Buying a car is ridiculous, when you think about it. What else would you spend ten, 15, 30 or even 60 grand on, having consulted a few mates down the pub, at work or in the extended family? I can spend a good five minutes comparing nutritional values and prices-per-kilo of cereals I’ll spend two quid on. If I were to scale that up to £15,000 how much more time, relatively speaking, should I spend researching a car purchase? (the answer is 860 hours if you’re doing the maths).
You might peruse the web – or buy a What Car? compendium of reviews; such an information overkill I genuinely wonder whether anyone finds them useful at all, apart form an exercise in confirmation (or conformation) bias. And what of the myriad online car guides? I’ve come to suspect they’re virtually useless unless there’s a recognisable brand name behind them. Google has killed them off in the search engines, so anyone without a recognised, trustworthy name is toast.
So, people look for peer reviews. Friends, family, experts they may know. Terry bought an Astra and he loves it. Jackie had one of those German ones and it’s nothing but trouble. Dad has always bought Fords… People like familiarity when it comes to spending lots of cash. They do not like, well, unfamiliarity.
Just ask any Chinese manufacturer – Brilliance, Great Wall, Geely, Chery, SAIC – how easy it is to break into a Western market. All have baulked at the prohibitive costs and long-term investment required to bring a new automotive product to market, or made a piecemeal entry. And we have some recent salutary lessons about what happens when foreign brands come to British shores – though if Dodge had ever brought the Challenger to the UK they could have chalked up at least one more sale.
Bringing a new car manufacturer to market is very hard. Again, people like known, trusted names when it comes to big-ticket purchases. There’s the lack of a dealership network, the lack of brand recognition, the lack of peer knowledge. Very few people in the UK have driven an Infiniti, never mind owned one – that rules out one of the best ways to market available to a manufacturer looking for conquest sales.
And when you’re looking to take customers from manufacturers with loyal buyers like Mercedes and Lexus – or the ‘cool’ exec brands such as Audi and BMW – you have your work cut out. Infiniti has a car to rival virtually ever car in the premium range. A compact exec with convertible and coupe versions; a large exec; a crossover SUV and a large SUV. Throw in a hybrid and you’ve ticked virtually every box. The only problem is, very few people know about them.
So, Infiniti has a challenge stiffer than Mark Webber trying to get his hands on the new Red Bull Racing front wing. But it does have a significant advantage over the Chinese. It has strong product. And it has the fastest man in the world signed up. At the time of writing Sebastian Vettel has just won his third successive F1 championship; he’s the youngest man ever to take three titles, nevermind three successive titles.
Win on Sunday; buy on Monday. That’s an old maxim known throughout the world of car sales. But does it make any sort of sense? Will people rush out to their local Infiniti dealerships – now at six sites predominantly in the south-east and Pennines – and put down a five grand deposit on the EX crossover SUV simply because Vettel came sixth in Brazil? Well, no, but the Infiniti livery plastered all over Seb’s car, helmet and overalls certainly won’t do any harm in giving the brand a leg-up in the consciousness of the UK’s 30m drivers.
Nor will having a halo product with Vettel’s name plastered all over it. The Infiniti FX 5.0 Vettel has taken the manufacturer’s largest car and transformed it into an absolute weapon; a chrome- and metallic-bedecked SUV with badging, vents and actual spoiler. An F1-esque spoiler on an SUV. Oh yes. Inevitably there’s a load of carbon fibre all over the shop, inside and out, and a power is boosted to 414bhp – 30 more than the standard FX 5.0. That makes it capable of a frankly ludicrous 186mph with the speed limiter removed (155mph in the UK).
And the Vettel Edition is keen to shout about it. A ridiculous engine note that suggests nothing less than approaching death from above has serious intent. Like nature’s colour-coded warning signs – bright reds and yellows for ‘do not approach’ – the sound of an unblown 5000cc petrol engine is engaging on a primal level.
So it’s fast, it’s loud – but how does it handle? Sadly I have to report that I can’t offer a full assessment. On the dispiriting network of roads and estates around Stockport there wasn’t much opportunity to see what this luxo-performo branding exercise was made of.
Which is a shame because the power delivery is wonderful and it feels capable of a lot. What I can tell you is that a lot of body roll has been ironed out with the lowering of the suspension and the various aerodynamic tweaks the Vettel boasts. It’s got a lot of downforce and it’s pretty slippery so it would be interesting to see what’s it’s made of on a track. The steering is pleasingly heavy and fairly direct; the ride fairly comfortable despite the stiffened springs. Even so, the Vettel weight over two tonnes. It feels big – and squeezing this left-hand-drive beast through rush-hour urban traffic wasn’t especially relaxing.
Off-roading? Well, I guess you could if you really had to. But would you take a £100K beast like this into the rough stuff? I suspect not, and with that ground-hugging style I’d suggest that some of the green stuff you might see by the side of Herman Tilke’s finest is the worst you should attempt in this peculiar SUV. In that regard the Vettel edition reminds me of the more exotic versions of the Porsche Cayenne; a big car that’s designed to be fast and luxurious first and worry about CO2 emissions and dragging a caravan to the Dordogne second.
Though I regard the Cayenne with the same amount of fondness as I regard Bernard Ecclestone, I’d suggest the Vettel loses out to the GTS on pure performance. And the big Infiniti is never going to best some of the blingier Range Rovers in the key departments, even though it does feel like it would dispense with the Rangey like Seb passing Schumacher (respect, but not much) when it comes to driving dynamics.
The Vettel is powered by a 5.0-litre petrol engine, with more power coming from a remapped engine and redesigned exhaust system. That makes 414 horses and over 380 torques; 62mph in 5.6 seconds. There are splashes of Brabus-sourced carbon all over the car in an effort to get the car over the 300km/h plus an F1-inspired rear foglight. There are no roof rails and the brakes are ported from the standard car.
At £105,600 it’s almost over double the price of a vanilla FX. For that not-inconsiderable amount of cash you get that £5K carbon fibre spoiler, alloy wheels that are almost five kilos lighter than standard rims and an interior bedecked in carbon, Alcantara and magnesium.
This car is a tank. A nuclear sub. A juggernaut. It weighs two tonnes and it’s still really fast. Inside you feel cosseted, enclosed – the wheel comes out and the chair moves forward when you get in – it makes you feel like an almost-organic part of the Vettel. A velvet glove inside an iron bastard.
But there are problems. The 21-inch wheels look absurdly big and are just one of the elements that conspire to make the Vettel a rather ugly car. Inside – despite all the expensive materials – it doesn’t look especially different from the other Infiniti interiors. And it costs £105,800.
So, this Vettel-badged SUV is something of a curate’s egg. I wonder if the Vettel association might have found a better outlet with the GT-R within the Renault-Nissan Alliance (a term that always puts me in mind of Star Trek realpolitik, like the Klingons and Romulans have joined forces). Let’s reflect for a moment on what this alliance puts out. The world’s best-selling electric car; hybrids; tiny seven-grand city cars; a supercar; a range of SUVs, including a genre-defining crossover; pick-ups; little vans; big vans; execs; coupes; hot hatches; supercars and some of the most ridiculous cars that ever lived – I’m looking at you Juke-R and Twizy.
You might wonder what Renault-Nissan gains from a costly, long-haul launch of Infiniti and its already-large range of executive cars. The answer is margin. Sell 100 Nissan Pixos or sell one Infiniti FX with all the toys. Factor in economies of scale, the spreading of production costs – platforms, powertrains, fittings – across millions more cars, and there’s more imperative. Modern car-making is all about leveraging – and that brings us nicely to Sebastian Vettel.
Because the team that has won the last three Formula One titles is now called Infiniti Red Bull Racing – and it’s a partnership that goes well beyond naming rights. Technology transfer, the champ’s name on a car and the fastest man on the planet at the wheel. The Vettel Edition is really an extension of that branding. As such it doesn’t really feel like a car to be assessed alongside the G Convertible, M hybrid saloon and EX crossover I have also driven and enjoyed. In fact, against those cars the Vettel Edition feels like a concept more than anything – there for show, with a metaphorically hollow interior.
So, yes – it’s a struggle to launch a new car manufacturer in a new market – and it’s debatable how good the Vettel Edition is in isolation. But Renault-Nissan is playing a long game, in which Vettel and his souped-up SUV are simply the initial moves on the board. It is looking to Infiniti – and beyond.