It went BMW, Ininiti… glory? Karim Habib talks
In initi’s new design boss Karim Habib explains why he left BMW to help reinvent Nissan’s premium brand – and why a big hit is now vital
IT WOULD BE an understatement to say eyebrows were raised when Karim Habib quit the comfort of BMW’s design director role in January 2017 to reappear in July at Nissan’s perennially underperforming premium brand Infiniti. Something was up at BMW Group back then – several high-profile designers had already left before Habib during 2016 – but did the Lebanese-born, Canadian-raised design star need to go all the way to Japan to escape? Were his feet really that itchy in Munich, where his design hits included the 2007 Concept CS, 2015 M2 and 2016 Vision Next 100 Concept?
Habib, now 48, sighs and pauses a while before answering: ‘There are certain moments that are frustrating, but I’m an adult and have seen much worse. Really, if it was not Infiniti I wouldn’t have changed. Infiniti offered me something I didn’t have: the chance to be part of the rebirth of a brand and design differently. The potential to make something out of this brand could be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.’
The brand turns 30 in 2019 and is certainly in need of a rebirth, having bumped along for most of those years as an also-ran premium player behind Lexus in perceived quality and sales success. Infiniti registered 246,492 units globally in 2017 but most were in the US (168,740), while Toyota’s upmarket marque recorded 668,505 worldwide. Infiniti sales remain low in Europe (16,625), just breaking through in China (48,408) and the brand is still not available in its mother country.
There’s a pattern here: Japanese companies want their luxury brands to become established overseas first. Toyota waited years before introducing the Lexus badge to Japan, Honda barely uses
the Acura name in Japan despite its long success in the US. Habib feels that Infiniti selling in Japan is ‘inevitable’ although there is no concrete plan yet, and concedes that the brand needs a breakthrough product to match the kind of innovation that saw Infiniti invent the sporty SUV coupe segment with the 2002 FX well before any rivals.
‘We do need a hit record and that needs to be the QX50. It was done before I arrived by Alfonso Albaisa [now head of Nissan group design] and I think it’s a very good package,’ he reckons.
Sales of the second-generation mid-size SUV are just starting in the US but it won’t arrive in Europe until 2019. It reflects the maturation of Infiniti’s design and a slight upward curve in the brand’s fortunes – 2017 sales were up seven per cent on 2016.
Habib’s job is to build on that momentum and create the next generation. ‘I don’t want it to sound like a spiel,’ he says, well aware that designers can often sound vague, verbose or both, with or without the marketing department’s help.
‘We focus a lot on how we design “form”,’ he says, ‘but we need to understand we have a role in how customers experience the product too. Not just by looking at it, but how they live with it.’
The first hint of that direction was the Q Inspiration shown in January 2018 at the Detroit show, but as Habib had joined the previous July, the concept was well advanced and he only had influence on ‘reworking proportions, details, graphics and readapting the interior’.
That concept is about creating an ‘enriching’ experience and embodies the first of four brand attributes Infiniti is pushing (all beginning with the letter E). The second is ‘enabling’, using technology to help users do things more easily and will be reflected in Infiniti’s 2019 Detroit concept. ‘Engaging’ is all about making the car more captivating to drive. The final E – ‘enchanting’ – is by Habib’s own admission more abstract. ‘I still don’t know how we are going to do this,’ he says, smiling, ‘but I really would like us to achieve that moment when something is created and the customer goes “how did they do that?”’
Alongside all that conceptual brand positioning, production car realities loom. The first design Habib has had real influence on arrives in 2020 (he’s not divulging details) but whatever it looks, feels and functions like, you can be sure he’ll have put a lot of creativity into the process. Infiniti is lucky to have him, and through his design tenure may yet gain the clearer identity and associated sales the marque needs and craves.