had done obsessively meticulous market research and development to perfectly optimize their flagship LS400 for the American market, and were rewarded with an eminently successful car. Infiniti, on the other hand, seemed more to shoot from the hip, offering a car that was perhaps less harmoniously in-tune with American luxury tastes, but was a beautifully refreshing take on the range-topping luxury sedan concept.

So what made the Q45 distinctive? Its design, for one—the car was drawn without the snooty waterfall grille that typified its rivals’ looks. Instead, we were treated to a smooth, clean aero look that, if perhaps a bit dated nowadays, is still as striking as it was two decades ago. Next, the car was uncommonly performance-focused, fitted with quick-ratio steering, firm suspension and seating, a muscular 278-hp 4.5l V8 engine and, with the Q45a trim line, active suspension that could raise or lower the car’s ride height in real time based on speed and actively combat body roll in corners. Car publications praised the Q45’s performance and capability compared to the LS400, Mercedes S-class and even the E32 BMW 7 series, but they wondered openly whether the car’s target demographic needed or wanted its speed, handling prowess or daring styling choices.

Infiniti Q45 Q-45 Silver Grey Gray Gunmetal Early

Their concerns were valid. As it happened, the well-heeled customers in the Q45’s market segment were much more accepting of a car like the LS400, which accommodated their tastes, rather than the Infiniti, which was more challenging but ultimately had the potential to be more satisfying from a driver’s standpoint. The automaker’s initial marketing campaign didn’t help, either, choosing to echo the Q45’s mold-breaking nature by featuring advertisements without a single image of the car, attempting to create a sense of anticipation, but ultimately completely losing the occupants of the car’s target niche.

So what was Infiniti’s response to the Q45’s initial setbacks? A determined show of confidence in their flagship’s ethos, a doubling-down on the qualities that alienated some buyers but would, over time, shift attention in the Q45’s direction as it maintained its distinctives compared to the LS400? In a word, nope. After a few short years, Infiniti veered hard back to the squishy center, softening the car’s suspension, tacking a grille on the nose, and injecting a dose of lard into the car’s responses in a somewhat pathetic attempt to ape the qualities that had made the LS400 a success. But there was a problem: The LS400 was already available and established, and the desperate game of catch-up carried on for more than a handful of years—12, in fact, through three generations, from the initial toning-down of the Q45 in ’94 through its eventual mercy killing in ’06. Through it all, the car got ever blobbier, ever more Caprice-like until, in the end, it was just kind of a nasty lozenge of a luxury car, a shadow of what it had been when it burst onto the scene in ’90: A taut, potent Japanese BMW. It’s a shame Infiniti hadn’t had the conviction to preserve the Q45’s initial identity.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting key decisions I wish automakers had made differently, for divers reasons. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: Infiniti, What Might Have Been

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