Infiniti says it will go ‘all electric’

Paul A. Eisenstein
Special to The Detroit News

Infiniti, the luxury brand of Japanese automaker Nissan, will start phasing out gas-powered vehicles in 2021 and switch to “all electrified” models, the maker’s new CEO Hiroto Saikawa said Tuesday afternoon.

Making an appearance at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit — his first in the U.S. since succeeding Carlos Ghosn as Nissan Motor Co. CEO last April — Saikawa also suggested that the Euro-Asian Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance could look to add a fourth partner.

“Infiniti will have a specific focus on electrification,” said Saikawa, adding, “We are trying to position Infiniti as the premier electrified brand” as part of the five-year Nissan business plan that will extend through 2022.

The announcement came as something of a surprise because Infiniti had previously signaled its intent to migrate to another breakthrough technology, the VC-T engine. More formally known as the Variable-Compression Turbo engine, it is the first mass-production powertrain that can adjust its compression ratio — anywhere from 8:1 to 14:1 — to yield the best balance between performance, fuel economy and emissions. It appears that new engine will be used in the near term but eventually phased out.

The engine recently debuted in the new QX50 crossover and will continue to be phased into other Infiniti models — at least until Infiniti apparently phases it out in favor of new battery-based technology.

That will include two different approaches to electrification, Saikawa said, including pure battery-electric models like the second-generation Leaf that the Nissan brand is just getting ready to roll into global showrooms.

A day earlier, Infiniti unveiled its Q Inspiration Concept at the Detroit auto show. That was also the same day Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne told the media electric cars are not worth the investment.

Other automakers used the North American International Auto Show as a chance to reaffirm commitments to electric vehicles. For example, Ford announced plans to spend $11 billion to launch 40 new electric vehicles by 2022.

Infiniti had actually scrubbed a plan to market a more upscale version of the first-generation Leaf early in the decade because it didn’t offer the level of refinement, range or performance that they believed luxury buyers would demand.

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The latest versions of the technology offers significantly longer range and much improved refinement and performance — while battery costs have also plunged dramatically.

Along with pure battery-electric vehicles, Infiniti will add what Saikawa called e-Power models. These also are referred to as extended-range electric vehicles, and include such models as the Chevrolet Volt and BMW i3 REx. While similar to plug-in hybrids, they use onboard gasoline engines solely as generators to power their electric motors.

While Saikawa declared that all Infiniti models will go electric, he backtracked slightly, suggesting the strategy will exclude a handful of the brand’s largest SUV models, a list likely to include the massive, truck-based QX80.

Virtually the entire auto industry is on a path to electrify. Ford Motor Co. this week revealed it will launch 40 electrified models, including 16 pure battery-electric vehicles, over the next five years. General Motors Co. said it will have 20 all-electric inspirationmodels by 2023. Volkswagen will have 40 by 2025.

Beyond all-electric Tesla, the brand hewing closest to the Infiniti plan is Chinese-owned Volvo which last year said it will go all-electric on all new models launched after 2018. But that strategy includes conventional and plug-in hybrids, as well as pure battery-electric vehicles.

For the moment, battery-based vehicles have found relatively little acceptance in the global market. In the U.S., in particular, all forms generated barely 3 percent of total new vehicle sales in 2017, though with improvements in the technology and with manufacturers responding to government mandates, the Boston Consulting Group last month forecast electrified vehicles could account for 50 percent of global volume by 2035.

For Infiniti, that could happen for more quickly, at least if Saikawa is correct. “Our assumption for Japan by 2022 is that 40 to 45 percent of (Infiniti) sales will be electrified and the same for Europe.” By 2025, he added, that would reach 50 percent.

On the other hand, he saw lower acceptance in the U.S., “maybe 20 to 25 percent,” noting that Americans drive longer distances and use larger vehicles that will be slower to switch to battery power.

The Infiniti electrification plan was just one of the surprises the Nissan CEO dropped during his World Congress appearance. Asked about the recent addition of Mitsubishi to the Renault-Nissan Alliance, he said he hopes it will prove as successful as the original partnering has been.

“We need to demonstrate three is better than two,” said Saikawa, adding that, “If it is successful it will open the door to go from three to four.”

While it is far too soon to see if Mitsubishi, nearly bankrupt before it was rescued by Nissan in 2016, will be able to turn around, it has done once thing for the Alliance. Including the smaller maker’s sales has made it one of the three largest auto groups in the world and, some estimates have forecast, could let it leapfrog both Japanese arch-rival Toyota, as well as Volkswagen AG this year.