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Auto Show

GENEVA – Infiniti opens two doors to a larger future at the auto show here with a new sponsorship of the Red Bull Formula 1 racing team to gain international notoriety and its entrance into the small-luxury-car market to win new customers.

The Red Bull deal is pure marketing. If the team keeps winning, Infiniti will win by association and in the future may even exchange technology and design with the racers. The Etherea concept car is an expansion of its product range, hinting at a new production car to be shown in late 2012 at the Paris auto show.

As with the concept, the commercial car will use the Renault-Nissan Alliance C-platform that supports such vehicles as the Renault Megane and Nissan Qashqai. It will be powered by a supercharged 2.5L Mercedes-Benz 4-cyl. engine, a product of the Renault-Nissan-Daimler cooperation, that will turn the front wheels.

The concept has an electric motor integrated into the powertrain, providing some range on electricity alone.

“It is the first front-wheel-drive Infiniti and the first 4-cyl. Infiniti,” spokesman Claude Hugot says.

The new small car will be aimed at vehicles such as the BMW 1-Series, although at 173 ins. (440 cm), the concept is slightly longer than the BMW’s 167 ins. (424 cm).

Infiniti’s U.S. sales of 103,411 units trailed by a wide margin the 200,000-plus volume the BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus brands each racked up in 2010.

“Infiniti Etherea is a challenge to conservative stereotypes, says Andy Palmer, senior vice-president for Infiniti. “It’s a roomy, 4-passenger car for a new generation...who don’t want simply a smaller version of a larger luxury sedan.”

The Etherea emphasizes Infiniti’s Japanese heritage, using traditional Japanese materials and finishes. Several elements of the concept car’s design are destined to be shared across the brand line, including the front grille, curving headlamps and curved C-pillars that give the rear window a hat shape first seen on the Infiniti Essence concept car.

Infiniti will add customers in two ways, says Andreas Sigl, who was named this week as Infiniti’s manager of the Red Bull relationship: Attracting “people who are tired and unsatisfied with the service” at another luxury car maker and by bringing in new people to the customer base.

“You cannot stay as a niche player,” he says. “We need to reach into segments that we didn’t service before.” Sigl notes Infiniti’s plans to add diesel engines in Europe and a battery-electric vehicle in 2013. Not “a type of lame people mover,” he says of the EV, “but in line with the brand DNA. It needs to be premium and it needs to be performance.”

Infiniti also is growing geographically, after its start as a U.S. brand in 1989. “We are expanding our reach and our product lineup,” Palmer says.

“As the global market for luxury vehicles grows, Infiniti will undergo rapid expansion worldwide. Globally, we are on track to sell more than 145,000 units worldwide. Infiniti sales in Europe will nearly double this fiscal year.”

Infiniti will enter Indonesia and Singapore this year, he notes, and by 2013 it will have added 25 new markets, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia.

“Launching a brand is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Sigl, “and we are here to stay.”