Flipping through the channels on your massive cathode-ray television in the fall of 1989, you probably came across a mysterious commercial for a yet unknown brand of new automobile. Only instead of the actual car, the spots cast your living room aglow with images of serene ocean waves or geese flying against a yellow sky. It was all leading up to the big reveal when the car went on sale November 8, 1989. The Infiniti Q45 is officially a Japanese nostalgic car.
Rival Toyota was already into year three of Lexus development when, in 1985, Nissan established the Horizon Task Force. Though it sounds like the name of a special ops team from a 1980s action flick, it was the internal group chosen to develop a new luxury subdivision. Like Toyota, Nissan knew that Americans wouldn’t shell out $38,000 for a run-of-the-mill badge. The name Infiniti was finalized in July of 1987, and along with it came a logo of a road disappearing into, well, infinity.
The Q45 was the marque’s first offering. Like the Lexus LS, it wasn’t simply a rebadged JDM car. Nissan developed it from the ground up and even sold it in Japan as the Nissan Infiniti Q45 (this happened 25 years before the V37 Skyline debuted in Japan with the disappearing road logo and confused everyone). A year later it even spawned a stretched wheelbase version positioned to compete with the Toyota Century, the Nissan President.
In preparation for this article we had the opportunity to slip behind the wheel of an Infiniti Q45t (the “t” stands for “touring) from the Nissan Heritage Collection. Clean as the fresh fallen snow, it has just over 3,700 miles on the odo and has spent most of its life garaged or displayed at events. It was an honor and a privilege to drive what was essentially a brand new Q45, and it instantly transported us back to a time when a pre-scandal Milli Vanilli reigned supreme on the airwaves.
A Japan Original
While those early US Infiniti commercials have gone down as one of the great botched launches in advertising history, Japan’s spots were a bit less abstract. There, the difference between the Q45 and another recently launched luxury sedan, the Lexus LS 400, could be summed up by the commercial’s simple tagline: A Japan Original.
See, while Toyota pored over American car-buying habits and buried the LS 400’s Japanese-ness in its engineering details, Nissan came right out and declared their rising sun heritage proudly. Styling fell to renowned designer Shunji Yamanaka, whose career has spanned everything from manga illustration to 10-button keyboards on display at the MOMA. If you’ve ever purchased a Suica card to ease your Tokyo subway rides, you’ve owned a piece of his work. It was decided that Yamanaka would design the best luxury sedan for Japan, and the rest of the world would come.
It may not seem this way today, but in 1989 the Q45’s styling was pretty far out. Cooling technology had made a yawning, air-sucking maw obsolete, and even Lexus admitted that the LS didn’t need a grille, but companies kept them around because customers thought cars looked too alien without them.
Yamanaka didn’t care. Not only did he ditch the grille, but he replaced it with one of the most crazily ornate emblems found on any modern automobile. Most badge suppliers had transitioned to plastic by this time, but Infiniti insisted on old school metal for its insignia. The disappearing road logo featured prominently, overlaid on a karakusa vine motif borrowed from ancient Japanese temples. Available in chrome or gold, its black background was inspired by maki-e art. Officially it was referred to as the cloisonne, but Americans just called it the belt buckle.
The Q45’s door handles were shaped like water-worn zen garden stones, large shiny ovals that opened with a satisfying clonk. The cabin was equally unconventional, bucking decades of luxury car tradition by forgoing any wood trim whatsoever. Whereas most German sedans had more buttons than UNIVAC, Infiniti gave its Bose stereo and climate system simple, intuitive controls stacked in a center console tilted towards the driver like a 240SX’s. At its heart sat a white-and-gold-faced analog timepiece as dignified as a Japanese train station clock.
Options included eggshell white leather — a rarity for Japanese sedans at the time and a cue that’s become somewhat of a trademark for modern Infinitis — while hard surfaces were finished in what Nissan called kokon insuta, a traditional black lacquer embellished with gold flakes. The pièce de résistance, however, was an 18-karat gold key available as a ¥520,000 (approx. $5,200) option.
Even Infiniti showrooms welcomed you with a hint of Japan. Stroll into a dealer and you were just as likely to be greeted by a salesperson as you would a bonsai tree, rock garden or tiny waterfall. And perhaps the most Japanese touch of all: every new Q45 came with a card in the glove box signed by a quality assurance engineer at the factory.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
A Japanese take on luxury was just half of the equation. While the Horizon Task Force focused on the brand, the car itself was the work of a different group within Nissan called the 901 Activity. Established in the mid-1980s, the program’s name referred to Nissan’s goal of becoming Number 1 by 1990 with the best performance lineup in Japan. It was a lofty goal, but the results it yielded are still talked about among enthusiasts as Nissan’s Golden Age: the R32 Skyline, Z32 300ZX, S13 Silvia, B13 Sentra, J30 Maxima, P10 Primera, and A31 Cefiro. It wasn’t limited to cars, either. 901 became a breeding ground for technologies like Nissan’s HICAS four-wheel steering, ATTESA all-wheel-drive and the legendary heart of Godzilla, the RB26 motor.
But even among the Class of 901, the Q45 was special. It was one member of a flagship trio that included the R32 GT-R and Z32 twin-turbo, which would become the first 300PS (296hp) cars in Japan. Of course, history books have the Q45’s official horsepower at 278, but many enthusiasts believe that was a willful sandbagging as to not upset the Gentleman’s Agreement, the unspoken rule between Japan’s automakers that capped power at 280PS. Coincidentally, that’s the exact figure cited in Nissan’s Japanese spec sheet, but the real number is said to have been 300-305hp.
While Lexus strove for ultimate comfort, Nissan targeted what it called Generation Z (we know, there’s a lot of internal names here). Gen Z was made up of those who grew up with the company’s celebrated Fairlady Z, and who now presumably wanted some sport in their sedan.
To say Nissan achieved this goal would be an understatement. Turn the key and the VH45DE awakens with a rich baritone thrum. It’s not as quiet as an LS 400, as Infiniti engineers believed the the engine should in fact be heard. But neither does it growl angrily in the way that modern luxury sedans overcompensate with. It’s just a serene 90s smoothness, unintrusive and civilized.
With one had on the steering wheel and the other on the shift knob, you might notice that Infiniti took great pains to ensure the leather ensconcing both came from the same cow. The pedal feel is perfect, and unless you really stomp on it the transmission starts off in second so as to not jostle the occupants.
All of this, however, belies the Q45s true nature, which is a GT hiding in sedan’s clothing. Steering is effortless, yet precise. If you opted for the $4,000 hydraulic active suspension, handling would be even better as the body would stay as flat through cornering and braking. It’s worth noting too that the Q45 was ahead of its time; similar systems didn’t appear on Benzes or BMWs until 1999 and 2002 respectively.
Handling-wise, it’s easy to forget you’re driving such a large car; the Q45 feels like something smaller, sportier, like a 300ZX or Lexus SC. Yet, it still feels weighty, solid, and wonderfully overbuilt in that way 90s Japanese cars were. Most of all, though, it is impossible to drive this car without feeling like a yakuza enforcer. Black Obsidian is the perfect non-color for it, a sinister bark to match its bite.
Even with its artificially lowered horsepower rating, the Q45 ouscored its contemporary rivals, both on paper and in practice. Back in the day, it clocked in a 0-60 time of 6.7 seconds and hit a top speed of 153 mph, easily besting the Mercedes 420 SEL, BMW 735i, Audi V8 and its cross-town rival, the Lexus LS. In fact, the Q45 could even go head to head against king-of-the-hill Mercedes and BMW V12s, which started in the $70,000 asking range, and come out smiling.
Infiniti’s Teuton-toppling abilities led to a brilliant nickname coined by Car & Driver soon after its debut: Q-Ship, a reference to World War II decoy vessels used by British and American forces to destroy German U-boats. Once seemingly unstoppable, the days of German dominance were numbered, the buff books proclaimed.
Enthusiasts, the bad guy from Ronin and select members of the Wu Tang Clan clearly knew what was up, but sadly, most Americans did not. Though released only a month apart, Lexus came out of the gates at full gallop and, in typical Toyota fashion, had plotted every step exactly right. Infiniti made a small dent against the European establishment, but sales never matched those of its rival’s.
Some people blame the fumbled ad campaign, which failed to show the actual car. Others blamed the actual car, whose grille-less face, unorthodox interior and aggressive tune was deemed too polarizing for the traditional luxury car buyer.
Companies like Impul began offering an aftermarket grilles almost immediately and by 1994, Infiniti itself capitulated. The facelifted Q45 that debuted that year was rejiggered to the tastes of American buyers with the addition of a glittering chrome grille, wood trim, and softer seats. Concessions were made performance-wise too, with a slower steering ratio and softer suspension. The following year active suspension was removed from the options list altogether. The result was still a capable luxury cruiser, but it wasn’t what Infiniti had set out to build.
Looking back now, we wish Infiniti had stuck to its guns. It’s not as if the compromised Q45 helped sales at all, and nowadays there’s a strong preference for the sportier, grille-less version in most enthusiast circles. Plus, it doesn’t even look that weird.
Perhaps that very fact proves just how much Japan has influenced the automotive landscape in the quarter century since the Q45 debuted. Infiniti, for its part, is still carrying on the tradition it started; it’s the one automaker openly using Japanese design elements today. And these days, there’s not a single luxury brand that isn’t trying to sell itself as “sporty.” But back then, what Infiniti was doing flew in the face of every belief held dear by the European brands, who believed Nissan had no business on their turf. It’s unfortunate that the car was ahead of its time and went unappreciated for so long, but perhaps now it will have a new lease on life as a classic.
Special thanks to Nissan and Chris Nicholson.