Its called Infiniti and it's one of the most powerful weapons yet to go in action in the local premium car war between Germany and The Rest - and this time round Japan is more than just a yapping ankle-biter... The Infiniti is one of the classiest brands the Land of the Rising Sun has come up with in its efforts to gain some of the high ground dominated locally by Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
The Infiniti should be a serious contender in the local market.
Infiniti is not completely unknown in this country because there was an Infinity model in the Nissan line-up way back in the early '90s but it disappeared after a year or three. Since then the name has grown into a stand-alone premium brand which has gained a popular foothold in Europe and is already hugely popular in the States.
Now, for the first time this Japanese carmaker has stepped on to the African continent in full force, determined to launch a full-scale onslaught on the top end of the market with a classy range made up of two SUV's, a cabrio, a sedan and a coupé.
The suits at Infinity suits say they have no immediate ambitions for volume sales or for disturbing the sleep of the Teutonic Threesome too much and they have only set their sights on a first-year sales target of about 200-250 units. What they are more interested in during the initial period is to establish a national dealer network and into marketing the Infiniti brand... and they are committed to throwing serious money into the kitty to help them achieve their goals.
The new Infiniti models are available from the end of June from dealers located in Hatfield, Pretoria and Melrose in Johannesburg. Additional Infiniti Centres in Durban and Cape Town will be operational in the last quarter of this year, with a 10-dealer network planned for 2014.
In South Africa, Infiniti will also be supported by a financial division, Infiniti Financial Services, which will focus on vehicle finance in the luxury market and offer innovative products and services to both companies and individuals.
The weight balance is an almost perfect 50-50 sports car split between front and rear.
Infiniti strides on to the local market with a wide range of models and specification levels so buyers have a wide choice - but also more than a modicum of confusion. Sadly at the time the brand was shown to the local Media only SUV's were available so impressions of the others will have to wait until we get the opportunity of driving them.
But even though the dominating Germans won't initially be rattled too much by the Infiniti's arrival most of the The Rest such as Alfa Romeo, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Lexus will be glancing at their rear-view mirrors - and with more than enough reason, because Infiniti vehicles are classy, strikingly good looking, incredibly well-specced and barrels of fun to drive.
I drove two SUV models, the flagship V8 FX 50 petrol model and the compact turbocharged oil-burner when they were introduced to the local motoring media at Franschhoek recently and it was not difficult to be impressed by the way these vehicles are finished, their cabin luxuries, driver-aids, solid build quality and their ultra confident roadholding and dynamics.
I piloted both models over the old Du Toitskloof Pass and Franschhoek Pass and long stretches of fast country road in one of the biggest downpours the Boland has experienced in years and not once was there even a hint of a twitch or an attempt at skiing in spite of rutted roads, deep standing water and our rather rapid progress.
Both SUV's have hand-crafted levels of comfort and luxury that are even beyond what one would normally expect to find in the upper SUV echelons and the features are dazzling, to say the least. But it is the confident manner in which both these high-riders handled that made such a good impression.
Almost a perfect balance
Many factors contribute to their steady grip on the tar; both are rear drive machines, both have powerful engines and the weight balance is an almost perfect 50-50 sports car split between front and rear. Throw in a outer corner tyre positioning, independent front and rear suspension (with many intricate features such as Continuous Damping Control, stabilisers, Rear Active Steering (RAS), Intelligent All-Wheel Drive (AWD), big, wide rubber-wrapped alloys, team all of that up with brick-wall brakes with Intelligent Brake Assist (BA) and surprisingly pleasant, speed-sensitive steering and you have a near-perfect recipe for driving pleasure.
Like all the Infinity models destined for this country, both SUV's are available only with a seven-speed automatic transmission with a Drive Sport (DS) mode. DS locks out the top two gears and allows manual shift control via flappies on the steering wheel to add to the fun.
Of the two I preferred the smaller diesel model which is powered by a turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 motor that produces a muscled 175kW and 550Nm. It felt steadier, less weighty on the road and certainly didn't lack enthusiasm with a top speed of 212km/h and a 0-100km/h sprint time of just 8.3 seconds. The diesel will be available in various specification levels and to their advantage is the fact that they are generally low on emissions and fuel usage.
The flagship SUV, the FX50 will only be available in S Premium guise. Under its shapely bonnet rumbles a 5.0-litre V8 petrol engine that produces a generous 287kW and 500Nm which translates into rapid motion and a deep rumbling growl. But even though the figures tell the story, it comes as a bit of a surprise to feel the enthusiasm with which this large chunk of metal sprints from standstill to 100km/h in just 5.8 seconds (as fast as some boy-racer hatches). But, like all party animals, it has a huge thirst and will glug around 13.1-litres/100km.
This smart SUV was also recently awarded a five-star EuroNCAP safety rating, making it one of the safest vehicles not only in its class, but in the world.
Safety features for Africa
Standard safety equipment across the range includes six airbags, ABS with EBD (Anti-lock Braking System with Electronic Brake-force Distribution), VDC (Vehicle Dynamics Control) with Traction Control, a tyre pressure monitoring system, active front head restraints, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, automatic bi-xenon adaptive cornering headlights and privacy glass for the rear windows.
Available as part of the Premium upgrade for FX30d GT, FX30d S, FX37 GT and FX37S models and fitted as standard to the FX50 S Premium are extras such as Lane Departure Prevention (LDP) which, mercifully can be de-activated because its irritating bleeping is enough to drive anybody driving on narrow country roads to cussing out aloud, Intelligent Cruise Control (ICC) with Low Speed Following (LSF), Distance Control Assist (DCA), Forward Collision Warning (FCW), Intelligent Brake Assist (IBA) and Around View Monitor (AVM) which uses front, rear and side-mounted cameras to provide the driver with a complete 360º view of the vehicle's surroundings, making manoeuvring in tight spaces an absolute cinch.
The all-wheel drive system fitted to all Infiniti EX models has a high-tech rear-drive bias which is monitored and managed constantly to find an ideal torque split between the front and rear wheels. This gives extra grip on wet roads but doesn't compromise rear-drive feel on dry roads. An element of oversteer has also been engineered into the system for a more sporting drive.
In terms of looks the EX is a handsome blend of rugged wannabe off-roader and slinky coupe, neatly rounded off with bulges on the bonnet, flowing side contours and along a tapering roofline, big alloys, rear privacy glass, LED tail lights, and an integrated spoiler. Although not wildly different to others in this segment it is handsome enough to warrant a close-up look.
The cabin is elegantly furnished with soft leather seating (on the more expensive models), upmarket dials and knobs and host of special features which add to its aura of hoity-toity. But it's not just all pleasant eye candy because the cabin also has lot of practical features such as lots of passenger and luggage space, a sunroof and press-button fold down rear seats.
And add-ons for Africa
The Infiniti is fun to drive, but like all party animals, it's thirsty and will glug around 13.1-litres/100km.
To this you can add automatic bi-xenon follow-me-home headlights, automatic wipers, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, cruise control with a speed limiter, front and rear parking sensors, a full-colour central display, a seven-speaker audio system with single CD, MP3, WMA and DivX readability and a 2GB Music Box, USB and auxiliary ports, Bluetooth for both audio streaming and mobile phone operation, keyless access and starting via an I-Key (which includes a memory function for the driver's seat and door mirror positions), electric front seats (8- and 4-way adjustment for driver and passenger seats respectively), a multifunction leather steering wheel, black lacquer and aluminium interior trim, dual-zone automatic adaptive climate control with rear vents, powered folding rear seats, 18-inch alloy wheels, electric folding and heated side mirrors, privacy glass, LED tail lamps and self-healing paint.
Optional extras include metallic paint, polished aluminium roof rails and Connectiviti+ (standard on GT and GT Premium models), which comprises a 30GB Hard Disk Drive satellite navigation system, a single CD changer with MP3, WMA and DivX compatibility and a 10GB Music Box, a hi-resolution touch screen and a reversing camera with display, linked to the front and rear parking sensors and hand-crafted Maple Wood trim.
Additional kit on the upper range versions include electric steering wheel adjustment, leather seat facings, 10-way driver's seat electric adjustment (with 8-way adjustment for the front passenger) with memory for the driver's seat, steering wheel and mirror positions (the I-Key gains seat position memory as well), heated front seats, tilting side mirrors when in reverse, an integrated jacket hanger (on driver's seat headrest), 19 inch alloy wheels, Connectiviti+ and an 11-speaker Bose premium sound system.
A few steps the ladder and your will find models equipped with Blind Spot Warning (BSW), Lane Departure Warning and Lane Departure Prevention, Intelligent Cruise Control with Intelligent Brake Assist (IBA) and Forward Collision Warning (FCW), and an Around View Monitor with corner parking sensors.
The infiniti living quarters are comfortable and well thought out - and the vehicle holds a five-star EuroNCAP safety rating, making it one of the safest vehicles not only in its class, but in the world.
Like Toyota's premium-class Lexus, the new Infiniti range of vehicles are the classiest offerings to date from Japan but whether its vehicles are really good enough to unsettle the German premium car dominance remains to be seen. In the same way as the Japanese love their sushi and the Germans their sauerkraut, South Africans are hooked on snob badges and it's going to take a lot to convince them to open their minds and their wallets no matter how classy or tempting the opposition might be.
So, for the moment, the future of Infiniti depends on a small segment of the bulging wallet brigade who might be bored with the traditional German badges and who are brave enough to venture outside the herd. Infiniti certainly has a novelty card to play and that, too, could count in its favour. One thing's for sure - this classy Japanese brand has got what it takes to impress.
All Infiniti vehicles are covered by a three-year/100 000km warranty, a five-year/100 000 km maintenance plan and a 24-hour roadside assistance plan all of which are included in the purchase price.
Regrettably, from a marketing point of view, Infiniti doesn't offer much in terms of cost advantages over the established premium brands with prices ranging from R676 000 for the cheapest diesel to R856 000 for the flagship V8 petrol version.
Bizcommunity.com motoring editor Henrie Geyser () has worked as a journalist in Cape Town, London and Windhoek for the Argus Company (now Independent Newspapers) and spent 12 years at The Cape Argus in Cape Town. He then owned and ran a public relations consultancy for 13 years. He joined the online publishing industry through iafrica.com, where he worked for five years as news editor and editor. He now freelances for a variety of print and online publications, on the subjects of cars, food and travel, among others; and is a member of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists.
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