LOUISVILLE, KY – Although the U.S. fullsize luxury SUV segment is a shadow of its former self, Nissan North America Inc.’s Infiniti division believes it is worthwhile to remain in the sector.

The reason? Buyers of its QX56 SUV, redesigned for ’11, typically have been Infiniti’s – and the luxury-utility segment’s – youngest and wealthiest.

“This and our G convertible are the highest-income buyer we have of any product,” John Weiner, director-product planning for Infiniti Americas, says here at a QX launch event. “It’s still a very good business for us, and it’s a very, very aspirational buyer. It’s a buyer we don’t want to abandon.”

Weiner points to data showing buyers of the outgoing QX56 have a median age of 45 and an average income of $203,000 per year. The median age for buyers of luxury utilities is 52, with a $173,000 annual household income.

“(The QX customer) is going to come back to the market many more times in the future,” he says, adding 55% of QX buyers usually have another luxury vehicle in the garage.

While sales in the Ward’s Large Luxury SUV segment are down from their 161,661-unit peak in 2004, with 52,990 deliveried last year in the sector, Weiner says 2010 demand is much improved.

Large Luxury SUV sales jumped 41.8% in April and are running 26% ahead for the year vs. like-2009, with the outgoing QX (up 159.9%) and the Lincoln Navigator (up 66.2%) leading the charge.

“We do see the segment sort of stabilizing at the 100,000-110,000-unit range, so there is some critical mass there,” Weiner says.

Infiniti is not releasing a sales target for the QX. The big SUV’s best year was 2005, with 14,711 units sold, Ward’s data shows. Deliveries last year slumped to 6,440 units, the QX’s lowest tally since debuting in 2003.

Big changes have been made to the QX for ’11, most notably new sheetmetal and a lowered stance.

Previously, the QX had more in common with its squared, bulky platform-mate, the Nissan Armada, than with other Infiniti models.

The QX now sports Infiniti’s swooping, curvy design language, introduced on the ’03 G sedan, and signature double-arch grille.

Dimensionally the QX is slightly longer and wider than the outgoing model, but loses 3.2 ins. (8.1 cm) in height thanks to a more streamlined roof rack.

Infiniti also upped cargo volume, to 112.0 cu.-ft. (3.2 cu.-m), besting the ’10 Cadillac Escalade and the smaller ’10 Mercedes-Benz GL450 and Lexus LX 570 models. The ’11 QX also outdoes those models in second-row legroom, Infiniti boasts.

The ’11 QX56 gets the same direct-injected 5.6L V-8 engine as the new ’11 M, replacing an older, non-DI 5.6L V-8. The new mill makes 400 hp, up from the ’10 QX’s 320 hp rating.

Upcoming marketing for the ’11 QX includes a print campaign similar to the new M sedan’s, with Infiniti engineers detailing specific features of the SUV, says Sam Chung, senior manager-Chief Marketing Manager’s Office for the Infiniti Business Unit.

Infiniti is holding ’10 QX pricing for the ’11 model, with the 2-wheel-drive QX beginning at $56,700 and the 4-wheel-drive model starting at $59,800. The latter trim should account for 60% of all ’11 QX sales, Weiner says.

The big SUV typically has sold best in major northeastern and southwestern U.S. metro markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston, Chung says.

Nissan will import the ’11 QX from Japan, rather than build it in North America. The previous QX was assembled at Nissan’s Canton, MS, plant. Chung and Weiner say they don’t expect capacity constraints with the new setup.

Nissan will fill the void left by the QX in Canton with light-commercial vehicles.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com