NAPA, CA – In the 1990s, Subaru of America Inc., desperate to jump start sales, switched its entire lineup to all-wheel drive. The tactic worked.

Nissan North America Inc.’s luxury Infiniti division, not out of desperation but looking to sell more vehicles, has just finished making AWD available on all of its models.

The move is intended to meet a consumer demand, John Weiner, Infiniti’s director-product planning, says at a full-line media preview here. “We’ve clearly seen a demand for it. Our products are rear-wheel based, and putting in AWD creates opportunities.”

At the behest of their customers, Infiniti dealers in the northern regions, where AWD aids motorists in winter driving conditions, urged the auto maker to make the system available across the line.

“Dealers in places such as New York and Chicago were absolutely asking for it and were very strong in their ongoing requests,” Weiner says. “Dealers in California and Florida were more neutral on the subject.”

AWD is optional for Infiniti’s 6-vehicle lineup, with a price range of $1,800 to $2,000 depending on model and package choices.

The final vehicle in the lineup to get AWD is the ’09 G37 coupe. The first to get it was the G35 sedan in 2004.

That was in conjunction with the division switching from front- to rear-wheel drive as a distinguishing feature and because RWD “is more athletic and a more natural way to build a car, especially a true performance car,” Weiner says.

“Inspired Performance” is a new Infiniti tagline, debuting this month.

“It means you can have performance and warmth, and a car can be exhilarating and highly personal,” says Steve Tomaso, Infiniti’s senior manager-model line marketing.

Infiniti’s chief competitors are the German luxury-brand duo of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, as well as Lexus, a fellow Japanese nameplate.

In contrast to Infiniti’s kinder and gentler nature, Tomaso says Mercedes and BMW are “very machine-like” and Lexus is “very traditional.”

This year has been so bad for auto makers that success is gauged by how small the losses are. Infiniti’s sales are down 2%, but its segment overall is off 10%, Tomaso says with restrained pride.

Its market share has grown to 0.8%, a record high for the division that delivered 128,050 vehicles in 2007, according to Ward’s data.

Infiniti turns 20 next year. “Today, a Japanese luxury car is no longer a novelty,” he says. “Our task is to remain relevant and be a leader. We’re pretty happy where the brand is now.”

There were some unhappy early years. Infiniti failed to gain sales traction at first with uninspired and unoriginal models. They were basically rebadged Nissans with accruements here and there, Tomaso says.

The brand started making something of itself when the G35 sedan debuted in 2003, soon becoming the division’s runaway best seller. “It was the start of the rebirth of Infiniti,” Weiner says.

Tomaso, referring to Nissan’s CEO, adds: “Carlos Ghosn came in and said, ‘There’s no problem in the auto industry that product can’t solve.’”

Infiniti enhancements for ’09 models include a new 328-hp 3.7L V-6 and a 7-speed automatic transmission for the G37, successor to the G35. The flagship M sedan gets a new 303-hp 3.5L V-6 and the 7-speed transmission.

The G37 sedan and coupe engines come with VVEL (variable valve event and lift), a new system in which an electric motor boosts valve lift. That improves fuel efficiency, responsiveness and power.

A G37 convertible will debut at the Los Angeles auto show next month and go on sale next spring.

The biggest Infiniti in the lineup is the QX56. It’s a fullsize SUV with a V-8 engine at a time when consumers seem to be pushing back from both.

“The QX is in a product segment that has taken a beating,” Weiner says, referring to plunging SUV sales. “But it is the only 7- to 8-passenger vehicle in our lineup, and it still has a role. We don’t expect the sales numbers we had in past years, but it’s still a viable product.”

QX56 sales are off 27% so far this year compared with 2007, according to Ward’s data. The large luxury SUV segment overall is off 26%.

A hybrid Infiniti is forthcoming. Weiner says some Infiniti dealers are pressing the auto maker to introduce two more new cars: one below the lower-luxury G37 and one above the middle-luxury M.

Infiniti has taken those suggestions under advisement. “These are dealers who see opportunities and who have customers asking for vehicles like that,” Weiner tells Ward’s. “But dealers have to be careful what they ask for.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com