Kiwis must wait for Infiniti

By Matt Greenop

Premium-brand Nissan at least 24 months away

The big problem with Infiniti, unlike rival Toyota's high-end Lexus brand, is that it hasn't got much brand recognition in New Zealand. This is no reflection on what has been produced under the nameplate - it's extremely well regarded at home, and Americans have long considered Infiniti among not only its Japanese rivals (including Honda's Acura equivalent).

But this is the era of Carlos Ghosn, the ambitious Renault and Nissan CEO who has an impressively wide focus when it comes to his products.

A bit of product bravery has seen the small Juke softroader turn the company's UK factory into one of the country's most productive, running 24-hour shifts and arguably becoming England's automotive superstar. At the Geneva International Motor Show, Ghosn called the two companies' 70,000 electric vehicle sales to date a good beginning.

Aside from its zero-emission, zero-compromise approach with EVs, the company is busily pushing its other brands - including increasing its efforts with its motorsport arm, Nismo, to turn it into a standalone badge. Infiniti is essentially a separate entity, but global expansion of the brand is also high on the agenda.

With Ghosn under no illusions over the immediate future of Europe's car marketplace, admitting last week that the Continent is showing no real signs of recovery, the enthusiasm to tackle new markets is easily explained.

Australia was reintroduced to Infiniti last year, after an earlier attempt that suffered from the same lack of brand recognition that will always be a big stumbling block here.

But it's Nissan's large product range courtesy of Ghosn's worldwide push that will keep the brand away from New Zealand in any serious form for at least another couple of years, according to Nissan New Zealand managing director John Manley.

"We do tend to work in tandem with Nissan Australia, and as they've launched Infiniti already, we're very much on a watching brief and will see how it performs over there.

"It would have to be set up as a separate entity in New Zealand, and I wouldn't think the chances of that happening in the next two years are very high.

"Nissan's got an enormous amount of product on the way in the next couple of years, and don't have the resources to take away from that. Our focus is totally on Nissan in the near future.

But when Aussie launched its trio of Infiniti models, it brought members of the motoring press to New Zealand, where the vehicles were tested in the South Island.

Rather than send the selection of SUVs and luxury sedans across the Tasman and cope with the difficulties of compliance that Australia is known for, they landed on the yard of the large City Nissan dealership on Auckland's North Shore to see what the reaction was like for a few buyers who want something a bit different to brands that are officially sold here.

There are three current Infiniti models very unofficially on our roads - two luxury SUVs, the FX in V8 and V6 form, and the surprising M35h hybrid sedan - and when Nissan pushes the "go" button, these are likely the vehicles it will offer.

The four-door hybrid M35h was a real revelation to drive - packed with the premium features that you'd expect from a brand like Infiniti, but without the compromises that you'd expect from a hybrid.

Power was plentiful - 276kW from a 3.5L six and a sprint time from 0-100km/h of just 5.5 seconds.

Infiniti's Drive Mode Selector, which switches between Normal (read: very comfortable), Sport, Eco and the reasonably redundant Snow. Bells and whistles abound, with a 30GB hard drive-based navigation system that teams Bluetooth connectivity and audio streaming with a brilliant plain-English interface and a stereo system that even has speakers built into the premium 10-way electric leather seats.

A full complement of safety gear is also on board, and the traction and stability systems are advanced enough to rein in what is quite a big vehicle, when pushing along in sport mode.

The SUV duo also packed in the features, with specification sheets that read like European machines and an ever-so-slightly-used price tag that doesn't. A sport-focused design, including chromed vents behind the front wheel arches, makes for a stylish and modern look, and during Driven's time with the two high-end crossovers we were continually asked about them - what they were, what they went like and when they would be sold here.

The 3.7-litre V6-powered FX37 was probably the most applicable to New Zealand buyers, considering fuel prices, with a sharp V6 that's happy to rev and Sport mode that, when teamed with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, felt impressively settled on the road with positive turn-in and road manners that felt almost car-like, despite the high centre of gravity.

The V8 version - the FX50S is a stroppy animal that any red-blooded SUV fan would be more than happy with. Aside from the awesome thirst of the five-litre eight, which more often than not isn't a major concern for $100,000-plus SUV buyers, there's not a lot in the "cons" side of the ledger. Well-sited cameras give an all-round image of drivers' surroundings through the dash-mounted screen that doubles as navigation and entertainment centre, again with the plain-English interface.

There's keyless entry, electric sunroof with electric blind, and even a heated steering wheel. The seats are high-end leather, with electric adjustment and have heating and cooling functions.

Pick of the bunch? It's hard to go past a V8 SUV that goes from lounge-room comfort to powered-up beast with the push of a button and a stab of the right foot.

- Hamilton News

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