What I'm Driving At: Going Native

Time was, a Japanese car called Infiniti was gonna teach us Americans a thing or two about what makes a really good automobile. Back in '89, as Nissan's luxury division attempted to soften up the U.S. car-buying public with an ad campaign for its as-yet unveiled 1990 models, TV screens bloomed with bonsai trees and rock gardens and quiet meditation pools. But there was nary a car in sight. Infiniti cars were promulgated as a state of mind, not as a means of conveyance. It was time for a change: Infiniti had arrived to bliss us out, to Zen us to and from the office.It's only appropriate, then, that the sound of one hand clapping is the lingering memorial for what has become the poster-child of misguided advertising ingenuity. Too bad. The Infiniti Q45, the once-and-still flagship of the line, was an outstanding car right off the bat. It was (with apologies to Chevrolet) the luxury performance car we always knew Japan could build. In arch contrast to arch-rival Lexus, the Q-ship had personality: Its razor-sharp handling felt crisp, not cushy; its racer-boy V8 delivered so much power so smoothly that you'd have thought a sci-fi tractor beam was responsible.In short, Infiniti's premium luxo-sedan took the European driving experience, Japanified it into a subtle origami of luxury and engineering, and served it up on a lotus petal to an American driving public that completely missed the point. Then as now, status is ordained, not earned: Just because the Infiniti was a great-looking, great-feeling, great-performing car didn't mean it could robe itself with the alluring mystique of Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Cadillac, or Lincoln (no matter how much or how little these "paradigms" deserve their regal vestments). Lexus, wisely, eschewed the mystique angle altogether and served up a comfy-cozy collection of country-club luxuries meant to appeal to affluent Rotarians everywhere. Plus, it didn't hurt (and still doesn't) that the LS400 was priced right and ran flawlessly forever. And so the 1997 model year dawns on an older and wiser Infiniti Division that has repackaged its vision of automotive bliss inside a shrink-wrap of commercial realpolitik. On the heels of disappointing '96 sales totaling only 5,900 units for the Q45, Infiniti has vowed to get its act together from this day forward. (By way of comparison, Lexus sold 22,000 LS400s last year, BMW's 5-Series tallied 23,000, Mercedes sold 38,000 E-Class sedans, and even Jag sold 13,000 XJ6s.) For '97, the Q45 emerges with a new look, a new shape, a new personality--and an old-fashioned price that's 10 percent ($5,620) lower than in '96. It's a case of giving us Americans what we (are presumed to) want. One thing we demand, for example, is performance of drag-strip proportions, and the Q45 delivers amply. Despite reducing displacement to 4.1 liters from 4.5, and horsepower to 266 from 278, the new Q45 still trips the lights fantastic in under eight seconds, zero-to-60. The car is lighter than last year, with an engine that's actually a bit more efficient thanks to variable valve timing; so engine performance remains impressive. Handling, which should also benefit from weight loss, suffers instead. Because of certain cost-cutting suspension modifications, the model Q45 actually feels marginally less nimble than its predecessor. The essential change is from a front multi-link suspension to MacPherson struts and from stiffer to less stiff springs. But penny-pinching isn't the reason for the Q45's softer, less precise handling--rather, it's the byproduct. You see, we Americans demand a Barcalounger's billowy comfort for our rolling cup-holders, so if a vehicle doesn't really need the extra sophistication of a race-car-like front suspension, why not employ a cheaper alternative? In truth, all that's lost in the transition from last year to this is the Q45's theoretical cutting edge. This car, especially with the subtle suspension and styling tweaks that comprise its Touring package, is still an ideal choice for spirited scenic drives through North America in the European grand touring tradition. Concessions to American taste exact a greater toll in styling. In place of the curious but lovely cocoon of sheet metal that graced the first-generation Q45, the '97 looks for all the world like a four-door version of Lincoln's departed Mark VII touring coupe. It's not unattractive or ugly; it's just derivative, and the toothy Lincoln-esque grille emphasizes the point. After all, this is a car that has never had a grille before; instead, there used to be a big belt-buckle of a medallion on the car's gently sloping prow. Inside, the Infiniti remains faithful to its original charter by retaining its sense of smart chic. Everything is taut, crisp, and astringent, like a dry Sapphire martini. The touchy-feely collection of textures and shapes for seating and controls is more than a New Age sales pitch: It's a successful attempt to create an inviting "space" for the business--and pleasure--of driving. So why, for heaven's sake, did Infiniti pave the dash, console, and door inserts with a melted-toffee-looking plastic meant to simulate burlwood? The only reasonable answer: 'Mercuns. This is 'Merca, dammit, and in 'Merca, it takes fake wood grain to prove you're real rich. This much is certain: Infiniti is determined to tap into the Americana mystique with the Q45, and it's not about to let its formerly quirky aesthetics stand in the way. The division has gone so far as to pledge its troth to the renegade Indycar Racing League (IRL), where its Q45-derived V8 is doing battle with General Motors' counterpart from the Oldsmobile Aurora. This is hell-for-leather marketing in a vintage American manner, and a strong second-place finish in January's inaugural IRL event (at Disneyworld, no less) gave Infiniti's image a much-needed boost of machismo.On March 23, the initial boost burst at the Phoenix 200, where no Infiniti reached the Top 5. (Miraculously, Infiniti did maintain a razor-thin series points lead.) It's an ill omen, however, that no single car in the entire field exceeded the 90 mph average speed first accomplished in an Indy-type car by Eddie Rickenbacker in 1915. In its gusto for all things American, Infiniti may have hitched its talents to an ill-conceived and controversial racing series that many motorsports pundits are already greeting with guffaws. Even at this early stage, the automaker might be well advised to buttress itself against yet another time-honored American tradition: kicking a good man when he's down.

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