Just how much do luxury car consumers care about design?

For Infiniti the question is a key concern because Nissan’s global premium brand is counting on distinctive design to help boost sales.

In 2016, Infiniti’s worldwide sales trended upward in most markets, to a total of 230,000 units, an increase of 7 percent. But that number is well under half of Japanese rival Lexus, and a fraction of the three top German brands — Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi — which each sell around two million vehicles.

So as Infiniti attempts to build its presence and define an image in the cutthroat luxury market, the company is accentuating its own design language.

The most recent expression of Infiniti’s style was highlighted at the Detroit auto show in the form of the new generation QX50, due in 2018. A midsized crossover aimed at this booming market segment, the QX50, is close in dimensions to Audi’s highly successful Q5.

But while Audi has been an acknowledged leader in the design arena, especially with interiors, Infiniti design chief Alfonso Albaisa is ramping up the competition with the 2018 QX50, which is much more expressive and stylish than the outgoing model.

As such the QX50 marks the first of a new wave of Infiniti designs, says Albaisa. “We’re going through the whole portfolio. With our cars like the Q60 coupe we have a design language that is planted, horizontal and full of artistry. Now with the QX50 crossover we are raising the visual center of gravity. The grille is similar to the Q60 but is deeper, wider and more mechanical looking to telegraph that is ‘part’ of the engine.”

Albaisa also points to the complex new headlight design, which sports multiple LED lights arrayed like piano keys.

Along the sides of the QX50 are deeply stamped, or curved, body panels. These give the vehicle a distinctive appearance other automakers tend to shy away from because of the manufacturing complexities.

However, Albaisa says the look is a key part of the QX50’s visual appeal and amounts to a labor of love.

“I love the artistry of deep stampings. It is especially hard to do in a four-door vehicle like this and requires a very high level of engineering.

Such an expressive exterior demands an equally striking interior, and Albaisa delivers. Finished in light cream-colored leather and blue Alcantara suede-like material, the close-to-production Detroit show QX50 concept presents a design that might be found in a much more expensive model.

“There are a lot of great cars, such as Mercedes and Range Rover, which basically cover their dashboards in spectacular materials and look great,” says Albaisa. “But we wanted to be a bit different and allow the materials to define the shape and create a dominant visual signature.”

For Infiniti, the next QX50 is a keystone to global growth, adds division president Roland Krueger. “It shows how we will develop our presence in the fastest growing vehicle segment globally. We will continue to expand our product range with unique design language, outstanding performance capability, and groundbreaking driver-assist technologies.”

In the U.S. market, consumers have taken a while to warm up to Infiniti, but the dramatic progress the brand design team is demonstrating may speed that process.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com

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