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INFINITI: Using Design to Forge an Identity

INFINITI, Nissan’s high-end brand, has been in existence since 1989. It has in recent years given itself the objective of taking on the big German luxury carmakers.

Is it time to dub the company the Japanese BMW? Remains to be seen, but in any event the manufacturer has hired several big talents away from its German rival, including current INFINITI president Roland Krueger (formerly the head of BMW’s Asian division).

More recently, Karim Habib, a Montreal-schooled automotive designer, surprised the automotive domain by leaving BMW after heading the design teams for the X1, the X2 concept and the spectacular CSL Hommage, unveiled at Villa d’Este in 2015. And where has he gone? As of July 1, he is in charge of designing upcoming INFINITI models. He brings to the company vast experience acquired as head of design at BMW as well as head of advanced design at Daimler, where he worked on the current Mercedes-Benz C-Class as well as the smart car.

"Karim has a strong background and impressive track record in automotive design and the knowledge and mindset to develop a global premium brand," said Roland Krueger, Global President of INFINITI Motors Limited, upon announcing his arrival. "Design is one of the key pillars of our global brand development at INFINITI. Karim brings unique design skills that will accelerate INFINITI's progress toward the goal of capturing and expanding our share in the global luxury market."

QX30: a new direction
Another designer who has already made his mark at INFINITI is Hirohisa Ono, who leads the company’s studio in San Diego, California. Part of the team that produced the Nissan GT-R, he professes to feeling great pride at having left his stamp on the Japanese and global collective imagination with that superb car, whose design elements were inspired by the fearsome samurai and their armour, no less.  

Ono also oversaw the exterior design of the company’s new luxury sub-compact crossover, the INFINITI QX30. He took inspiration for the new model from INFINITI’s past, but in the service of creating unique new styling. In his view, the brand’s design needed an infusion of emotion; what’s more, Ono related that from a very young age he was greatly impressed by Italian cars, one of them in particular: the Lamborghini Countach designed by Marcello Gandini, the same man behind the legendary Miura. Both of those cars were extremely influential in the sports car domain in their respective eras. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Ono succeeded in gaining inspiration from them as well as from INFINITI prototypes that had been presented several years ago, like the Essence in 2009 and the Emerg-e in 2012. Discerning eyes won’t fail to recognize the fluid, sloping lines of these concepts reborn in many of today’s production models.

The greatest pride for a designer comes when very few changes arise during the evolution of a concept car to its production version. This is in fact the case with the QX30. Ono admitted to wanting to make the car “elegant, emotional but also muscular”, even speaking of “energetic” lines. These lines begin at the front hood, at the juncture of the grille and the headlights, and stretch back through the sides to the rear of the vehicle. That rear end preserves the crescent form that is particular to all INFINITI models and is a defining element for the brand.

The QX30 is certainly muscular, looking ready to pounce, with a powerful and athletic rear section as well as a more agile front end. This type of vehicle is destined to be popular not only because of its versatile format (half-car, half-SUV; not too big or too high off the ground), but also thanks to the abilities it has that a regular car lacks.

A technological heritage from the Renault Sport Formula One team
As for the development of the powertrain, what’s particularly relevant is the technical partnership between INFINITI and Renault Sport Formula One that gives the company access to a super-high-level laboratory to test advanced systems and apply racing expertise to touring cars. The latter deploy substantial electric energy thanks to their hybrid powertrains that boost performance, and the engineers at INFINITI, in this fruitful bilateral exchange, share their expertise in this domain with the F1 team.

The partnership has also led to contests for engineering students, notably the INFINITI Engineering Academy. In 2016, 21-year-old Quebecer Félix Lamy, passionate about his profession and about automobiles, won the Canadian edition of the international contest; 2017 saw 23-year-old Ontario native Matthew Crossan take home top honours. Their reward? Six-month internships with the Renault Sport Formula One team followed by six-month stints applying the knowledge gained in F1 to technologies used in production cars. A nifty way for INFINITI to encourage young talent and preserve knowledge at the company as well.

At the latest Canadian Grand Prix F1 race, INFINITI unveiled a very special and audacious version of the Q60. Project Black S integrates a host of F1-derived technologies in a more high-end, highly exclusive package. Another Canadian note: young Canadian driver and INFINITI-brand ambassador Nicholas Latifi races in Formula 2, is a test driver for Renault Sport Formula One and has already climbed on to the podium on two occasions, including after winning at Silverstone.

A question of identity
A crucial design element, especially in the luxury car market, is the car’s identity. In general, each of the big manufacturers in this segment have a signature grille that instantly announces the car’s brand identity, no matter the era. In the past few years INFINITI has managed to establish a grille design that is recognizable, even without a logo, and that proffers on its vehicles a proper identity. The next few months will tell in which direction Karim Habib will steer the brand’s design elements.

With so many significant and fascinating projects currently in development, that INFINITI continues to surprise will be no surprise at all.