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Luxury cars

Prototype 9 reveals why Hong Kong’s Infiniti fans are a bold and demanding bunch

The retro-look, one-seater began as an employee’s sketch and evolved into a tribute to the marque’s innovative, can-do spirit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 9:01am

The old marketing saying that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown” might apply to Infiniti in Hong Kong. Last month, the luxury marque launched the Prototype 9, a one-off “passion” project at Monterey Car Week’s closing event, the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

The world’s motoring elite loved the one-seater’s design and its hidden marketing messages, but the response among Hongkongers seemed muted.

But that’s nothing new. Infiniti shocked much of the car world in 2012, when it established its global headquarters in Hong Kong with about 100 staff. Since then, its global hub in the Hopewell Centre, Wan Chai, has been a hive of international car marketing and start-up collaboration.

From Queen’s Road East, the marque monitors its growth in mainland China and another 50 export markets. The base also links with alliance members and the company’s design studio network in Atsugi-Shi (near Yokohama), London, San Diego and Beijing.

Yet despite this global reach, Infiniti’s cars often seem hard to find among rival European luxury models in either Central, or 17 floors up the marque’s circular headquarters building on the Mid-Levels “corniche” of Kennedy Road.

Marketers might debate whether Infiniti is running a “rare-but-posh” strategy in “Asia’s Capital of Cars”, or still suffers in the more parochial parts of Mid-Levels from being the premium arm of Nissan, maker of local taxis.

However, status-conscious Hongkongers may not be aware that Infiniti is as innovative and posh as Audi overseas, and has never done better beyond Lion Rock. Infiniti reported 19,565 global vehicle sales in May, 9 per cent up from a year earlier, and 104,512 vehicles so far in 2017, a 37 per cent rise. The company sold 66,872 of these in the United States, a 55 per cent increase, and reported “its best calendar year-to-date sales in China with 17,206 vehicles sold, an increase of 15 per cent compared to last year”.

There are good reasons for this success. Infiniti is known for its striking designs and smart technology. The marque arguably resembled a Nissan “taxi” when it launched in 1989, with the Q45 saloon and M30 coupe, but these days it oozes style. Infiniti’s slick Q60 sports coupe won Germany’s iF Design Award 2017 in February. The marque has made award-winning engines since 1995, and its new VC-Turbo variable compression engine won a top Green award in Austria in November, while its three-litre twin-turbo V6 made Wards “10 Best Engines” list for 2017.

Arguably strongest in electronics, Infiniti pioneered voice-recognition in 2002 and developed “around-view” parking monitor and lane-departure warning technology five years later. By 2014, it had pioneered collision, blind-spot and adaptive steering electronics that are now common in Hong Kong.

So the Prototype 9 grew out of an innovative, can-do culture. The 4.33-metre show car initially seems to be an attention-seeking cross between the bonkers Mitsuoka K-3 two-seater of 2005 and 1930s German Silver Arrows racers. However, a closer look reveals hints of Infiniti’s own rich history, and maybe new niche directions.

The Prototype 9 was developed from an employee’s sketch, and soon grew internally into a “tribute” to the brand’s past, says Infiniti chairman and global president Roland Krueger. Nissan’s automotive traditions stem from the 1914 Datsun DAT, and the company’s acquisition of several Japanese marques ever since.

One was Prince Motor Company, which was originally the Tachikawa Aircraft Company, the maker of Ki warplanes from 1936, and renamed “Prince” in 1952 in honour of then crown prince Akihito. Prince was as vroomy as Jensen by the mid-1960s, having produced the Skyline from 1957 and the 1966 Japanese Grand Prix-winning R380. Nissan liked the racer so much that it bought the company in the same year.

The last-surviving R380 was also shown at Monterey Week.

“We like to think that Infiniti shares some DNA with the Prince Motor Company,” says Alfonso Albaisa, Infiniti’s senior vice-president, global design. Prototype 9’s design started as a brainstorm: “What if Infiniti had created a racing car in the 1940s?”, he explains.

“We discussed the idea of ‘chancing’ upon an unrecognised racing car, hidden away for decades in a barn, deep in the Japanese countryside,” Albaisa says. “We wanted to explore what this looked like, what it would have been made of.”

Clay models were soon made as Prototype 9 gathered momentum. The rear-wheel-drive’s bare-metal, aerodynamic bodywork was designed around an “intimate and focused” cockpit (just 6.5cm off the ground) at Atsugi-Shi, and then hand-beaten by Takumi – Nissan’s “master artisans”. Nissan’s power-train boffins supplied their latest 148-horsepowered electric motor, and a single-speed transmission that gives the monoseater 320Nm of torque for 100kmhh in 5.5 seconds and a top speed of 170kmhh on 19-inch wheels, Infiniti says. The 890kg concept’s 30 kWh battery also delivers “a maximum EV range of 20 minutes under heavy track use”, the marque adds.

The Prototype 9’s cockpit design also incorporates two Japanese approaches to craftsmanship. “Mitate relates to the practice of curating and bringing together the best possible selection of materials,” Infiniti says. “Shitate is the desire to tailor the chosen combination of materials, bringing out their best characteristics.”

The Prototype 9 also reveals Infiniti’s old-meets-new production scope, and raises questions about whether it is looking at quick-selling monoseaters like BAC, big-money bespoke jobs like the Rolls-Royce Sweptail, or flirting with the ultra-rare runs such as Aston Martin’s V8 Vantage S Great Britain Edition.

Either way, Infiniti’s Japanese artisans now compete with Goodwood and Modena’s on the bespoke map. The Prototype 9 might also have set a show car-marketing trail for Chinese car exporters to follow. The project, above all, reaffirms Infiniti as a bold and innovative marque for its demanding, often early adopting customers. Maybe that’s why the marque’s cars seem rare in the follow-the-herd “Audi Land” of Kennedy Road.