North American Int’l Auto ShowDETROIT – Infiniti offers a sneak peek at its next-generation G-coupe here at the North American International Auto Show, while promising more fuel-efficient powertrains near term and a more competitive top-of-the-line Q sedan to come.

The luxury auto maker also says it will be rolling out new, more upscale showrooms, with the first opening in Phoenix this summer. Infiniti will have redesigns in process at 35 dealers during 2006. (See related story: Infiniti Dealerships to Get New Look )

Much of the Coupe Concept’s styling will carry over in the new G-coupe, slated to bow at the New York auto show in April, says Infiniti Vice President and General Manager Mark Igo.

The Coupe Concept foretells a conservative redesign on tap for the G35, a result of the success of the current car.

“We understand what we have is a really good thing, and we’re going to be careful with it,” Jed Connelly, Nissan North America Inc. senior vice president-sales and marketing, told Ward’s in November. (See related story: New Infiniti G35 to Debut at New York Auto Show )

The Coupe Concept’s exterior is a bit less edgy than that of the current car, and its face features more tapered, light-emitting-diode projector headlamps, a slightly smaller grille and a more pointed fascia.

Infiniti Coupe Concept

The rear spoiler and side sills are integrated with the body, and the roof consists of a full glass panel.

The car’s interior is cleanly designed, with a mix of aluminum and leather and a full-length center console.

Igo says it is Infiniti’s new styling direction launched in 2002 that is at the root of the luxury car division’s recent success.

“Design now is a very visible element of the Infiniti identity,” Igo says.

Since its new product push launched four years ago, the average age of Infiniti buyers has dropped by six years to 46, the youngest among luxury brands, he says.

And the division has seen a steady climb in vehicle transaction prices, reaching an average $50,000 in 2004, he says. The M45 and G35 coupe now have the highest resale values in the market sector, he adds, citing Kelly Blue Book data.

“We’ve always been youthful,” Igo says. “But the G-coupe drove our numbers lower, and the M did too.”

Infiniti’s top-of-the-line Q45, which bowed in its current form in the ’02 model year, has not been a success, but Igo says that is because the car has not gotten the latest styling treatment under Infiniti’s new design direction.

Sales in 2005 totaled only 1,129 units, down 42.7%, despite Infiniti’s overall 9.2% gain and 8-straight volume record.

“No, I’m not satisfied with the Q’s performance,” Igo says. “But we’re not going to push design changes through on the current car.”

Nor will Infiniti give up on its top-of-the-line entry.

“We want to have something that our buyers can migrate up into,” Igo says.

The next-generation Q will be styled more in line with the rest of the Infiniti family, and it will benefit from a now-stronger buyer base in the successful M model, positioned a notch below, Igo says.

The new Q is expected to bow in the ’08 model year, according to Ward’s data. (See related data: Ward’s North America Product Cycle Chart )

Meanwhile, Igo says Infiniti plans to counter competitor Lexus’ move into hybrid-electric vehicles with more advanced powertrains.

“We’re looking at hybrids, diesels and things we can do with gasoline engines, such as direct injection,” Igo says. “We’re looking at things that will work with more CVTs (continuously variable transmissions),” he says.

“But it’s not clear that there is just one direction.”

Igo will not give timing for any such offerings, saying only that Infiniti will have something new in powertrains “soon.”

Igo says he expects the overall U.S. light-vehicle market in 2006, as well as Infiniti’s sales, to be flat with 2005 levels, although he expects luxury vehicle sales to continue growing.

dzoia@primediabusiness.com