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PARIS – Infiniti chose the Mondial de l’Automobile 2008 for its official launch in Western Europe, and it opened its first showroom in a corner of Paris not far from the exhibition halls.

The Infiniti FX37 is the star of both the 5,382-sq.-ft. (500-sq.-m) showroom run by its French dealer, Neubauer-Distributeur, and the exhibition stand at the auto show.

The FX is expected to account for 80% of Infiniti sales in Europe in 2009.

While a well-known quantity, the European FX35 has 500 part numbers that are different from the American version of the cross/utility vehicle.

The most significant is a 3.7L gasoline V-6 engine, instead of a 3.5L, but the European model also has bigger brakes and thicker leather and carpeting.

The showroom, at 71-73 Avenue de Versailles in Paris, is near the Seine river in the southwest corner of Paris, far from the Arc de Triomphe area where most exclusive brands have Paris showrooms. However, it is in a rich neighborhood, right next door to the best-known Paris BMW dealership, also run by Neubauer.

Other Infinitis to be sold in Europe are the G37 sedan and coupe and EX37 and FX50 CUVs. The QX56 SUV made in America and the M35/45 sedans are not on the list for importation, although the next-generation M sedans, due in 2010, will be sold here.

The FX37 in Europe is rated at 20 mpg (12 L/100 km) in the mixed city-highway cycle, for 284 g/km of carbon-dioxide emissions. That’s more than double Europe’s 2012 goal of 130 g/km fuel efficiency, but Jim Wright, vice-president of Infiniti Europe, is not worried.

“Our job for the next five years is to establish ourselves as a premium brand,” he says following the opening of the dealership. “And our DNA is performance. When we are considered a legitimate competitor, then we can introduce a 4-cyl. diesel.”

The FX is the best-known Infiniti in Europe, and it has been imported on the gray market for several years for buyers who want something different from a BMW X6 or Porsche Cayenne.

On Oct. 1, the French used-car website www.lacentrale.fr, had 51 Infinitis for sale: two G models, four EX models and 45 FX models. Five of the FX35 vehicles were brand-new gray-market imports, offered for an average of €67,120 ($95,000). The gray market for new cars almost certainly will disappear as Infiniti rolls out its dealer network. Dealerships opened in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, the day after the French opening, and Milan, Italy, is to follow within a week.

The auto maker plans to have 10 dealers by the end of October, and 80 in 2010, the year Infiniti in Western Europe gets its first diesel engine, first hybrid model and initial M cars.

In between, Infiniti will get right-hand-drive models for the first time next summer, when it begins opening 13 dealerships in the U.K. In five years, Wright says, Infiniti expects to be selling about 25,000 vehicles annually in West Europe.

About 80% of luxury cars sold in Europe are powered by diesels, and Wright won’t bother trying to penetrate diesel-heavy markets such as Ireland and Austria until Infiniti has such an engine. But in the beginning, the brand figures it will sell to those early adopters who won’t mind a gasoline engine.

Infiniti, the luxury marque of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., was born in 1989 in the U.S., at the same time Toyota Motor Corp. introduced its Lexus brand.

Until recently, it was a North American-only brand. It now is offered in markets such as Russia, Ukraine, China and the Middle East, where fuel consumption is not so important.

In Russia, where Infiniti was launched two years ago, sales are forecast at 11,000 units this year, providing a volume and enough of a profit to fund outdoor and print advertising and a heavy presence on the internet in order to introduce the brand to Western Europe.

“We don’t have a lot of volume, so we don’t have a lot of money,” Wright says. “We want to spend it wisely. For example, we are paying a premium for our call center in Barcelona, where we will have ex-pats from different countries to answer the phone, so a German will talk to a German, French to a French and so on.”

The Neubauer dealership is modern and sparse, with a few cars visible and glassed office space where customers and sales people can conduct business. Eric Neubauer, the fourth generation of his family to be a dealer, sells Rolls-Royce and Ferrari besides BMW and Infiniti, and he will have two more dealerships in France, in Lyon and near Marseille.

He says he is not worried about the effect of the current economic crisis on his business.

“Our customers might have less money, but they still have enough,” he says. Neubauer sold two cars the day the Infiniti dealership opened.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn put expansion into Europe as a key element in Nissan’s current 5-year plan. Infiniti has sold more than 1 million vehicles in the U.S. since its introduction 19 years ago, and the brand now has 230 dealers in 15 countries.