fter launching to less-than-stellar sales in late 2007,Motor Co. Ltd.’s Infiniti brand tweaked its EX small cross/utility vehicle for the ’09 model year, hoping to jumpstart sales.
Then the economy collapsed, along with new-car sales., already well-stocked with ’08 EXs, halted ’09 production in response, delaying its introduction until late May. Consequently, not many refreshed EXs made it onto dealers’ lots.
“When we hit the industry wall last year, we had too many EXs,” Infiniti Vice President Ben Poore tells Ward’s. “So we didn’t build any for quite a long time.”
Infiniti now is carrying over for ’10 the changes made to the midsize CUV for ’09, in hopes sales will improve in a somewhat recovering market.
Due to complaints about the EX’s cramped backseat, Infiniti engineers have shaved the thigh cushion to create more passenger space.
Responding to customer demand, Infiniti also has repackaged the EX to make the Around View Monitor (AVM), which uses cameras placed around the vehicle to simulate an overhead view at speeds below 10 mph (16 km/h), available at “a much lower price point,” Poore says.
“That’s kind of the must-have technology for that product.”
For ’09 EX Journey models, AVM is free of charge but requires the purchase of a $2,000 Bose audio and navigation package.
Pricing for the ’10 EX, going on sale this fall, has not been released.
Poore is pleased so far with feedback from dealers on the changes made to the EX. Inventory of the model last month was “extremely low. “I think there’s more opportunity on EX for us, and I think that this packaging has helped us,” he says.
Ward’s shows EX inventory at a 22 days’ supply in August, compared with 38 in July and 61 in like-2008. However, sales of the model remain depressed, down 58% in August to 665 vs. prior-year’s 1,645.
Through the first eight months, EX deliveries trailed year-ago by 41.2% to 5,296 units, far below Infiniti’s sales goal of 25,000 units annually. That compares with a 28.8% drop in light-duty-truck sales in the same period and a 15.8% decline in Ward’s Luxury Middle CUV segment.
The leading seller this year in the rapidly expanding the midsize CUV group is the all-new ’10 Lexus RX 350, with 33,567 units delivered through August, down 20.7% from year-ago.
With any new-vehicle launch, auto makers try to attract customers who are new to the brand, and Poore says Infiniti has been getting a “good dose” of conquest buyers with the EX, although he does not provide specifics.
The average transaction price of the EX has gone from the mid-$38,000 range for ’08 models to mid-$36,000 for ’09, says Infiniti spokesman Kyle Bazemore. Making Around View Monitor available free of charge with the purchase of the Bose and navigation package is part of the reason for the price drop, he says.
As Infiniti celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, it no longer is focused on achieving Tier 1 luxury status, say Poore, who is “frankly a little tired of hearing about what Tier 1 is.”
“We’re going to work to improve our brand in terms of opinion; we’re going to work to improve our brand in terms of prestige; and we’re going to do that on the backs of new models we’re bringing out and service we provide to customers,” he says.
Infiniti’s new advertising tagline, “Inspired Performance,” has become an internal rallying cry, as well Poore says. “If you think about delivering inspiration in everything you do, it becomes a filter in a sense.
“If I have a call center, I can determine if it’s an inspiring moment for the customer or not. At the dealership, are our dealers opening doors for customers? Are our facilities up to speed? You can use (the tagline) as your guiding light for what you are doing.”
As for new models, Infiniti next spring is scheduled to release the next-generation M sedan in the U.S. Nissan North America Inc. product chief Larry Dominique recently told Ward’s a new QX56 SUV is due, as well.
Though Infiniti’s 20th anniversary year may bring nostalgia, officials are unlikely to celebrate the often-mocked “rocks and trees” 1989 advertising campaign that launched the brand, which Poore calls a mistake because it lacked focus on the cars.
“Product is something you have to have in front of the customer,” he says.