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Infiniti gets it right a bit late

SHARE Infiniti gets it right a bit late

Infiniti has introduced an all-new Q45 for 2002, the third incarnation of the marque since its debut in 1990 when Nissan created its upscale Infiniti division. This time they've gotten it right with their top-of-the-line Q-ship.

Trouble is, most people think Toyota got it right from the start when it created its own luxury division, called Lexus, and its flagship, the LS 400 (now LS 430).

Then there's the problem of all those Mercedes-Benz and BMW automobiles that a lot of folks seem to favor when they decide to show the world that they've become wealthy and successful.

Even Acura, Honda's posh division that was created a bit before Lexus and Infiniti, has profited from the halo effect of its parent company, although its flagship 3.5 RL also has struggled against the big Lexus.

Bottom line: The new Infiniti Q45 is a marvelous car, better in every way than its predecessors and better in some ways that its competition, but it has a decade of buyer loyalty to other brands to overcome, and that's not going to be easy in the midst of a recession and an 18-month bear market in stocks that has made even the rich feel poor.

Oh, well, I don't have to sell them. I just have to write about them.

First a bit of history on the marque. As noted, the Q45 hit the market in 1990 with those infamous "rocks and trees" TV commercials that tried to sell the Q, a luxury performance sedan, as some kind of Zen-like, communing-with-nature transport.

Didn't work. It was just a car. But car buffs liked the Q because it was different, more hard-edged and performance-oriented than either the Lexus LS 400 or Acura Legend, the precursor to the 3.5 RL. Some even liked the "belt buckle" logo that Infiniti daringly stuck on the front end in lieu of a traditional grille. It was daring because ever since Rolls-Royce set the trend, luxury cars have always been defined by their large, chrome grilles.

But there weren't enough edgy, performance-oriented people who could afford the Infiniti. Lexus' conquest sales came from people whose concept of luxury was based on cushy Cadillacs and Lincolns, and the LS 400 was closer to that heritage than was the Q45. Besides, the Lexus was several thousand dollars cheaper than the Q.

Thus, in 1993, Infiniti abandoned "different" in favor of "me, too" and brought out a new Q with a regular grille, softer ride and a fancier interior . . . it went mainstream.

But the Q redo didn't do any better, and Infiniti fell even further behind. It didn't help that parent company Nissan was having financial problems on a global scale. Luxury cars are all about image, status and prestige. Nissan/Infiniti was missing out on all three.

Now its 2002 (on car company calendars), an all-new Q45, has arrived, and Nissan is apparently back on firm financial footing.

If there is any justice (I know, fat chance), the new Q should do well if upscale buyers can be lured to their local dealers to kick its tires. The automotive art doesn't get much better than this automobile, regardless of price or country of origin, and I recommend you check it out if you're in the market for a high-end ride.

Infiniti has abandoned the smaller 4.1-liter engine it went with in the second generation Q in favor of a 4.5-liter DOHC 32-valve V8 that makes 340 horsepower (74 more than the previous model) and lots of low-end grunt: 333 foot-pounds of torque.

This car's motor is a marvel. It propels the heavy, roomy luxury sedan with breathtaking acceleration of the sort found in the Corvette Z06 but with none of the 'Vette's theatrics. Accelerating to felonious speeds in the Q is done in vault-like silence. No vroom, just zoom.

It goes without saying that the Q is a very luxurious place to hang out in a traffic jam. Leather and real bird's-eye maple wood trim abound, and if high-tech is your thing, it's all there — especially if you wield a heavy hand with the options list.

The base Q sells for $50,500, which gets you everything any rational person really needs in a luxury car, including multi-lens HID xenon headlights (those whiter than white ones you see occasionally), power everything, a 5-speed manumatic transmission, dual temp zones, an awesome 300-watt Bose sound system, and a HomeLink transceiver so you can throw away the remotes for your garage, estate gate and such.

You also get one of those little video screens for the radio and HVAC controls that make tasks like changing stations more complicated than they need to be.

You get a lot in the base model, but for $8,000 (gasp!) you can have a "Premium Package" that adds a whole raft of high-tech stuff you don't really need but is great for showing off.

The package includes a DVD-based navigation system and a rear-view monitor consisting of a TV camera mounted in the rear that allows you to see what's behind you on the dash-mounted video screen. You've seen it in action in that commercial where the guy backs all the way up a parking ramp to the consternation of the lot attendant.

If you go for that full-zoot model, you will end up with a bottom line of $59,345 including delivery charges and such.

Fuel mileage is rated at 17 mpg in city driving and 25 on the highway, not bad for a car this big and powerful.

E-mail: max@desnews.com