* Nissan’s premium brand adding four new models by 2017
* Half its production will be shifted outside Japan
* China could be brand’s second-largest market after U.S.
By Paul Lienert
DETROIT, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Infiniti, the premium arm of Japanese automaker Nissan Motor Co Ltd, expects to be building more than half its vehicles outside Japan “in the medium term,” the brand’s president said Tuesday at an industry conference.
As it reboots and shifts strategic focus, Infiniti also plans to introduce four new models by 2017, including a crossover, two sedans and a “seductive performance car,” according to Johan de Nysschen, who was formerly head of Volkswagen AG’s Audi of America.
Nearly 14 years after the launch of its first car, the Q45 luxury sedan, Infiniti continues to be largely a U.S.-centric brand with meager overseas sales - and none in the Japanese domestic market.
Although U.S. sales rose nearly 22 percent last year, Infiniti remains embedded in seventh place in the U.S. luxury market, wedged between Audi and Ford Motor Co’s Lincoln.
Still, the United States “will remain our principal market,” de Nysschen said, even as Infiniti begins to redirect its marketing focus to the growing luxury market in China.
De Nysschen has been at the helm only seven months, but already is beginning to stir up the brand.
In December, he announced a simplified naming scheme for the brand. All cars will use the letter Q, followed by two numbers. All crossovers and utility vehicles will have the letters QX, followed by two numbers.
De Nysschen unveiled the first of Infiniti’s new models, the Q50 sedan, this week at the Detroit auto show as a replacement for the outgoing G37. For the 2014 model year, it will re-label all its current vehicles, using the Q/QX nomenclature.
Nissan in early December also created a separate company, Infiniti Motor Co Ltd, based in Hong Kong as a prelude to a major initiative in China.
“It is vital to develop China” as the brand’s second-largest market behind the United States, de Nysschen said at the Automotive News World Congress, an industry gathering in Detroit.
The brand also “is studying” a possible entry into Japan, where most of its current models are built, then exported.
Infiniti will get its first European-built model in 2015 - a premium compact crossover built by parent Nissan in the United Kingdom and based on the same platform that underpins the Mercedes-Benz A- and B-class. Styling is said to be inspired by the Infiniti Etherea concept unveiled at the 2011 Geneva show.
But de Nysschen said Europe will not be a major focus for Infiniti for at least a decade.
“Infiniti cannot conquer the whole world at once,” he said. “We need to diversify outside Japan. In Europe, perhaps we can expand our toehold to a foothold. We can revisit that in 10 to 15 years.”