December will be Infiniti Europes tenth birthday - will there be much to celebrate?

December will be Infiniti Europe's tenth birthday - will there be much to celebrate?

As Infiniti sales plunge at a dizzying rate across Europe and new model launches are pushed back, the question has to be asked: is Nissan planning to pull the plug on its luxury brand in the world's toughest market?

Europe is an exceedingly tricky place for any non-German luxury automotive brand. Just look at Jaguar's performance in Germany, DS registrations anywhere but France or Alfa Romeo outside of Italy. The numbers speak for themselves. The UK though, can be an exception to this general rule: Audi became big here long before the same thing happened in other European countries and British buyers quickly accepted Volvo's pricing leap on the second generation XC90 even as Swedes were taking their time to.

Only 69 Infinitis were sold in Britain last month. And just 35 in Italy. Compared to 45 Ferraris.

Lexus has always found a good level of acceptance in the UK, even when self-charging petrol hybrids were a strange curiosity in a market that demanded diesel. There is still no such thing as a Lexus PHEV and the few diesel derivatives which eventually came to be offered didn't last long and were not replaced. A compression-ignition engine bought in from BMW might have been fine for several of Toyota Motor Europe's British-built cars but would have been unthinkable for Lexus.

Thanks to the war on diesel which is presently ravaging one manufacturer after another Lexus has found itself lucky to have eliminated such engines long ago, but its less successful rival Infiniti is suffering badly. How badly? Britain, long Infiniti Europe's top market, is where the real pain is being sustained. SMMT data show that the brand's registrations are in virtual freefall. Just 69 cars were sold in May compared to the not exactly standout result of 346 vehicles for the equivalent month in 2017.

Year to date, Infiniti dealers have delivered 454 cars. For 1 January to 31 May 2017, the total was 1,749, so the drop is a vertiginous 74 per cent. It's the same story in other countries, with more Ferraris (45) sold in Italy in May than Infinitis (35) according to ANFIA.

As data for most of the rest of Europe is not yet available, numbers for April are the most up to date. These show 510 registrations for the month and 2,209 for the year to 30 April. How about this for a set of statistics: Tesla has sold more than three times as many vehicles (7,554), while Infiniti also lags MG (2,604 and available in exactly one EU country) and Maserati (3,004), while Lada (1,553 and available only in a handful of regional markets including Germany and Austria) isn't too far behind. Had the importers for AvtoVAZ's brand found buyers for 101 more cars in April, Lada would have beaten Infiniti. 

The failure of Nissan's luxury brand in the European region is a strange thing. The cars were initially nothing remarkable, the model names confusing and the dealer network patchy in its geographic reach. Then Infiniti really got its act together or rather Nissan allowed it to have some proper money and related resources. Remember too that Nissan acted after years of watching high priced grey imports of the FX keep turning up in Switzerland and a couple of other LHD European countries. People knew the brand from travels to the US and the big SUV was a great looker at a time when the XC90 was getting old and the M-Class and X5 were a bit too...everywhere.

The biggest boost was a decision to add a C segment hatchback plus a related crossover to the global line-up, basing all production at the Nissan plant in Sunderland. The Q30 and QX30 were well received by the media, quality was first class, the engine line-up included an Alliance four-cylinder diesel, CO2 averages and fuel consumption were low and both vehicles looked distinctive. 

In the year to the end of May Nissan North America sold 61,472 Infinitis to US buyers.

Lots of euro has been spent on putting the Infiniti name into Formula 1, cars have been placed with celebrities and other alleged influencers but the benefits just don't seem to be visible. This is made even worse by the fact that Infiniti is becoming ever more successful in other major regions. 

Sales in China have been slow to rise but with the new QX50 entering production at Dongfeng Nissan's Dalian plant in April that should change soon enough. Meanwhile, after some temporary dips in the US and Canada, things are good once more - year to date, the brand has sold 61,472 vehicles or roughly 12 times the volume of Infiniti China. Admittedly this is an 8.1 per cent decline but that is due to the loss of a couple of aged models which are yet to be replaced, while QX50 production at Daimler and Nissan's new COMPAS factory in Mexico is still ramping up. 

The model range in North America is far more broad than what is available in Europe. The larger SUVs and sedans which have always sold well in the USA are not the only Infinitis which EU and EFTA market dealers lack, however. The UK dealer network still has stocks of the QX70 even though production ended last August. Infiniti has exhibited some FCA-like behaviour here, as not only was this would-be rival for the Volvo XC90 almost nine years old when build ceased, but those looking to trade in for a replacement model are out of luck: there isn't one.

Letting the QX70 not only become old but then failing to replace it, not just in Europe but everywhere else, is odd. Consider the enthusiasm that the Lincoln Aviator concept generated at the New York auto show in March (it's still a year and a bit away from production) and how well the same-sized XC90 is selling in the USA - what on earth was Nissan thinking? Now there is a huge size gap from the QX60 to the giant QX80. There is a pattern here - these also look set to attain vintage status having first gone on sale in 2012 and 2010 respectively and neither being due for replacement until 2020 or later. A new QX70? It's said to be as far off as 2021.

Similarly, the Q70 is now more than eight years old and likely to fade away later in 2018. Will there be a replacement? It doesn't seem so, and Toyota can't seem to make a business case for a GS successor either, another E segment sedan which has never been accepted by the market as a true 5 Series, A6 and E-Class rival. 

It's all very well to exit segments but when customers and potential customers see a brand's range contracting, concerns arise. Such as will the dealer still be there in 12 months' time and what will my car's resale value be like? Groupe PSA is struggling with the same issue as it shrinks the DS line-up by culling old, badly performing models.

Might Nissan simply stop building the Q30 and QX30, saving the cost of mid-cycle facelifts due in 2019?

The comparison with DS is apt. Infiniti might well be going through a similar experience. The Q30 and QX30 are nowhere near as old as the recently discontinued DS 4 and DS 4 Crossback but they have found just as much resistance in the market as the French hatchback and crossover. 

The Q30 and QX30 come down the same line at Sunderland as the Nissan Juke and Leaf. None of these vehicles is much in demand and their combined annual output is nowhere near the level of the plant's main model, which is the Qashqai.

US sales of the two Infiniti compacts are weak, though not as bad as in Europe, which raises the possibility that Nissan could discontinue both models as soon as this year. That would save the cost of facelifting them in 2019.

Nissan North America does not sell the Q30, only the QX30. However, and confusingly, two of the three cars in the QX30 model range are identical to Nissan Europe's Q30 but with QX30 badging.

The QX50 is a model which could save Infiniti Europe but there are no plans to introduce it in 2018 and only a vague promise that it is being looked at for launch in 2019. The only engine in this SUV so far at least is a 268hp (200kW) and 280 lb ft (380Nm) variable compression 2.0-litre petrol turbo. This might be perfect for North America but it's not ideal for China and would limit sales in Europe to low levels. A PHEV powertrain or else an e-Power series hybrid will surely be added in the PRC and perhaps this is why Infiniti Europe continues to say nothing about the model. 

Right now, the question of whether or not Nissan's luxury division will remain in Europe cannot be fully answered. A brand spokesman did not agree that things appear to suggest that the end could be nigh. A decision had been taken to keep stocks of cars lean, no new models will join the line-up this year but some could be added in 2019.

Infiniti has just been pulled from Indonesia and some years ago it was withdrawn from Australia too but it did eventually return, with models that better suited the preferences of local buyers. It may be the case that Nissan Europe is playing a waiting game. What happens to the UK market if the country leaves the EU, what powertrains need to be introduced to existing models if the diesel hysteria continues, and so on? Still, the suspicion remains - when any brand is starved of new products while existing ones which are performing poorly are left unrefreshed - Infiniti might disappear from Europe.

ANALYSIS - Future models for Infiniti

Following the publication of the above article earlier on 6 June, Infiniti HQ in Hong Kong had this to say:

"Infiniti is committed to develop into a global Top Tier premium brand. We will electrify our line-up from 2021 and offer a mix of pure electric vehicles (EV) and e-POWER vehicles – demonstrating the full range of low emission vehicle technology available to INFINITI as the premium brand of Nissan Motor Company. Customers can expect beautifully-designed vehicles, like the Q Inspiration concept shown at the Detroit auto show and at the Beijing Motor Show this year, with a whole new level of electrified driving performance as an evolution of our current powertrains.

We are confident that we will set a compelling new benchmark for premium electric vehicles. Consequently, and in line with current industry trends, Infiniti will reduce its line up of internal combustion engines – especially Diesel – starting this year and concentrate our investment on new electrified vehicles. As a result Infiniti's segment coverage in Western Europe where combustion engines are still dominant will be reduced. In the medium term, however, this segment coverage will naturally increase again as we will focus on the Q50 Hybrid as well as the all-new QX50 with a revolutionary – world's first – Variable Compression Turbo engine (VC-T) which is planned to be available in Europe next year".

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