25 YEAR CLUB: The Infiniti Q45 is officially a Japanese Nostalgic Car

32-9418_InfinitiQ45-G50

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.

Infiniti Marks 25th Anniversary of Official Brand Announcement

The Beginning

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.

10-9398_InfinitiQ45-G50_nose

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.

29-9420_InfinitiQ45-G50

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.

19-9340_InfinitiQ45-G50

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.

17-9333_InfinitiQ45-G50

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.

1990 Q45

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.

1990 Q45

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.

38-9336_InfinitiQ45-G50_wheel

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.

46-9409_InfinitiQ45-G50_console

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.

47-9281_InfinitiQ45-G50_rearseat

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.

43-9396_InfinitiQ45-G50

Q-Ship

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.

1990 Q45

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.

40-9284_InfinitiQ45-G50_trunk

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.

22-9412_InfinitiQ45-G50

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.

permalink.
This post is filed under: 25 Year Club and
tagged: , , , .

32 Responses to 25 YEAR CLUB: The Infiniti Q45 is officially a Japanese Nostalgic Car

  1. Nigel said:

    Great article Ben.
    I knew there was a reason I liked this car.
    (And now I know the difference between the Q45 and the President).

    • MikeRL411 said:

      Actually the name “President” has long been used for the top line V8 car by Nissan. It goes back as long as the 1960’s and was an approximately Chevrolet Nova in size [but not in the same year series please] and for sure the Nova didn’t come with lace doilies for the headrests! They were elegent vehicles! I kept bugging the Datsun headquarters folk in Gardene to get off their asses and start importing the President but heard nothing until the Infiniti line was introduced, and noyiced that on the Japanese language channels in Los Angeles that the “Shatsu” and “Yakuza” characters in the dramas were riding President badged Q45s.

  2. Serg said:

    Yeah I actually remember driving a beat up President at my first job in the auto logistics yard – it was massive, but even in 2007 it was definitely on par with the older BMWs and Mercs for build quality.

    Much rarer down here than the Lexus equivalent.

  3. JHMAB2 said:

    Interesting, but I’ve always hated these cars. I think the styling is all over place and from what I’ve just read it’s a bit wild with the smooth yet sporty feel.

    I will agree and wish Nissan would’ve continued with what they had envisioned. I’m really just not a Nissan fan to begin with though. Though most of my experience are with these new cars that feel like they’re half put together with plastics and other materials that feels like they’re off a Chinese knockoff. Styling that is hit or miss, what the hell is that massive new SUV Infiniti has? Looks like a damn whale. Their smaller mid-size SUV is gorgeous though! I have a love-hate relationship with Nissan apparently.

    I will however, look at these in a different light after reading this article.

  4. MikeRL411 said:

    Those wheels were forged, not cast. Same wheels used on the later J30T.

  5. Phoebegoesvroom said:

    I always loved the Q45 and thought it was beautiful then. It’s still beautiful now, and almost timeless, really.

  6. dickie said:

    the biggest shame about this car was the reliability compared to the LS400. Maybe it’s not a fair comparison because the Infinitis tended to resell at a lower price point; second, third and subsequent owners mechanically neglected them more than their Lexus buying counterparts.

    Whatever the cause, it’s much more common to find original and facelifted first-generation Qs with pristine interior/exteriors and blown motors where the LS400s are stoically soldiering on into the 300k+ mileage range despite their slowly decaying steel and leather.

  7. Censport said:

    Having owned both an LS400 and an XJ6 (one of the cars targeted by the Q and the LS), I was pleasantly surprised by the Q45. I thought it compared well to the Jag and was more enjoyable than the Lexus.

    Ben and I spent the day driving around Nashville in this car (and a couple of others to be seen later) and ended up taking it to dinner. The Nissan North America employee who oversees the Heritage Collection has his own favorites, and the Q is one of his top three. Now that I’ve driven it, I can see why.

    And yeah, I felt like a yakuza boss riding in the backseat to lunch.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      Those were great times, even after my boneheaded snafu after our sushi dinner. Perhaps one day I’ll write about the run-in with the Tennessee state troopers if Nissan lets me 🙂

      Spending time with the car for this story really helped me appreciate the car a lot more. I’d love to own one someday.

  8. XRaider927 said:

    However……Something is not mention here….And it’s also Japanese…..OH YES……..THE ACURA LEGEND!!!!

  9. John M said:

    You outdid yourself on this one. Enjoyed the content, photos, and writing.

  10. Jim-Bob said:

    I remember the commercials and that most people found them to be quite pretentious at the time. The only other vehicle I know of that had a similar ad campaign was the Edsel, and the reaction to that one once it was finally revealed is marketing history. However, the Q45 was no Edsel. It was actually a well engineered car with few faults outside of not meeting American tastes on minor trim items. I liked them back in the 90’s and remember them being an absolute bargain on the used market for a long time. It was most definitely a better car for the same money as the Jaguar XJ40 that it competed with. Europeans never quite knew how to make a reliable electrical system back then, especially on cars that were technologically advanced.

    So far as the lack of a grille is concerned, Infiniti was not alone in doing this back then. Ford also did it with the Crown Victoria at around the same time, but soon reverted back to a proper grille for much the same reason. Likewise, the original Taurus had been a huge success in the mid 80’s and it also had no grille, and neither did the Geo Metro. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the lack of a grille that offended, but rather that luxury car buyers expected a bit of bling.

  11. Rainer Maria said:

    “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.”

    Didn’t Mercedes and BMW use hydraulic self-leveling suspensions (SLS) in the 80s? Even 190es could be fitted with those (16-valves and Sportlines) and were standard for their s124 estates. BMW began offering this in the e28 5-series, e24 6-series, and e27 7-series models.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      The Mercedes Self-Leveling Suspension was different. It used a system of vales in a pressurized system to level the body when reacting to a heavy load or bumpy road.

      The Infiniti system used computers, sensors monitoring g-forces and speed, and actuators at each wheel to actively flatten out the body roll when the car was turning, braking, etc., kind of like a motorcyclist leaning into a curve. It could raise/lower each wheel over undulations in the road. The Mercedes equivalent would be 1999’s Active Body Control.

      • Jim-Bob said:

        It depended on the Mercedes too. The 600 Grosser actually used a license built copy of Citroen’s hydropneumatique system that was originally used on the 1955 DS, as did Rolls Royce. A less sophisticated variant saw use in the W123 touring and W124 rear suspension as a load leveler. However, neither system could be considered an active suspension as, like you said, they were analog.

      • Ben Hsu said:

        Yes, thanks for the clarification!

  12. Randy said:

    I liked these more than the LS. Less Benz, and more Jag in styling. Wish they’d been more successful. I think the “grilled” ones were less attractive, as I think most facelifts are, but I wouldn’t turn down a free one…

    I think these were the best looking generation, too.

  13. pstar said:

    “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.”

    This is just bullshit. The LS was more aerodynamic and had a higher top speed, and the acceleration was within .4 seconds to 60mph. Where I come from that’s not “easily besting”, that’s margin of error kinds of numbers.

    This whole article is just unashamed Q45 lapdogging when history has shown that the LS400 was a a much better car, and looked and aged a lot better than the original Q45. These cars look like a midsize GM from the period. Also, their oh so innovative grill-less front was NOT anything novel or new whatsoever, front engine cars had been having them since the 1970s or earlier, and the 80s were filled with them. You ever heard of a Ford Taurus for example?

    Nissan couldn’t have paid you to write a more biased, fact-omitting, rose-colored tonque bath of its “flagship” luxury car. A luxury car that was so great that it went extinct while everybody else’s flagship models are 100% permanent and not going away unless theres an apocalypse: XJ, S-Class, 7 series, Lexus LS…. but yeah the Infiniti Q is/was the best. It just failed because “marketing”. Yeah right.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      The LS400 has many good qualities, which I wrote about already when we welcomed it into the JNC fold. Car & Driver tested them at the time and found the LS400 slower in both acceleration and top speed.
      http://www.q45.org/cd1989comparison/CD_12_89_Showdown_pg10.pdf

      Sorry I didn’t shit on a car you hate.

      • pstar said:

        Sorry man after I wrote it I realized I came across as hostile. I don’t hate Q45s, and the worlds better off for their existence than not. Same can’t be said for all that midsize GM crap.

        And you can see from that road test that all the cars are WAY off their claimed 0-60 times. I don’t know if they were testing them in the snow or at 8,000 ft altitude, but those results the LS and Q are shown as .7 seconds off, but the Q45 is 1.2 seconds off the number you supplied. The difference between the 2 cars isn’t even as big as the difference between claimed 0-60 and CnD’s test figures.

        As a Lexus LS400 I would have been happy with your article if it merely stated that while the Q45 was a decent attempt, it just couldn’t compare with the LS400. Then you could point out everything the Nissan came up short on and Toyota did correctly. 😉

    • FRANCISCO TRAN said:

      you just don’t know NOTHING, NOTHING ATALL about cars

  14. DesignerD said:

    Awesome article as always! I love this period in Japanese Auto design, there really was a “we can do anything” mentality, especially when it came to craftmanship.

    If you’re interested and have the chance, I suggest getting a copy of Car Styling no.74 (pages 61 – 75) for an in depth design story against the Lexus…. It’s really great to see all the sketches, initial models and details of the craftmanship / process. It also shows the 3 initial full size models (2 from Japan NIss Technical Centre and 1 from Nissan Design America). For example, did you know that the Infiniti development team had special lapel badges (only 80 made) to show special camaraderie? And that interior…the gold flakes were the top coat! Underneath the “kokon” was “aizu;” a japanned hand sprayed layer of Titanium oxide powder. That meant no panels were ever the same. Crazy! #

    Apparently, one of the biggest pushes for the team happend when Takashi Oka (GM of Product Planning Group 3 at the time) was told by European engineer of a certain brand some years earlier that it would be premature for the Japanese to do a luxury car or they (Japan) would just copy the established marques. He gritted his teeth and and vowed to do the opposite. This would be the start of what would be an established Japanese luxury.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      Thanks for your kind words and for sharing these details. I wonder if all 80 of those pins are accounted for today… Fascinating stuff, for sure. Infiniti seems to have done a pretty good job of continuing the tradition.

  15. Todd James Johnston said:

    I’ve owned two 1994 Q45s. Best damn car I ever owned. Suspension is a little soft for 100+ action, but a jet like joy-ride you don’t get from other cars. It’s big, roomy, and fast!

  16. FRANCISCO TRAN said:

    PLEASE, YOU OWN THEM, EXPERIENCE THEM THEN YOU TALK …
    LEXUS, BMW, BENZ HOW MANY OF THEM YOU SEE ON THE STREETS
    Q45 IS ALWAYS A WORLDCLASS FLAGSHIP PLEASE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *