Wednesday, March 27, 2019


The synonyms for infinity are: everlasting, forever, perpetuity.

In my book INFINITI translates as a tenuous grasp on survival.

Toyota launched its upscale LEXUS brand in the USA in September 1989, complete with a published set of brand values, detailed dealer training, stand-alone Lexus dealerships, and a company-wide commitment to ensure Lexus had both the credentials, the cash, and the ongoing will to seriously challenge all the existing players in the Upper Luxury segment of the passenger car market. It always remained seperate to Toyota.

I was PR VP for Jaguar Cars North America at the time, and the appearance of the whole Lexus bulldozer caused us (and our fellow European competitors) a few sleepless nights. This car was GOOD! And backed by everything it needed from the Japanese giant.

Just two months later, in November 1989, Nissan fired back with its own version on the top end of the market, which it bravely called INFINITI.

I have previously written about the birth of the Lexus concept, and the rigorous program to create and nuture the LS400 project, the sole survivor among five different initial programs - pursued by teams with no budget nor any technical limits.

I admire Toyota for sticking with the original principles and targets it set for the Lexus brand. It has not deviated in its approach. The model line-up has grown steadily since the original LS but the core principles have not moved.

It is a project, the type of which has rarely been witnessed in automotive industry history, and it was - and is - a near-total success. Today's Lexus lineup may not be the most attractive, but it does have a unique identity.

Compared with the the billions of dollars Toyota eventually spent on bringing Lexus to market, Nissan’s financial investment was chicken-feed, using platforms and powertrains borrowed from a range of existing Nissan models for the 'exclusive' Q45.

It was a cheapskate response to the integrity of Toyota’s approach with its Lexus LS400.

As such, I have long held the view that Infiniti was an ‘expensive pretender’, and certainly my early test drives of the original Infiniti Q45, and the Lexus LS400 revealed the extent of Nissan’s artifice.

In effect Infiniti was masquerading as a high-pricetag challenger to Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Jaguar Sovereign and the Cadillac Fleetwood - and the Lexus LS400!

Believe me, it was no threat to any of the established players, nor Lexus. Sure, the cars may have gradually improved since 1989, but they are still running on ‘shared’ Nissan platforms with existing powertrains.

Despite all the fancy chrome trim, Infiniti logo, leather interiors and lavish equipment, Infiniti must be very hard for the Nissan bean counters to justify in today's savagely competitive luxury market. Especially when overall passenger car sales are declining. I’d love to know how shaky the Return On Investment (ROI) is? 

I'm sure the original brand concept was simply a case of Nissan 'saving face'.

If Toyota was into the high end luxury passenger market, then we (Nissan) have to be there too.

Because Infiniti sales have never seriously threatened the established players in the upper luxury sector, I am left to wonder why Nissan keeps sinking resources into a brand which is simply just dressed-up Nissans, with a different badge.

Also, over the years from 1989 to 2006 (right), the Infiniti Q45 ‘shape’ changed little.

Nissan simply didn’t expend any decent investment resource into true ‘freshening’ of its ‘hero’ model – just tarted things up; a new grille here, a bit of chrome there, basically producing the same lump of ugly introduced in 1989.

So, when Nissan decided Infiniti should have a luxury SUV, it produced this monument to gross.

Nissan's waxing and waning enthusiasm in investing in the 'exclusive'  Infiniti brand was never more noticeable than in 2006.

Nissan replaced the Q45, with a car badged as the F50 (which also happened to be the Nissan Cima) – so much for exclusivity.

Everything went quiet for six years, and in 2012 Nissan announced that the ‘Q’ moniker would return to all forthcoming Infiniti models.

However, three years earlier (in 2009!), Mark Igo, the General Manager of Infiniti North America said: "A new Q will make the brand better, but it is questionable whether it will be profitable". What?

Nissan/Infiniti has released some concept ideas over the past few years, but they are ‘out there’, impractical, and highly doubtful to ever see production.

It’s just enough to try and persuade the auto writers to possibly believe Infiniti is actually thinking about the future of the brand.

These concepts were only shown in Japan and the USA, and as the bulk of automotive 'writers' these days are pimply-faced online contributors, they were impressed.

When you examine it closely, Carlos Ghosn’s joint venture with Daimler AG (which led to the Q30 and QX30), was a genuine attempt to bring a unique identity to the brand, but of course that JV is now in jeopardy, since the new Nissan Board, led by Hiroto Saikawa baulked at paying Daimler AG ‘real money’ to bring these well-built, high-integrity cars to market.

I will admit that Infiniti cars have sold reasonably well in the USA over the last 30 years, but the upper luxury sector in America is populated with fickle buyers who could not give a fig for brand loyalty.

They just want to sample one once. After they’ve leased an Infiniti for a year, they move on.

In the USA, buyers try a new competitor, just for the sake of showing that they are plugged-into whatever's 'new'.

Then, once they've shown how contemporary they are, they move on to the next new 'thing'.

I’m told by one of my old friends in American dealer-land (who is a Jaguar, Cadillac and Infiniti dealer) that Infiniti’s buyer retention, or loyalty factor is among the lowest measured by J.D. Power in the Upper Luxury segment.

In the 2017 J.D. Power Quality Survey, Infiniti rated badly. Occasionally it does better in the IQS (Initial Quality Study), but not repurchase.

In a word, my best definition of Infiniti is, a joke!

Still an Infiniti (especially a Q45) could make a great boat anchor.

Monday, March 25, 2019


The Bugatti Veyron was born from the creative mind of Ferdinand Piëch, and he said it would boast 1001bhp, and a pricetage of USD$1 million. It was launched in 2005.

I travelled to the VW Proving Ground in Arizona in 2004, to get my VWAG high speed licence (limiting me to 160km/h), so that I could then travel to the VWAG Proving Ground in Germany, at Ehre-Leissing to qualify for another licence, limiting me to 250km/h.

The plan was for me to drive a prototype Bugatti Veyron, but sadly that dream did not come true. However, in 2008 Bugatti sent a car to Australia for exhibition laps at Adelaide's Clipsal 500, and the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

My former boss at Bentley Motors NA, Alasdair Stewart (right) was then in charge of Bugatti sales, and he asked me to create a PR exposure program for the Veyron, whilst it was in Melbourne.

The best way to achieve this was to ensure the car was on display for Press Day at the Melbourne Motor Show, and then to invite two of my best friends among the automotive media, Paul Gover and Peter McKay, to drive the car at the Sandown Park circuit a few days before the 2008 AGP, where it would also run exhibition laps.

To do this it was imperative that they both hold valid competition licences - which thankfully they did. They are two of the most senior, and experienced automotive writers in the country, and great drivers.

Everywhere the Veyron goes, it is accompanied by its 'minder', former F1 driver Pierre-Henri Raphanel, and he would not approve the test drives until he sighted their competition licences. Suitably satisfied, Pierre-Henri (unusually) occupied the passenger's seat, as Paul and Peter completed their laps.

As I prepared this post, Paul's story would not be released from copyright, but Peter McKay's story was published in a now defunct 'lifestyle' magazine, so I have edited his driving experience to present in DRIVING & LIFE. Incidentally, Gover and McKay are the only Australian journalists to ever drive the Veyron under racing conditions, on a closed circuit.

Over to Peter McKay ....

There it is in pit lane, all ground-hugging menace and authority, even though it is hardly taller than a terrier. 

This is the first time any Veyron EB16.4 has visited Australia. The Bugatti importer, Trivett, senses the potential for a handful of Australian sales. 

A few hot prospects will be taking highly exclusive ride-and-drive outings at the upcoming Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park. 

On hand at Sandown for our drive is the smiling, chatty Pierre-Henri Raphanel, whose business card announces him as "pilote officiel” or the car's minder, and official show-off and test driver. The taste-test Veyron goes nowhere without Raphanel, a former Formula One driver. 

Raphanel doesn't have to warn about the need to be circumspect with a car valued at the net worth of a Sydney suburb, and one with the potential to accelerate faster than F1 machines to 100km/h.

Yes, the 2008 F1 cars fire off the starting grid to 100km/h in about 2.6 secs. The Veyron does it in 2.46 secs, officially.

The wonder of the Bugatti Veyron EB16.4 supercar is that whilst it has this astonishing performance, it meets noise and pollution regulations and remains a pliable, docile car in anyone’s hands. Just use the key, and a push-button to start.

It has most of the creature comforts, even heated seats, and a superb Burmester audio system. In fully auto mode, the gear changes are seamless. The 7-speed DSG box is handbuilt by Riccardo in the UK.

The Veyron runs to 100km/h in first gear, 150 in second and 200 in third – and there’s another four forward gears remaining! The prototypes wanted to ‘lift-off’ at speed, so the engineers ensured that above 200km/h, the nose automatically lowers by 50mm, and a huge rear spoiler is deployed to create downforce and stability.

As I sink into the leather and suede driver’s seat concentration levels are sky high. Joining that small group of infamous people to crash a Veyron is high on anyone’s ‘Must Avoid’ list (below).

We take off from the grid, and if you use the throttle harder, the needle zings around to the 6500rpm redline, and the scenery goes past very quickly, and we haven’t even got serious yet…

I engage Sports Mode, flick the paddles back to First, coming onto Sandown’s front straight …

Push the throttle to the floor, and your head snaps uncontrollably at every gear change. Upshifts come with machine-gun rapidity.

Even on Sandown’s long straight the Veyron is contained to 258km/h, so no sooner are you accelerating, than you’re braking for a corner.

Nothing in my automotive experience gets close to the sensation of rocket-like thrust. Not a V8 supercar. Not even the Porsche Carrera GT. Closest is one of today's powerful motorcycles. Accelerating in first gear gives a fleeting impression that the nose is coming off the tarmac, like a big Honda Fireblade on the gas - the lightning transfer of 1888kg to the rear provokes that daunting, fleeting thought. 

Down through Sandown's Esses – a bit like a ski slalom course, the Bugatti slides from apex to apex unerring and without fuss, making light of its mass.

(Photo: David Caird)

This is a sublime, gob-smacking piece of automotive kit. 

Throughout, the W-engine behind your shoulders roars with enthusiasm, but conversation is possible, though interrupted by the odd gasp, and an occasional unscripted pause to fight the accelerative and stopping G forces. 

At my passenger's urging, I crank the Veyron up to around 200km/h. "Now take your hands from the steering wheel and jump on the brakes," he commands. 

I do. Massive pads bite into carbon ceramic rotors. And AUD$2.7million of extreme motorcar tries to bury itself into the tarmac, all the time tracking straight. Impressive. 

At speeds above 200 km/h, the rear wing helps braking too, acting as an airbrake and flipping to a 55-degree angle once the stopping pedal is activated. 

Raphanel says – and this is a surprise – that Bugatti Veyron owners don't buy the car for ostentation, but because they are captivated by the engineering. While the car has a bold, look at-me presence; the owners keep a low profile. Allegedly. 

It is rumoured that each of the 300 left hand-drive Veyron EB16.4's to be produced costs Bugatti around $9million a piece (factoring in the enormous development costs tallied up over the lengthy gestation period). This means the company loses more than $6million on every sale, if you ignore the incalculable marketing and promotional benefits, and engineering kudos the car brings to the brand. 

It's premature to suggest that the Veyron could be the last of the internal combustion-engined automotive grand gestures. But shrinking oil reserves and a growing social antipathy with unrestrained, over-the-top personal transport is certainly challenging long-time, historic values.

2019 Bugatto Veyron Chiron

Saturday, March 23, 2019


In a landmark court case, a Beijing court, has decided that Jiangling Motor Corporation copied five specific features from the Range Rover Evoque, and has ordered Jiangling (makers of the Land Wind X7) to cease production and sale immediately; and compensate Jaguar Land Rover.

The Land Wind X7 was first shown in 2014, and launched in 2015. JLR immediately commenced court action against Jiangling. Like many Chinese carmakers it is in a joint venture - with Ford.

This is the first time that an automotive company outside China has successfully won a case against infringement of design, copyright and product integrity.

The judgment was handed down yesterday and Keith Benjamin, Jaguar Land Rover's global legal chief, said in a prepared statement:

"We welcome this decision of the Beijing Court, which further strengthens our confidence in investing in China and in the fairness of intellectual property adjudication in the Chinese courts," 

"This ruling is a clear sign of the law being implemented appropriately to protect consumers and uphold their rights so that they are not confused or misled, whilst protecting business investment in design and innovation. The court also ruled that JLR should be compensated, but the amount has not yet been decided."

The Land Wind X7 retail price was half that of the Evoque.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


It seems only a short time ago I was suggesting British superstar luxury company Bentley Motors might think about putting its model catalogue on the Atkins diet – in order to redirect resources, save some money, bump up profits – and get back into VWAG’s good books.

So, with the Brexit uncertainties, and serious issues swirling about Nissan’s deal with Daimler AG about building Mercedes GLAs with Infiniti badges, it’s goodbye to the Q30 and QX30.

All of that range is built in Nissan’s Sunderland plant, which Nissan has announced it will close.

I was also lamenting Jaguar’s problems of being knee deep in unsold passenger cars, with little likelihood of new owners anytime soon.

Let’s take Jaguar first. Here in Australia the XE has been reduced to just two models, sharing a 2.0L Ingenium petrol engine, and the dial-twiddling transmission shifter has been replaced with ZF’s default shift lever.

The reason the V6 has disappeared is simple – it may be popular, but it’s built for JLR by Ford, thus it has to be paid for like any outside component. More money saved.

Looks like that rumour from Britain’s Autocar magazine was right, and Jaguar Land Rover may well spring us a surprise with ONE new sedan replacing the XE and XF.

Now to our very muddled friends in Japan – Nissan Motor Company. Oh what a tangled web it has spun for itself. Yes, Brexit no doubt played a role in closing its only British plant, but the issues go much deeper.

The Q30 and QX30 are basically Mercedes-Benz GLA models, with a lot of Japanese badging, German powertrain and switchgear, and before everything went pear-shaped for Carlos Ghosn, he had announced there would be no more joint, badge-engineered cars, because Nissan could not afford Daimler AG’s charges for its technology.

That put the kybosh on the replacement for the Infiniti Q50, which was to be a badge-engineered version of the new Mercedes-Benz CLA sedan.

However, it is known that Nissan’s Board vehemently hated the idea that not only was it paying for Daimler technology, but Ghosn had invited Daimler AG to take a 1% share of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance!

Mind you, that decision leaves Daimler AG in something of a large financial hole, because it now has to absorb the entire cost of building and running its plant in Aguascaliente, Mexico, which built Infinitis and Mercedes side-by-side.

All of the clumsy coup d’etat, and the symbolic posturing by Saikawa and his fellow Board members is intended to show that Nissan can stand on its own.

Good luck with that then.

Then there’s the issue of how long Infiniti models will survive in RHD markets. Nissan Australia says Infiniti will continue indefinitely, with its bloated range of non-selling models. Well, I have news from my very senior source at Nissan, that Infiniti will be out of Australia in less than two years. The brand has never ‘fired’ Down Under, and keeping it barely alive just means throwing good money after bad.

Stand by for more, and more, rationalization between car companies and the continued disappearance of a host of models. Also, more companies will follow JVs like Ford and VW teaming up to make EVs; along with Daimler AG and BMW AG, who have put away their swords and shields and will battle on together investing in EVs and autonomous cars.

There’ll be more change in the automotive industry in the next ten years than there has been in the last 50.
Wait and see.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019


Recently there has been word leaking out of Wolfsburg that VWAG is very concerned about sales and profits of its Bentley Motors unit.

The panacea appeared to be the Bentayga SUV, and initially Bentley's planning volume anticipated annual sales might settle around 8000 units per year.

However, after a fantastic debut and initially good sales results, Bentayga appears to have plateaued, and sales are now falling year-on-year between 2017 and 2018.

I think there's a combination of reasons for this.

Not unaturally a lot of the problem is the rash of genuine competitors such as the Lamborghini Urus, Maserati Levante, Audi Q7, and of course the Rolls-Royce Cullinan.

Then there's an issue of market saturation, where sales of a much anticipated model, like the Bentayga, have now been satisfied.

In addition, where there is some buyer resistance at the price level of these ultra-luxury vehicles, when you throw in cheaper models like the Range Rover Velar , Jaguar F-Pace and Alfa Romeo Stelvio, buyers have greater choice, and the market fragments across sectors.

Of course, these SUVs are not Bentayga competitors, but they do create fault lines.

Here are the Bentley division results from the VWAG 2018 Annual Report, which underscores what I'm talking about, and reveals the extent of the problems Bentley is facing.

The data does reveal that Bentayga is Bentley's most popular model, but I'm sure the VWAG beancounters want to see that 2018 sales number increase by at least a third - and that's going to be an uphill battle.

I think the most surprising sales fail in the Bentley lineup is the Continental GT convertible, which has fallen off a cliff. The company will probably point out that it favoured getting the new coupe to market first, and now the drop-top is coming on stream, 2019 sales will pick up. I hope so.

To its credit, VWAG has made massive investments in Bentley, and has overseen a tremendous, and sustained renaissance of the brand globally.

Dr. Piech said, back in 2014, that he still considers each of the luxury marques he acquired during his time as Chairman of the Supervisory Board - Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti are jewels in the VWAG model catalogue.

As far he is concerned the company directed appropriate resources to each of the luxury brands to allow them to realise their full potential in the market. 

Despite such confidence, I am concerned that the only solution to Bentley's current challenges, lies in trimming the catalogue, carefully managing investments in such very conventional vehicles as the market pushes further towards electrification and the challenge of continually lowering emissions.

I'm sure VWAG can find buyers for hyper-performance cars like the Bugattis, in low numbers, but for how much longer?

Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini may be jewels, but I fear market pressures will continue to erode their sales potential over the next ten years (or even less). Further complications come when companies like Alfa Romeo expand into this space with models like the rumoured Castello.

BTW, it's worth mentioning that BMW AG appears to have managed to find exactly the right recipe to guarantee success of the Cullinan SUV.

It set the price and availability bar high; and sales volume modest, which directly boost exclusivity, and the company's marketing approach seems to have been as simple as person-to-person selling.

Plus, Rolls-Royce has been pushing Cullinan buyers into bespoke upgrades, which of course are all pure profit.

However even Cullinan's success must have a horizon. I wonder what BMW AG will do when it faces the same challenge as Rolls-Royce's former stablemate, Bentley, and the Bentayga.

Monday, March 18, 2019


He’s a rising star, and a man to watch. This 26 year old has paid his dues in motor sport.

Like many champions before him he began in karting at age 16, and his track record to date includes a large variety of open wheel categories to challenge him, a number of wins and podium positions, and an especially sweet achievement - being named Scuderia Ferrari’s number three driver in 2017.

In just 10 years he has driven in Formula One for Ferrari and Haas, and in 2017 debuted in Melbourne for Sauber, filling the seat of Pascal Wehrlein who was not fit enough to race.

This year he signed a one year deal with Sauber, which has been renamed Alfa Romeo Racing, and will partner veteran Kimi Raikonen.

He began his open wheeler career seriously, in 2013, finishing as runner-up in the British F3 Championship. The next year enjoyed two wins, and ended in 6thplace in the FIA European F3 Championship.

In 2015 he was runner-up in the FIA F3 Championship, with six victories, and won the Zandvoort Masters of F3 race.

In 2016 raced with the Prema Team in the International GP2 Series finishing in second place with five wins, and three podiums.

Among all this open wheeler activity he raced in the 2015 German DTM series in an Audi RS5, and in 2016 he participated in the FIA World Endurance Championship in a Ligier JS P2.

In 2018 Antonio competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ferrari 488 GTE Evo, finishing in 20thplace overall, and 5thin class.

However last weekend in Melbourne, he had a disastrous race after running over debris from Ricciardo’s Renault, which not only damaged the floor of his Alfa Romeo, but this also destroyed his aero package, and finished in 15th, one lap down on the winner. The important thing is that he finished, a very important result for Antonio's and his team's sponsors.

Far from desolate, he says it’s all part of the experience, and given a clean start at the next race, he is confident the car is capable of much better performance. Interestingly when you compare his practice times with Ricciardo, they are separated by a sheet of paper.

I think we need to watch his racecraft development, and I think there’s a lot of potential in this handsome young Italian. 

Antonio is managed by a close friend of mine, Enrico Zanarini, who has a great eye for talent and potential. If we know the teams which will dominate the podiums, let’s keep an eye on Antonio’s progress.


In a word - NO! This photo is the first top level meeting since Ghosn was released from jail, and according to my excellent source at PSA, it was just chit-chat, and a chance to take this photograph showing beaming allies in what is really a fractious alliance.

The Ghosn issues which upset Nissan, and caused the clumsy coup d'etat remain, despite him being dismissed as Chairman. Nissan wants a better deal, and to keep Renault out of Nissan's affairs; and Renault wants a stronger role in the Alliance.

The joint statement which accompanied this photo said the parties were having 'productive talks' but had not reached a resolution. This Alliance, I reckon, is going to bump along on the bottom until one of the parties bites the bullet and comes straight out with a record of the issues dividing them, and how they plan to address it.

As Japanese companies are involved that's not how it works. In Japanese culture consensus must be reached behind closed doors, and only when it's been settled will any more public statements be issued. The Japanese never air their dirty laundry in public.

It is only a strong personality like Carlos Ghosn who could ever get a solution across the line - which is what Hiroto Saikawa did not like, and wanted him gone.

However, I'm told Renault's resolve remains strong and it may come down to it exerting a LOT of pressure on Nissan to stabilise the situation.

Remember, Renault owns 43% of Nissan, but Nissan only has a 19% stake in Renault, and no voting rights. Nissan has a huge cash pile which Renault has it's eyes on.

Watch this space - this saga is going to go on for some time, so it will feature many future instalments.

Maybe the business academies could serialise it, and create a podcast, of how NOT to manage an alliance.