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TOKYO – Having abandoned its front-wheel-drive models earlier this decade, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s Infiniti brand is not ruling out a future FWD architecture, a top executive says.

Infiniti’s current lineup consists of rear- and all-wheel-drive vehicles. But Carlos Tavares, executive vice president-product planning, says basing a new Infiniti on a FWD platform is feasible, so long as the product remains true to the tenets that have led to the brand’s resurgence in recent years.

“If you look at the reasons why the G37 coupe or G35 sedan are succeeding so well, I think one is proportions (and) the freedom we give designers to express what they need to express,” Tavares tells Ward’s here during the Tokyo auto show.

“The debate (about FWD) is more about how to express the brand’s strength, with enough freedom to convey the message for driving pleasure, peace of mind, etc.,” Tavares says. “So far, RWD has given us the ability to express that.”

Infiniti offered a FWD I35 as recently as 2004, which was based on the Nissan Maxima mid-to-large sedan. The auto maker also sold the FWD G20 in the U.S., based on the Nissan Primera sold in Japan and Europe. The G20 was discontinued in 2002 to make way for the ’03 G35 RWD sedan.

Nissan this summer applied for trademarks for various “I” monikers, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website, suggesting a return of the nameplate is being considered.

However, Tavares says because Infiniti is a relatively young and growing brand, having debuted in 1989 in the U.S. and now spreading out to overseas markets, his chief concern is to make product decisions that benefit the brand for the long term.

“Should we exclude FWD? As a dogmatic principle, no,” Tavares says. “Should we make the decision now? Are we strong enough for that? To what extent does it prevent us from expressing the part we want to express? That is the part that’s up for debate, but you can count on me to stop any decision that will be short-minded.”

Ward’s product forecast shows a FWD sports car joining the Infiniti lineup in ’09, based on the midsize Nissan Altima’s D platform.

Related document: <i>Ward’s</i> North American Product Cycle

Last year, Larry Dominique, vice president-product planning for Nissan North America Inc., told Ward’s the growing interest and popularity in near-luxury vehicles means Infiniti should consider adding more product in the segment.

Meanwhile, asked if Infiniti might create a premium subcompact car using the Nissan Tiida/Versa as a basis, Tavares offers a resounding “No.”

“I’m not eager to be in a situation (where) a reasonably aware customer would recognize it is the same car,” he says. However, he believes Infiniti could support a premium subcompact in its lineup.

“You can be very premium without having a 5.0L car,” he says. “You can convey sophistication. You can convey peace of mind. You can convey luxury. You can convey uniqueness through a (subcompact) car, no problem.”

He cites the new Infiniti EX cross/utility vehicle as an example of a premium small vehicle.

“The EX is compact, but so what? It’s still a luxury car,” Tavares says. While he is not convinced Americans are willing to pay more for a small car than a large car, they do want a vehicle that expresses “the value of a premium car within the (subcompact) world.”

That said, execution of a premium Infiniti subcompact would be the key to its success, he says. One of Infiniti’s German competitors stumbled in this respect, he says, while another has been successful by staying true to its heritage.

“For me, what is key is never putting your people in a situation where you distort what they need to convey,” Tavares says. “It’s not a surprise if you see a BMW 1-Series with a long hood. Those guys are very consistent. They are just making you feel you have the ultimate driving machine, as they say.”

After years of speculation about its arrival, BMW will begin selling the 1-Series in the U.S. next spring. Other auto makers, including Toyota Motor Corp., also are considering premium small cars for the U.S. as a way to add niche sales.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com