Australia is to start selling Infiniti models from August onwards but Nissan New Zealand is still making up its mind. The two models offered to restart the marque will be the FX SUV and the M sedan, with the G37 coupe and convertible coming later.
Infiniti's previous foray into Australia occurred in 1993 and lasted for three years, during which time just 132 A$140,000 Q45 sedans were sold, which with six outlets, works out at just seven units per dealer per year.
Research shows that just 2 per cent of Australians recognise the brand. I'd venture that a few more than that recognise the marque in New Zealand, which is known to be a little more car- brand savvy. An unscientific office poll suggests it would be closer to 5 per cent here.
The image of Infiniti is closely connected to the Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber Red Bull Formula One effort through the Nissan/Renault alliance and will be underpinned, says Nissan, by the Japanese philosophy of "Omotenashi", the principle behind Japan's renowned hospitality culture.
Nissan New Zealand's chief executive John Manley is watching things closely, and hopes, if opinions on the vehicles are positive enough, to introduce the marque to New Zealand. Which is where I came in. I was invited to try the vehicles for the day on the roads around Queenstown, and tell attending Australian officials as well as local ones what I thought - no holds barred.
The M-series sedan is effectively the brand's staple mid-sized luxury sedan. And it's not hard to see that the rear- driven M is meant to take the market to BMWs 5-Series, the Audi A6, Jaguar's XF, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the Lexus GS. The cheapest of these is the $90,000 Jaguar and while official pricing for the Infiniti sedan has not been announced, it's suggested that those figures are well within the ballpark.
With a choice of respective 3-litre and 3.7-litre turbodiesel and petrol V6 seven- speed automatic power trains, and a flagship that uses a 3.5-litre V6 hybrid, the M-series offers a fair choice of powertrains. The diesel and petrol units weren't available but the top of the range hybrid was.
Badged "M35h" it's the official Guinness Book of Records World's Fastest Accelerating Full Hybrid.
Most of the time, it's a creamy-smooth flexible mode of transport, uncannily calm on New Zealand coarse chip and ethereally quiet at all speeds. At low speed, the electric power unit provides silent progress, and the petrol power unit chimes in almost imperceptibly when required, while the seven-speed transmission - standard in all the new Infinitis - slurs deliciously between ratios. Until you open the car up. Then, the combination of upholstery-crushing acceleration and distant road and engine noise is uncanny.
The driver can choose between Eco, Standard and Sports modes which not only affects the accelerator action, it also adjusts its resistance, and while it's unnerving at first, you can appreciate what it's trying to do in Eco mode - saving your licence and money too.
When you select Sport, the accelerator reacts more quickly, but Standard is the most satisfactory setting.
The car's steering is accurate and manages to be light without softening communication, which is good to have when you're negotiating roads like those over the Crown range.
The M37h I drove sat on relatively high-profile 18-inch wheels and tyres, and this selection probably contributed to the car's brilliant ride quality and road noise suppression. Twenty-inch rims are available, but they might compromise its refinement.
Though the curves over the rear wheel arches look just a little busy, overall the M37h is attractive, fitting in with the Infiniti dictum of being for the buyer rather than the neighbour.
My test car was replete with deep tobacco-brown leather, which is used to form very effective seating in the front, designed obviously to cater for larger people from its largest market, the United States. The rear seating has good leg and headroom, and all around the cabin, the choices of wood and metallised garnishes are subtle and classy.
Infiniti copies no-one with its dash and console execution, and it doesn't appear to smack of smartened-up bits from lesser models from the Renault- Nissan empire. All the switches operate with the same level of luxurious resistance, and though different types of plastic are used, depending on function, their surface feel is the same pleasing matte touch.
I'd have liked to try the diesel version of the M, as it employs the same unit as the Nissan Navara 550. While it won't be as quick as the M35h, the M30d will run it close on economy, and will probably be usefully cheaper. The M37 base car uses the Nissan 370Z's V6 engine, and has all the other benefits, with a sticker that's likely to match four-cylinder offerings from German competitors. Compelling stuff.
This cab-rearward, thrusting-nose design appears to come from the clenched fist school of aerodynamic design. Its looks suggest that instead of negotiating with the air that passes over it, the car tends to bash a hole through it. Such an appearance does not prepare you for how subtle the car is on the road. Wind noise is well suppressed, which suggests that some negotiation must have taken place.
The weight of the big FX50's 5-litre V8 is by definition well forward of the V6 petrol and diesel car's V6, and this fact is always present when turning-in. It washes wide on turn-in and needs balancing with some judicious throttle work if you're to enjoy its performance on serious swervery. This is a little tiring compared with the smaller FX37, which goes exactly where it's pointed from entry-point right past the apex and out the other side. The V8 is so muted that its sound signature is largely absent. All the more reason to stick with the V6, which is less than a second slower than the V8, uses considerably less gas and is as quiet as mouse at cruising speeds.
With a long, curvy bonnet in front of you instead of the squared-off snubness of the usual luxury SUV suspects, the FX feels special as soon as you look out through its windscreen. The dash and console has similarly subtle choices of texture and brightwork as the M-type and the classy smell and leather squeaks are as delightful as the sedans, too.
From the side, the car looks almost low-slung, with an attractive teardrop- shaped glass area. It's all a matter of scale, for headroom and interior volume is very effective, though the boot is a little truncated.
The FX will start at about $A95,000 (NZ$121,305) in Australia, putting it under most of the full-sized German SUVs except for the entry-point models.
The Infiniti isn't an entry-point car. It's equipped, finished and detailed to such a standard that you could easily price a smaller European beyond the FX's expected sticker, by trying to match specification.
The Infiniti FX, save perhaps for the heavy-noosed V8, is a capable handler. It's fun aiming that long snout at the road, and feeling just the right kind of resistance from the electro-hydraulic steering. The car isn't as quiet as the M-series sedan and changes of surface from tarmacadam to coarse chip require the sound system to be turned up and down to suit.
At low speeds, the FX is a relaxed trawler of a machine, gurgling purposefully in traffic, and surprisingly it isn't any bother to park, even at Queenstown's bustling airport.
So what's the score? Well I'd take all the FXs and M-series I could get, leaving- out the FX50 V8, which offers little in return for its greater capacity, thirst and likely heftier sticker, while handling satisfactorily in twisty going.
But what a revelation. Infiniti resets a few yardsticks. It's irrefutably the best- finished brand to come out of Japan, and the FX offers a level of visual cut-though in terms of the FX that looks like it'll appeal to those who care not for the approval of their neighbours and listen to their own individuality instead. Besides, Infiniti is such an unknown brand, neighbours won't know where it comes from anyway!
-------------------- AT A GLANCE INFINITI FX SEDAN AND M SUV
* Drivetrains: FX - Front inline mounted 4WD petrol and turbodiesel V6s, and petrol V8 all DOHC 4v per cylinder, 7-speed automatic. M - Front inline mounted RWD petrol and turbodiesel V6s, and V6 petrol hybrid. all DOHC 4v per cylinder, 7-speed automatic.
* Performance: FX37 - 3693cc V6 petrol, 235kW at 7000rpm, 360Nm at 5200rpm. 0-100kmh 6.8secs, 12.1L/100km, 282g/km CO2. FX30d - 2993cc V6 turbodiesel, 175kW at 3750rpm, 550Nm at 1750rpm. 0-100kmh 8.3secs, 9L/100km, 238g/km CO2. FX50 - 5026cc V8 petrol, 287kW at 6500rpm, 500Nm at 4400rpm. 0-100kmh 6.2secs, 307g/km CO2. M37 - 3693cc V6 petrol, 235kW at 7000rpm, 360Nm at 5200rpm. 0-100kmh 6.8secs, 10.2L/100km, 235g/km CO2. M30d - 2993cc V6 turbodiesel, 175kW at 3750rpm, 550Nm at 1750rpm. 0-100kmh 6.2secs, 7.5L/100km, 199g/km CO2. M35h - 3498cc V6 petrol hybrid, electric/petrol 268kW, 350Nm (petrol) 270Nm (electric). 0-100km 5.5secs, 6.9L/100km, 159g/km CO2.
* Chassis: Both cars have front double wishbones, and independent rear multilinks, and active rear steering. Rack and pinion, vehicle-speed variable power steering - electro- hydraulic on all except M30d.
* Safety: Full suite of electronic driver aids; plus radar cruise and collision avoidance systems.
* Dimensions: FX - L 4865mm, W 2134mm, H 1680mm, W/base 2885mm, F/track 1635-1640mm, R/track 1640mm, Fuel 90L, Weights 2012-2175kg. M - L 4945mm, W 2061mm, H 1500mm, W/base 2900mm, F/track 1575mm, R/track 1570mm, Fuel 80L, Weights 1715-1845kg.
* Pricing: Not available until closer to the models' entry into the New Zealand market.
* Hot: Great choice of power units; astonishingly quick and quiet M35h Hybrid; FX could frighten luxury SUV incumbents.
* Not: FX50 is irrelevant; M-sedan's styling confused; brutal styling of FX may offend some (not me).
* Verdict: Both models are more than worthy alternatives to Germans in both segments, and sets a new Asian standard in terms of quality. My pick - FX30d.