SEATTLE - While things may be a bit gloomy at Nissan’s accounting offices these days, the sun is shining brightly on Infiniti, the automaker’s luxury franchise. Although Nissan reportedly lost $517 million on its U.S. operations last year, Infiniti had another record sales year in 1997, thanks in large part to the sales success of its QX4 sport-utility vehicle (SUV).
The fact is, aging baby boomers have been snapping them up with nearly as much gusto as the Beanie Babies they’ve been scooping up for their grandkids. Fortunately for Infiniti, the solid market acceptance of the rugged-looking QX4 has helped boost sales volumes and kept the Infiniti side profitable.
This summer the sun should begin shining even brighter at Infiniti, with the reintroduction of their entry-level model - the G20. The first G20s wound up being the company’s volume leader between 1991 and 1996. It’s low-20s price tag, along with the red carpet "pamper" treatment accorded its young buyers proved attractive. Many near-luxury buyers - especially women - took advantage of the G20’s value and turned up their noses at pricier alternatives from BMW and Lexus.
G20, handling gem
But instead of a bland little car with a tame little four-cylinder under the hood, the new G20 has a hot 140-horsepower unit, and a suspension that turns it into one of the best handling cars on the market, regardless of price.
The advanced overhead cam, 16-valve 2.0-liter is paired with either a five-speed manual or optional four-speed overdrive automatic.
This latest version of the G20 is based on the highly successful European version, called the Primera. Designed to deliver the kind of sporting flair that European buyers expect, the G20 does precisely that. Poised on the roads, yet comfortable to drive, the European motoring press rated the car "one of the best handling cars in the world."
1999 INFINITI G20
In order to prove the car has legitimate European sports sedan credentials, Infiniti allowed the media to "experience" its new little luxury sport sedan on the track at Seattle International Raceway. The track experience certainly helped solidify the car’s handling reputation to our satisfaction. The new G20 attacked the twin horseshoe turns on the backside of the course, and zipped up the hilly back straight with all the vigor of a college sprinter.
Track fine-tunes suspension
One of the keys to the G20’s lively performance is its suspension, which features a unique front multilink suspension system, an absence of torque steer and a multilink rear beam system in back. Development of the chassis and suspension was shared by engineers from the Nissan Technical Center in Atsugi, Japan, and the Nissan European Technology Center in Cranfield, England.
At a critical stage of chassis development, development activities were shifted to temporary quarters at Germany’s legendary Nurburgring racing circuit, where various mules and prototypes were subjected to more than 100,000 miles of rigorous testing in order to refine the car’s ride and handling.
In addition to the car’s athletic nature, one of the first things you notice is how comfortable the "low-fatigue" front bucket seats are, as they fit snugly against your sides and lower lumbar region. Then there’s the simple, no-nonsense instrument panel along with a six-speaker, 100-watt Bose audio system to keep you entertained.
"The new G20 is an authentic driver’s car, offering spirited performance, a driver-oriented interior and sophisticated styling," said Tom Orbe, vice president and general manager of Infiniti Division.
Go touring in G20t
A G20 Touring mode, designated the G20t, adds an even higher level of sportiness, with its lower profile tires and viscous limited-slip differential. The G20t also comes with fog lights, a handsome spoiler on the rear deck lid, performance tires, automatic temperature control, sport cloth interior and leather-wrapped steering wheel.
1999 INFINITI G20
If more luxury is on your list of needs, simply request the Leather & Convenience package, which includes leather seats, power sliding glass moonroof, automatic temperature control, power driver’s seat and HomeLink Universal Transceiver.
The big news on the safety front is the addition of side impact air bags that protect both the head and chest (thorax) areas. In addition, there are three-point seat belts (including rear center) for all passengers, and dual front air bags. The G20’s "built-in" safety systems also include an impact-dispersing side body structure, wide door guard beams, upper body reinforcements and reinforced body side panels.
Positive price point
There’s also big new on the pricing front. When the car goes on sale July 20 it will carry a Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of $20,995, while the sportier G20t will have an equally competitive starting price of just price $22,495. Both models have a long list of luxury features and amenities. Among the short list of available options is a Leather and Convenience Package, which adds $1,500 to the standard model base price and $1,200 to the G20t.
While some might still lament the lack of a V-6, I think anyone who gives the car a fair test drive will come away appreciating what a well-packaged little car this has become. The styling is now in line with the rest of the Infiniti "family," and it delivers the kind of quality people have come to expect from Infiniti.
So despite the popularity of luxury sport utes, the QX4 may have to take a back seat once the G20 gets cranked up. Because it looks like the G20 is not only back, but poised to become one of the best-selling near luxury cars in the country. If that happens, you can also expect a few more smiles around Nissan headquarters -- especially in the accounting department.