Why did Infiniti never break through in Europe?

Infiniti_Q30-auto-sales-statistics-EuropeFrom early 2020, Europeans will no longer be able to officially buy new Infiniti cars. The brand started in 2008 but hasn’t managed to gain a foothold in the European luxury car market, even after launching a pair of new cars that were specifically designed for this market. During a time of cost savings, Infiniti’s parent company Nissan has decided to give up trying to be an alternative to the German brands and Lexus, and to focus on markets where it has been successful, the US and China.

What went wrong for Infiniti? I think there are three factors that made this venture troublesome from the get-go, and one more trigger that caused the plug to be pulled this year.

Dominance of the German Big Three

First and foremost is the dominance of the three German brands Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi, which have become even more dominant since Infiniti started sales in Europe. These three brands enjoy such great worldwide volume that they are able to expand their line-up with niche models on their existing platforms and technology, allowing them to cater to potential buyers looking for “something different than mainstream” in a luxury car, which is exactly the kind of buyer Infiniti has been aiming for as well.
Volvo and Land Rover are the only somewhat successful rivals to the Germans in Europe, Volvo thanks to its image of safety and quality as well as consistent design and Land Rover thanks to its focus and its heritage regarding its off-road capabilities. Jaguar, Alfa Romeo and Lexus have always struggled to become successful in Europe.


Lack of crossovers

Infiniti_FX-auto-sales-statistics-EuropeSecondly, Infiniti lacked good crossovers for Europe. Crossovers have been the growth engine for the luxury segment, especially in Europe. And crossover buyers seem to be more open to other brands. For exame, Volvo has been in the annual sales top-3 of their respective segments with the XC60 and XC90, Land Rover sales have grown significantly in the years since the crossover boom started, and the Jaguar F-Pace and Alfa Romeo Stelvio became their brands’ best selling model immediately after launch. Before its initial launch in Europe, Infiniti already had a great image with those who knew the brand, because the daringly styled FX crossover (later renamed QX70) was popular as a grey-market import. However, the brand never capitalized on that image when it launched with mainly sedans in its line-up.
The JX/QX60 and the QX80 were perfectly sized for American families, but too big and inefficient for European roads, and the EX/QX50 hasn’t been popular anywhere in the world due to its awkward design and cramped back seats, unitl its recent redesign that fixed those issues.
So when the brand finally had the chance to offer a small crossover when it developed the QX30 based on Mercedes-Benz technology, it blew that opportunity by making that car nothing more than a Q30 hatchback with some design tweaks. That fooled nobody. To be honest, the Mercedes-Benz GLA on which it was based was really just a hatchback as well, but at least that looked different enough from the A-Class to be a stand-alone model. On top of that, Mercedes has volume enough to spread across two similar models anyway, while the pool of people that had Infiniti on their shopping lists was much shorter.

Lack of heritage

Land-Rover-Defender-auto-sales-statistics-EuropeThirdly, Infiniti lacked heritage, something the Americans care less about, they’re much more open to try new brands and in fact even tend to support the underdog, while European buyers, especially in the luxury segment, still care about a brand’s heritage. This is also why it took Lexus much longer to gain a foothold in Europe than in the US, and Infiniti hasn’t had the patience to keep trying for 20+ years to establish itself. Heritage is not necessarily about a history in racing or off roading, it’s also about choosing a niche or image and then consistently designing good quality products that support this image. Like Volvo has been doing with safety, Jaguar with understated British design, Land Rover with its off-road capabilities and now Lexus with its hybrids, which have jump started sales of that brand.
Infiniti had pretty aggressive designs, but nothing else that really created a clear image of what the brand stood for.

The trigger called Brexit

So, with still a very long timeframe ahead until potential success and no guarantees it would actually get it right, Brexit was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Production of Infiniti’s most important products for Europe, the Q30 and QX30, takes place in Nissan’s UK factory, so the uncertainty of maintain open supply chains to and from Europe complicated matters even further. Or perhaps it only made it easier to decide to pull the plug entirely….

  1. Just to note, the article appears to have been redacted…you need to hover your cursor over the empty spaces to see the names of vehicles mentioned etc.

    I think funky design doesn’t gibe with what the typical premium customer wants. Infiniti hasn’t been particularly successful in China either compare with Volvo and Cadillac, which started local production around the same time, and Lexus, which continues to rely on imports.

    As an American I am curious as to whether European premium customers care about service, because that is where Lexus wins hands down in the US market (and China).

    1. Sure, we care about service, but we care about paying the right amount of money for the right products too. Americans can buy a Q50 2.0t for less than 36k dollars (= 32.303 euros), I have to pay at least 44.500 euros (= 49.600 dollars) for the same car. That’s a difference of more than 37% (!) for the same product (!). Competing models from BMW, Volvo and MB are sometimes even less expensive (to lease, very important in the corporate sector) so Infiniti was never able to compete with the established order.
      In addition, Nissan’s luxury division forgot to offer entry-level models of certain cars in Europe. For example, the first generation QX50 was only available with two V6 engines. Back then, BMW already offered four cylinder engines for the X3. Just like Honda at mainstream level, Infiniti never took the time to look at what is needed to be successful in the European market. It’s understandable considering the US and China are more important for them, but they tried so you’d expect a better preparation. Lexus did a better job entering the US market with the LS. They offered a high-end model at an extremely low price compared with the competitors. That’s how Lexus made a great entrance claiming their own position.
      As Bart mentioned, Americans are much more open to new brands, but Infiniti could have done a better job themselves in Europa instead of automatically offer the same (or too much) as the European luxury brands.

  2. Infiniti’s biggest mistake was to mimic other luxury brands instead of trying to be different like Tesla. It’s no secret Infiniti wanted to attract BMW customers (one reason why Mercedes allowed the cooperation) offering the G37 sedan and coupe next to the EX and FX at the start. The latter was relatively successful even before the crossover hype began. I think they should have introduced cars like the Q(X)30 first, because then the initial target group would have been bigger.
    Let’s not forget Infiniti’s European introduction took place just before the economical crisis. Not the best moment to lure conservative Europeans into your Japanese luxury brand. Europeans tend to avoid non-European luxury cars anyway. A major difference between Europeans and Americans, as Bart said. Even Lexus is still not successful in Europe considering they’re not able to reach 50k annually. Land Rover easily triples that selling (gas-guzzling) crossovers/SUVs only. Apart from a couple of hybrid crossovers, most Lexus models flopped big time.
    Back to Infiniti, it’s a pity they’re leaving Europe, because the luxury segments are quite boring these days. I think visibility was a problem as well. A lot of countries didn’t have enough dealerships. I’m still surprised why Nissan never tried to commercialise their luxury brand more through Nissan dealerships like Toyota did with Lexus. In fact, most Infiniti models are/were Nissans with a different badge. Same goes for Lexus by the way. ‘Premium?’ Meh.

  3. Infiniti was completely lack lustre in design, the rather obvious attempts to have a design language looked crude, and Nissan dealers didn’t seem that bothered.They reminded me of the Lancia’s badged up as Chryslers, cars in a party dress. They needed a USP.

    The Chinese look keen to repeat the test. Maybe they’ll think twice.

  4. If Renault-Nissan really wanted to compete in the premium market in Europe it would be much clever to buy a brand such as Alfa Romeo and Lancia form FCA, which showed through the years that is not able to managed a premium brand, instead of developing one from nothing. Hyundai is doing the same mistake right now with Genesis and will fail…

  5. If Europeans care so much about heritage and brand image, why don’t they buy Jaguars, Bentleys, Alfas, Maseratis and why didn’t they buy Lancias and Saabs? Heritage is only important when it comes to German luxury? But Audi doesn’t have a long history, it makes luxury cars since Lexus exists, 1989. The European market is so weird…

    1. The European market is too artificial. I know a lot of people who would love to drive a non-German mainstream/luxury car, but they are forced by their company to pick a German car due to cheaper leasing contracts. It’s a vicious circle in a way, because the German dominance strengthens their image of being popular among a large group of people, but in reality a huge part of this image is achieved artificially. Not saying there aren’t people who like to drive a German car, of course not, but you only have to look at the European sales numbers in almost all segments to get a glimpse of the skewness of the European car market.
      To this day, Europe’s orientation is still teutonic. We have a great car industry with lots of different cultures with the Italian, French, German, Swedish and British being the most important ones. It’s a pity all of them aren’t represented well enough looking at the European sales.

  6. what do you think about genesis brand?
    will this underdog be successful in europe or be infinity 2.0?

    1. Genesis has much more important tasks than coming to Europe: offer a bunch of SUVs, offer hybrids or EVs(or both), conquer the US and the Chinese market. We may never see them in Europe – probably that’s the case with Acura as well. We know Koreans about their agressive strategies and toughness so they surely won’t give up but they can face difficulties. Anyway, I think their chance of survival is much-much bigger than DS’s from France which relies on Europe.

      1. As I said above:
        “If Renault-Nissan really wanted to compete in the premium market in Europe it would be much clever to buy a brand such as Alfa Romeo and Lancia form FCA, which showed through the years that is not able to managed a premium brand, instead of developing one from nothing. Hyundai is doing the same mistake right now with Genesis and will fail…”

  7. @Claudio
    Interesting idea. I assume you think Renault-Nissan should focus on acquiring Alfa Romeo, because although Lancia stands for luxury, it’s an almost non-existent label producing an outdated small car for Italians. And I’m sure a lot of people still haven’t forgotten the Chryslers with Lancia badge. So that would be buying a name which is totally not necessary looking at the history of Renault. In the beginning, before socialism, they competed with Rolls-Royce meaning the French know what it’s like to build high-end luxury models. Now with Alpine back in business, perhaps it’s time to reposition this historic brand. Why not? I read Corvette will probably become a brand again with an upcoming sedan and SUV next to the sports car.
    Alfa Romeo could be tricky as well. Do people really see Alfa as a luxury brand? To me, they build (affordable) sports cars and not so much pure luxury cars. Just like Honda, the position of Alfa is not very clear. In this respect, Maserati would be a better option. With Ferrari as a family member, Maserati was never allowed to produce more expensive (sports) cars. It could be beneficial for them as well when they are under the belt of Renault-Nissan.

    1. What are we talking about? A real premium brand and its ability to compete against German brands, isn’t? So Renault compete with RR before socialism, you mean pre WWI? Well, every brand were luxury brands at that time with few exceptions such as Ford because cars were very expensive products, today Renault it’s only a strong standard brand in a weak market, Europe, Alpine? Really? Alpine is for Renault what Abarth is for Fiat so Let’s focus on what is required today to compete against the Germans, of course heritage is not the only aspect but maybe in that segment and especially for the European customer is very important. Lancia and Alfa pre WWII were not only luxury brands but also brands with a sport image too, in the 60’s when Lancia was out of racing it was at the same level of Mercedes in terms of products, but Fiat with bad models such as Beta and Gamma start to destroy that image, Alfa acquisition in 1986 was the end of Lancia and Alfa was too never well managed as a premium brand, just few success such as 155 in racing and 156, 8C was a great car as a halo car but far from being a successful enterprise because of Ferrari influence. Regarding Maserati, Ferrari was a savior but the policy of keeping its models under their models in terms of price, quality and technology was a mistake and FCA now looking for volume is even a bigger mistake. Maserati should built no more than 10 thousand a year, GT’s and a luxury sedan to compete against RR, Bentley and Aston Martin, their niche since the beginning, it’s not a brand to compete against Mercedes, BMW and Audi. That task is for Lancia and Alfa Romeo which have the ingredients to be successful premium brands, much more than Lexus, Infiniti, Acura and Genesis, of course is required money for the right models and commercial strategy, something that I believe Renault-Nissan has and FCA don’t.

      1. You sound like a proud Italian 😉
        It would be great if Lancia could get back on track, the more the merrier, but let’s be realistic, even when they produced new models they were never able to compete with BMW, MB, Volvo and others. Lancia has always been a niche brand depending on small cars (i.e. Ypsilon and Delta). A true luxury brand has no problem selling D and E segment cars. The beautiful Thesis was not even close to the Renault Vel Satis in terms of sales so in this respect I don’t see why the Lancia brand could add something to Renault-Nissan.
        Alfa Romeo would be a better option looking at the current line-up although I still don’t believe people consider this brand to be a luxury brand. The 156 was known for its great design and sporty character, not so much for being a high quality, luxurious car. Same goes for the 166.

  8. Don’t forget JLR is in play. Peugeot might be in the lead, but the brands would be tempting for Renault and possibly Fiat. Instant brand recognition and credibility as long as the new owners don’t do a Ford.

    1. Good point. Jaguar-Land Rover offer a unique selling point, or unique purchasing point if you will: two different brands with great history and credibility.

      1. You sound like a proud British
        You’re right, I’m proud of the great history of Italian brands but since the begging of this century with very few exceptions I have nothing to be proud of. Fiat ruined Alfa and Lancia and after saving Maserati is doing the same with it, but let’s be fair all those brands were in big problems or bankrupted before Fiat’s takeover.
        BMW has always been considered a sport brand and very close to Alfa Romeo in terms of products and customer target up to the middle 80’s the problem is when Fiat assumed, they quit RWD and move to common platforms with Lancia-Fiat and also Saab, their loyal customers never forgive Fiat and several of them move to BMW. Regarding this specific enterprise, Fiat did a good job with Thema and this model was able to compete against MB, BMW and Audi at that time, unfortunately they lose the path with Kappa.
        The horrible Thesis was a failure like Renault Vel Satis mainly because of their weird design but also because a lack of quality against Germans, I can’t say which sold less. French brands in D and E segments were never able to compete against Germans and even Italians, with few exceptions like Citroen DS a long time ago. As I said, Alfa and Lancia could be with the right management a much better option to compete against German brands than staring from zero, that’s the main point here.
        Being very honest, Volvo with billions is still selling much less than the three Germans, Land Rover as a niche brand an advantage because of the trend in the market nowadays for SUV’s and Crossovers but also selling a fraction of them and Jaguar is probably going full electric in order to survive, maybe the premium segment which is flat in terms of sales in Europe is no longer a good opportunity in spite of being more profitable than standard segments, so maybe what we will see is just Germans as premium brands, it’s a pity.

  9. @Claudio
    I totally support your wish for a revival of the Italian car industry. Next to French and Swedish cars, Italian cars are my favourite. Just trying to point out that, as @john hobson pointed out, I think it would be more credible for Renault-Nissan to take over Jaguar-Land Rover (both indisputable luxury brands, different line-up, thus different target groups) instead of buying Alfa Romeo (unclear position, depending on small cars meaning lower margins) and Lancia (non-existent).
    By the way, I’m not British, I’m Dutch 😉

    1. Dear Losange, the position of Alfa is not unclear I think, Alfa after a long period of rebadging Fiat’s is with MiTo being the lowest level is trying now to recover its roots as a premium brand with sports characteristics, in the case of Lancia you are right, as Fiat just decided to quit investing in the brand in favor of Alfa.
      But the main point is the question of evaluating if it’s worthwhile to invest a huge amount of money in a new brand from zero or trying to recover a brand with a great heritage. I think Jaguar and Land Rover are in a better position today in terms of sales, but financially JLR is far from being profitable nowadays mainly because of Jaguar, in this case especially because of the new trend of the market I would invest all the resources in Land Rover.
      Dutch usually have a more rational approach because the absence of a native brand, I agree that in my case emotional aspects could affect my reasoning.

      1. Alfa Romeo seems to be repositioning itself, yes, that’s why I said their current position is unclear 😉
        I was wondering, what do you think about Alfa’s current design? To me, it’s a pity modern Alfas aren’t recognisable as such anymore. The Giulia and Stelvio are too much BMW for my taste. Former models like the 156 and 147 were 100% Alfa Romeo: clean and strong design with sensual, smooth lines and details.

      2. Alfa launched the Giulia in 2015 and the Stelvio in 2016.

        When will the launch the new Giulietta? The compact SUV? The large sedans? SIx-cylinder coupés?

    2. I agree, Marchionne was not a car guy, he jJust ask to Ferrari engineers to build a BMW 3 with a Ferrari engine, great car but awful design, the best for me would be a new car with a design inspired in 156 or 159 with Giorgio platform.

      1. @Claudio & NaBURu38
        This just in: “Lancia outperformed Alfa in H1-2019”, meaning the ‘old signorina’ Ypsilon did a better job than the entire Alfa line-up. The latter desperately needs the upcoming compact SUV Tonale. Rapidamente!

      2. I don’t think that Tonale will change Alfa’s current situation substantially, maybe just for some time like Stelvio did last year, as I said Fiat has been doing a bad work since Alfa’s takeover in the 80’s with few exceptions. FCA lack of resources and mostly the sincere desire to make Alfa a successful premium brand do not allow me to think that Alfa has a bright future under their control, better sell it or even close it in order to concentrate the few resources it has in Fiat, Jeep and Dodge-RAM, selling Maserati could also bring some cash to the group. In relation to Lancia better close it and keep its image through FCA Heritage as Giolito is doing a great work there.

  10. Infiniti failed in Europe for the lack of an USP and objective, simple as that. If the best you want for yourself is to copy other brand ideas, then you are in big trouble. Once they move forward, you’ll be left behind playing catch up.

    When Lexus came to Europe they made a similar mistake, with the first two generation IS being pretty much a Japanese 3 Series, albeit one with a much smaller range, dealership network and brand recognition. It sold on the promise of reliability, and then they added the hybrids and derivative designs, for which the brand is now known for. Still, Lexus only sells 7 models with limited configurations and engine options, while the Germans have a billion models and variants, so their sales can only be adequate.

    1. Spot on! And to think Lexus has been trying to compete in Europe for almost 30 years now. The focus on hybrids sort of masks the fact Toyota’s luxury brand is far from successful in Europe. Sales on the ‘old continent’ are by-catch and nothing more.
      Introducing a luxury brand in Europe is a difficult task, even for European companies. On the one hand they need to be different otherwise they’re playing catch up all the time as you said. On the other hand they at least need to offer the same to not distance themselves too much from the European customer. In this respect, I never understood why Infiniti, just like Lexus after the first generation IS, refused to introduce a D segment station wagon. Still an important concept in Europe, even in the more expensive E segment.

      1. Station Wagons are only popular in Europe and this market is not important for the Japanese.

  11. @Easy Driver
    That’s a given, but then why are they selling cars in Europe when they’re not taking things seriously? As if the Japanese are very stubborn not wanting to adapt to the market. Honda, Mitsubishi and Mazda are doing the same at mainstream level which has limited their position as well. Showing adaptability is an important reason why Hyundai and Kia are much more successful these days in Europe compared with their Japanese counterparts.
    Not being able to offer the same as the established (luxury) brands can sometimes be difficult to attract customers and to become a more accepted brand in Europe. Next to a zillion crossovers/SUVs, BMW, Volvo, MB, Audi and even Jaguar offer D and/or E segment station wagons with lots of possible configurations. I’m not saying Infiniti and Lexus would have been at the top of the sales rankings, but they could have given themselves more chance to be competitive by adapting more to the European customer in general.
    Cultural differences can never be neglected by automotive companies. We are not Americans, we don’t drive gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and are not able to buy a reasonably priced large car. We are not Chinese, we don’t need kei cars so you can park anywhere you want. We are not South Americans, we have higher standards concerning quality and design. Same goes for other product features like the concept. In a large part of Europe, hatchbacks and station wagons are considered more practical than a sedan. Non-European companies refusing to offer this can only blame themselves for not gaining traction among European customers.

    1. European buyers like to call themselves choosey but American and Japanese manufacturers see us too queasy. The American and Chinese(Arabian, Australian) market have much more in common, their buyers can be satisfied more easily. The European market is unique, shows no signs of conformity with any other markets in the world. And let’s not forget the fact: it’s only the 3rd largest market. I think Toyota, Honda and others look at the category-leaders’ sales numbers(like Golf, Passat) and they know they’ll never be able to get close to these numbers so they neglect us and turn to markets where they are much more successful. And this fact works vica versa: cars which are developed according to European taste, are not successful outside of Europe(except some premium cars). If “too American” or “too Chinese” can be negative indicators for Europeans, so can “too European” be for buyers outside of Europe…

      1. Yes, that’s what I mean. Cultural differences. I’m quite sure the Fiat 500 is too European for the average American.
        My point is that as long as non-European (luxury) brands are selling cars in Europe, they should at least adapt a little bit more. Infiniti has never done enough and the same goes for Lexus, albeit to a lesser extent.
        BMW USA on the other hand has stopped offering the 3 series Touring, MB USA offers the E Estate, but not the C Estate (C Class is being built in the States), Audi USA only offers the A4 allroad. So the Germans are willing to adapt by having different line-ups for different countries which is part of customer service. Japanese brands aren’t doing enough in this respect to meet European customer requirements.

  12. @ Losange

    That can be the reason why French brands aren’t present in the USA and Canada. Why they don’t buy the Golf, why they get a different Passat, why Buick has been struggling in the USA, Audis aren’t popular enough, etc. Too European, too queasy, too expensive(for no reason), too reserved…

    Maybe you also noticed that Japanese are the fortune tellers of the car industry. Somehow they foresee new trends and changes and they always start to prepare for them in time(and later it turns out they were right). They think twice about what they spend their money on, maybe that’s a Japanese method for cost cutting. To me it looks like they try to “educate” Europe, like “believe me, you don’t need SWs, SUV is much better”, “hybrids are better than diesels” and stuff like that. They want Europe to adapt more to the US and China, and say goodbye to the unique European demands(SWs, diesel, perfect interiors, etc.). They only spend money on things which surely have the chance to be successful GLOBALLY. Otherwise it’s not worth the developing money. They’ve tried many-many times to serve Europe and they failed but parallel to this they could meet the Chinese and US requirements so the 2 biggest markets are in a more advantageous situation.

    1. Interesting thoughts. In a way, it’s quite logical, because individualism, in this case that would be adapting to a certain market, is almost non-existent in Japan (image-wise that is, because at the same time coming across as Western is very popular among Asian cultures) whereas European individualism reaches new levels each day, so to speak.
      The only thing I disagree with you is that I don’t think the Japanese have tried to serve Europe many-many times. Even though they perhaps want us to change, sometimes it’s better to adapt a little bit more. It’s not a one-way street of course. They have adapted to the closed Chinese market and the American market offering a lot of pick-up trucks and SUVs in all sizes. Why bother selling cars in Europe if you refuse to do the same to meet our wishes?
      Japanese brands have their own way of thinking, sure, but apart from Nissan, they are behind in offering BEVs which is the most recent trend. So let’s not idealise them, just as much as German brands, or any other car maker from a certain country of origin, should not be idealised.

  13. It is difficult to pin failure a single factor, but the Infiniti project was doomed to fail as they completely ignored the market needs.

    The were fighting the Germans in the US, and they expected to encounter the same art of warfare with roaring V6, screaming V8 and top spec.

    Yet the bulk of sales are at bargain prices, with basic diesel engines, where you can’t get the peak performance low enough to meet tax brackets and co2 fleet limits.

    They had one great asset at start, the EX, a brilliant car with a very few rivals, in a soon to boom segment.
    Yet they wanted to sell for whopping prices with engines nobody would be eligible to buy.
    At around 2011 they were actually offering rebates to compensate for the whopping taxes you pay for a 240 PS diesel “base” engine, on a market where BMW downgrades the 518d to 136 PS to optimise it to tax brackets…

  14. Then instead of bringing out the EX with a Renault 2.0 Dci, they phased it out and brought over saloons that nobody buys outside Eastern Europe. Not a single station wagon or affordable premium SUV. The Q50 and Q70 were completely not competitive due to absence of SW, despite that finally a diesel arrived (again they opted for a wacky 2.2 instead of the 2.0 dci, that even Merc took over for the C Class).

    On the geography side, it was interesting to note that they entered Belgium with a completely unfit engine range, while the did not open a dealership at all in Luxembourg, were such engines could be sold (at least the 3.0d).

    At around 2015 there seemed to be a bit of a recalibration but the brand remained a headless chicken in my view, at least as far as its European operations were going.

    The Qx30 could have been an interesting proposition but they did not calculate with Brexit. In the end, I think that was an opportunity to withdraw without completely losing face.

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