Infiniti QX30: Premium push
The upmarket Infiniti brand, recently arrived in Northern Ireland, is aiming for BMW, Audi and Mercedes. William Scholes finds out if it has what it takes
BACK in the olden days, when Northern Ireland's roads were always better surfaced than those in the Republic and men cut the weeds on verges before they could block the sun, cars wearing badges that said BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar were pretty rare.
Makes like Ford, Vauxhall and Austin Rover - remember them? - reigned supreme, and posh German cars were beyond most people's wallets, if not their aspirations.
For various reasons, it is now easier to put that dream into something real on your driveway, with the net result that the brands which were once defiantly 'premium' have become very mainstream.
To illustrate the point, count the number of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz models you see on your next journey.
The growth is supported by the registration figures.
In 2007, Mercedes sold 82,321 cars in the UK; last year, that had grown by nearly 120 per cent to 180,970.
Over the same period, BMW grew by 44 per cent and Audi by 73 per cent. Land Rover, with its selection of expensive SUVs, has seen its registrations grow by 77 per cent.
Meanwhile, that same 10 years has been tough on manufacturers like Peugeot (down 16 per cent), Citroen (down 18 per cent), Renault (down 19 per cent) and Fiat (down 26 per cent). Vauxhall fell a whopping 41 per cent between 2007 and 2017.
This piece is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of long-term market trends, but suffice it to say that savvy car-makers will be joining this profitable 'push to premium'.
Distinctive design - all the better to separate the brand from the oh-so-familiar Germans - paired with a lot of high-tech kit and conspicuous luxury form the Infiniti proposition
Easier said than done, though. The German marques are long-established, synonymous with the sort of thrusting sport-flavoured luxury that many customers are in thrall to.
More than that, they have the resources to make - with a few exceptions - really, really good cars.
A notable attempt to get past the bouncers guarding the door to this upmarket club was made by Toyota, whose seminal Lexus LS400 of 1989 gave the Germans a fright.
It could be argued that the LS400 shook the German marques out of their complacency and so inspired the aggressive growth strategy that has where we are today.
Around the same time that Toyota was establishing Lexus, Nissan set up its own upmarket brand, Infiniti.
Its efforts were initially focused on the United States, with a low-key arrival in the British market in 2008.
It wasn't until 2016 that the brand made its official entry to the Northern Ireland market, ably represented by Mervyn Stewart - one of the longest established and best known names in the trade - from a smart showroom on Boucher Crescent in Belfast.
There is a sense in which it has taken Infiniti a while to serve up cars which properly meet the sensibilities of the UK motorist; it was trying to sell cars with big petrol engines when executive buyers wanted diesel, for example.
Infiniti this week announced it was, like the rest of the serious premium players, 'going electric'. From 2021, every model will be either a battery car or have an electrified internal combustion engine drivetrain.
Today's range comprises models which fall into the market-typical sizes of the Germans: there's the BMW 3 Series-rivalling Q50 saloon, the 5 Series-challenging Q70 and the big QX70 SUV.
Distinctive design - all the better to separate the brand from the oh-so-familiar Germans - paired with a lot of high-tech kit and conspicuous luxury form the Infiniti proposition.
There is much to be said in favour of cars which offer the discerning customer a broader choice, and it is easy to imagine drivers who have had, say, a run of BMW 3 Series and 4 Series coupes, opting for the distinctiveness of the Infiniti Q60
Of the current line-up, the Q60 coupe is perhaps Infiniti's most striking calling card as a brand-builder.
It looks fantastic, and the tightness of the panel gaps - particularly around the complex shape of the door skins - is eloquently testimony in metal of just how well built it is.
For now, Infiniti is a small player, though one that is also well-placed to share in the growth of the premium market - in 2016 it registered 2,891 cars in the UK, which it grew by 21.6 per cent last year to 3,515.
Key to that growth - and, importantly, building the brand's profile - is the availability of a posh hatchback and crossover-cum-SUV; think Audi A3 and Q2, BMW 1 Series and X1.
Which brings us to the Infiniti Q30 and QX30 siblings, the 'QX' being the four-wheel-drive crossover version.
Both are fine looking machines, each as convincingly premium as the Audi or BMW.
The version I tested, the range-topping - and expensive - QX30 Premium Tech was sumptuously trimmed, with lashings of leather and suede lining the interior.
However, none of this smart surfacing is enough to fully quash what lies beneath.
The Q30, you see, is based on the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, a car whose troubling shortcomings have troubled these pages before; and that means the QX30 is a Mercedes GLA in drag.
Infiniti's Nissan parent - not to mention its Renault partner - build a great many cars of this size which are superior in every way to the Mercedes models; an Infiniti-ised Renault Megane or Nissan Qashqai would be an interesting and capable prospect.
That the Infiniti is built in the Nissan factory in Sunderland just confuses things further.
At least the Infiniti versions are better than their Mercedes counterparts...
The Q30 is offered with a range of engines, including the excellent 1.5-litre diesel also found in various Renault and Nissan models, but the QX30 is hamstrung by Mercedes's 2.1-litre - albeit badged 2.2d - diesel and its seven-speed automatic gearbox.
The Infiniti is well-equipped and nicely finished, notably so in the suitably expensive QX30.
There is much to be said in favour of cars which offer the discerning customer a broader choice, and it is easy to imagine drivers who have had, say, a run of BMW 3 Series and 4 Series coupes, opting for the distinctiveness of the Infiniti Q60.
The charms of the Q30 and - in particular - the QX30 are, to this reviewer anyway, less persuasive.
But choice, from wherever it comes, is to be commended in the car market - if only to dilute the proportion of BMW, Audi and Mercedes models on our increasingly bumpy roads.
An Infiniti might, for now, be a relatively rare sight; but given our seemingly insatiable appetite for premium cars, we can expect to see more of them in the future.
- AT A GLANCE
Infiniti QX30 2.2D Premium Tech
Price: £34,225. As tested £37,725. Options included metallic paint £670, Bose stereo upgrade £650, safety pack with blind spot warning and park assist £1,800, 'café teak' style pack £380
Engine and transmission: 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, four-wheel-drive; 168bhp, 258lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 134mph, 0-62mph in 8.5 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 57.6mpg (EU combined), 38.2mpg (real world), 128g/km
Car tax: £160 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 27 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Not yet tested; Q30 sister model rated at five stars (84/86/91/81), 2015
- AT A GLANCE
Infiniti Q60 2.0T Sport Tech
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo, seven-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel-drive; 208bhp, 258lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 146mph, 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 41.5mpg (EU combined), 156g/km
Car tax: £500 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 30 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Not yet tested