• Reuters, Bloomberg


Nissan Motor Co. is looking to give its luxury Infiniti cars a design makeover that will dilute its Japanese roots and flaunt a more “passionate” Latin feel.

The bold initiative aims to rev up an upscale brand that has struggled to establish itself in a competitive global market for premium autos.

Launched a quarter of a century ago in the United States with an emphasis on its Japanese esthetics, Infiniti sold about 180,000 cars globally in the year that ended in March, about a tenth of rival Audi’s sales.

Now seeking to attract Chinese car buyers and more genuinely compete with established global premium brands such as Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen’s Audi, Infiniti is quietly scaling back its Japanese roots and “going global,” says the brand’s chief, Johan de Nysschen.

To stand apart from “cold and clinical”-looking German rivals, Infiniti aims to be “a seductive provocateur . . . to attract people, seduce, be emotional,” de Nysschen, a South African former Audi executive, said in a recent interview in Beijing.

He said the Infiniti is going “Latin, very Latin,” under the brand’s chief designer, Alfonso Albaisa, a Cuban-American named last year to conjure up a new look for the brand.

De Nysschen noted that the recently launched Q50 sedan offers a strong hint at that new design direction.

Meanwhile, Nissan’s Infiniti said it may set up business in Japan within three years as the luxury unit seeks to build its brand.

“My personal expectation is that we should be able to introduce Infiniti formally to the Japanese market no later than 2017,” de Nysschen said in an interview Friday in Hong Kong, where the premium carmaker is based. “The brand needs to be there, and we need to have a very clear global footprint.”

While Infiniti already sells the storied Skyline, also known as the Q50, in Japan, it does so through Nissan. De Nysschen is pushing for Infiniti to have its own network of dealers as he seeks to emulate the success of his former employer, by making Infiniti more autonomous from its Japanese parent.

De Nysschen wants to boost Infiniti sales to half a million cars annually in the next four or five years, with a fifth of those sold in China, the world’s biggest auto market.

That’s a massive jump from the 21,000 cars it sold in China in the year to March. By comparison, Audi sold 1.6 million cars worldwide in 2013, including 492,000 in the Chinese market.

The Infiniti targets are “very ambitious,” if not impossible, said John Casesa, senior managing director of investment banking at Guggenheim Securities in New York, and a veteran auto industry observer.

“It will take a terrific amount of time and money to achieve any measure of success. The dominance of the German luxury brands says clearly that success is a result of cumulative efforts over a long period of time,” Casesa said. “You’d have to do great cars again and again and again. That might be for 10, 15, 20 years.”

“Audi contributes half of Volkswagen group’s profitability. We should have a similar noble objective,” said de Nysschen, 54, who joined Nissan from Audi around 18 months ago.

Infiniti’s target buyers are independent-minded entrepreneur types who have charted their own nontraditional road to success, according to Albaisa, the brand’s chief designer.

“Nothing against doctors . . . but they (target customers) didn’t necessarily go to Ivy League schools,” Albaisa said at Infiniti’s design studio in Atsugi, around 50 km southwest of Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture, adding that the brand’s “emotional” new look should be on show in cars rolling off production lines by 2016.

These models will have more sharply toned and sculpted “shoulder lines,” more nuanced and undulating hoods, and a more athletic posture with all four wheels pushed as far as possible to the corners of the vehicle, Albaisa said.

The exterior surfaces should resemble “the open ocean . . . right before a wave becomes a defined wave,” he added.

This, says de Nysschen, should help give Infiniti cars the clearly defined identity they currently lack.

Infiniti vehicles are “very curvaceous,” but this just makes some people think the cars “look fat,” he said. “That’s what we have to begin to fix.”

To help drive the global shift, Nissan moved Infiniti’s head office to Hong Kong two years ago, siting its headquarters close to China but maintaining a global profile in a city it says is a gateway between East and West.

Infiniti insiders, not all of whom fully embrace the branding shift, say future models will still reflect Japanese values such as precision and attention to detail. But de Nysschen is going full-speed ahead to promote a more global profile.

“Just on our executive team, we have 15 different nationalities,” he said. “Infiniti doesn’t consider itself to be a Japanese brand.”

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