PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.--After years of staking its reputation on the cachet of rear-wheel-drive luxury vehicles, Infiniti Division says it can continue just fine with front-wheel-drive platforms, too.
Infiniti's last front-wheel-drive vehicle was the 2000 model year I35, discontinued in 2004. Now, a bevy of new front-wheel products are coming. On August 20, during the Concours d'Elegance here, Infiniti executives unveiled the Infiniti JX, a roomy three-row luxury crossover that will reach dealerships in April. It comes in front- and all-wheel-drive versions.
Another new fwd vehicle, likely to be revealed this year, will be a small luxury hatchback based on the recently unveiled Infiniti Etherea concept. It will pit Infiniti against the BMW 1 series. Additionally, Infiniti is working on a front-drive luxury electric car that shares a platform with the Nissan Leaf.
"Customers really don't care that much about the platform beneath their car," says Larry Dominique, vice president of product planning for the Americas at Nissan North America. "They care about the car.
"There are limitations with rear-wheel that we'd like to work around--like packaging. We can create more interior space if we get away from the technical requirements of rear-wheel. We don't have to have the big rear axle and the big transmission."
He notes that fwd platforms also will help fuel economy.
Dominique acknowledges that some luxury buyers perceive rear-wheel-drive vehicles to be inherently better.
"There is a performance perception with rear-wheel," he says. "But we're comfortable that we don't need rear-wheel to deliver the performance we need. And some of our vehicles, like the G and the M cars, will remain rear-wheel."
Shiro Nakamura, global design chief for Nissan Motor overseeing both Infiniti- and Nissan-brand vehicles, says Infiniti's shift to include front-wheel vehicles also says something about Infiniti's overhaul of its model lineup over the past few years.
"If you look at where we were several years ago, Infiniti's design language was a little too similar to Nissan," Nakamura says. "That was bad for a luxury brand, and we needed to move Infiniti far away. We needed rear-wheel drive to help us differentiate between the brands.
"But I think we've been very successful in achieving that," he says. "Look at all of Infiniti's vehicles. They look nothing like Nissan's."
Nakamura says Infiniti's upcoming electric vehicle will be "completely different" from the Nissan Leaf. "We have successfully captured luxury in our designs," he says. "We don't really need to worry so much about rear-wheel or front-wheel now. We can focus on styling and performance."