AMSTERDAM - Nissan may introduce its Infiniti luxury brand in Europe as a competitor to Toyota's Lexus.
Nissan sees potential for growth in Europe's upmarket segments, according to Hartmut Kieven, vice president for sales and marketing in Europe. A decision on whether to launch Infiniti in Europe is likely by mid-1999.
Infiniti models are off-shoots of Japan luxury cars aimed at the US market. A lack of product developed specifically for Europe could be a drawback. Another problem is the dealer investment needed to handle a new, up-market range.
Nissan could develop and adapt Infiniti vehicles for Europe, Kieven said. But revamping the dealer network will be more difficult. Nissan's European dealers are still struggling to return to profitability after the market downturn in the early 1990s.
Toyota has sold Lexus models in Europe through Toyota dealers since 1990. But Toyota now plans to form a separate division for the brand and establish standalone Lexus sales outlets, in preparation for the arrival of the IS2000 compact luxury car next year.
Kieven joined Nissan last summer after a 27-year career with Ford. His last job was managing director of Jaguar Deutschland.
'For the past six years, I was helping Jaguar grow in Germany,' he said. 'It is now on the right track. Jaguar had to offer the kind of top quality service needed for this demanding customer base. I am confident we could do the same at Nissan.'
He said Nissan plans to focus more on customer satisfaction and quality targets.
'The details of this program are still being worked out,' he said. 'Improving Nissan's image is my biggest challenge. We have decided to strengthen the profile and make sure Nissan builds for European quality demands.'
The Infiniti proposal is part of a strategy to expand Nissan Europe's presence in niche and non-volume markets. The first new niche vehicles will be two small minivans based on the Almera platform. One will be a compact van in the lower-medium segment. The other will be an upper-medium model. Both will be built in Nissan's factory in Barcelona starting in 2000.
Nissan Europe is also developing a small coupe and a small sport-utility, said Kieven. These models are likely to be launched in two or three years.