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Extended: Infiniti to go solus

Nissan is expected to open a small network of solus Infiniti sales centres when its equivalent of Toyota’s Lexus brand goes on sale in the UK in late 2008.

London, Manchester, Birmingham and other major cities are the likely starting points, with leading Nissan and Renault dealers willing to make the investment acting as pioneers for an eventual national network.

At first, Lexus models were sold through Toyota dealerships but Nissan insiders believe this method is most unlikely. Sales are, however, expected to be allied closely to the existing Nissan network.

Infiniti and Lexus were created in 1989 when Nissan and Toyota accepted that their brand images were not strong enough to challenge BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. To work in the UK now, Infiniti has to be seen as a totally separate brand from both Nissan and Renault.

The other option, says a motor industry consultant, would be for total UK distribution to be handled by a single mega group, such as Pendragon.

Lexus remains at the head of the new JD Power reliability survey, published this month. It has only recently become a strong contender in the UK premium market, and has so far failed to make an impact in Germany and other important European markets.

Professor Garel Rhys, of Cardiff Business School, believes Nissan will be forced to follow in the footsteps of Lexus, by slowly but steadily building the power of the Infiniti brand, because “there is no other way”.

Rhys says Nissan has to match the levels of customer care achieved by the three German premium manufacturers and now Lexus. “It’s no good expecting prospective Infiniti customers to walk past a line of Nissans to a separate area in a showroom,” he adds.

He admires the way Toyota developed Lexus, but wonders whether Renault-Nissan will have the patience “and deep pockets” to do the same. “Trying to rush Infiniti’s growth would be disastrous,” he says.

Nissan Motor GB says it is too early to say how Infiniti models will be retailed when the G35 – a rival for the BMW 3-series – goes on sale here.

Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive officer of Renault and Nissan, said in a strategy statement in February that the group was vulnerable if it failed to compete in all areas of the market. He made a flagship model a firm objective and the group was rumoured at one time as being interested in buying Jaguar from Ford PAG.

When Ghosn talked two years ago about making Infiniti a global brand, he thought its distribution standards, quality department, engineering and marketing would all need to be separate from Nissan’s.

Ghosn listed BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus as Infiniti’s competitors in Western Europe. “We have a long way to go until we can deliver a really satisfying experience ­– sales and distribution have to be ready,” he said.

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