By on June 5, 2010

“We need young, college-educated people like you,” the man said, “because the old way of selling cars is dead and gone. That’s why I was hired — to bring the dealership into the present day.” And with those thoroughly self-deceived words, the new sales manager at “Infiniti Of Columbus” welcomed to me to the team in March of 1994. It was the end of winter in Ohio, but it was just the middle of Infiniti’s long winter of discontent. We had three products. There was a facelifted Q45 which precisely nobody wanted. There was a facelifted G20 which cost nearly as much as a Lexus ES300 while closely resembling a Nissan Sentra inside and out. Note, however, that the G20 shared nothing but the engine with the aforementioned Sentra. On any given month, we would sell two G20s and no Q45s. In fact, during my entire six months’ tenure at the store, we only sold two Q45s, one of them to a salesman who was quitting to go work for Merrill Lynch.

It was the new-for-1993 J30 that kept the lights on and paid our meager draws against commission. The jellybean-shaped, rear-wheel-drive sedan was available as a J30 or J30t. Neither car had any options available: in an amazing reductio ad absurdum of the Japanese export philosophy, the equipment list was the same for every single car that came off the boat. The “t” model added HICAS four-wheel-steering, a rear spoiler that truly spoiled the otherwise interesting design, and some cross-spoke wheels. They were hideously expensive — $37,995 and up in an era where an LS400 could be had for fifty grand or less — and they were both controversial-looking and suspiciously similar to a Nissan Altima at a distance. (Jerry Hirschberg designed ’em both.)

It didn’t matter. We rarely sold any outright, but more than 20 would leave the lot every month thanks to the Magic Lease.

The head honchos at Nissan USA knew the car was overpriced, and badly so. Their solution was elegant. The oh-so-English Jonathan Pryce was hired to do a series of advertisements about “the astonishing J30”, and a genuinely astonishing lease program was put into place. $1500 down, $399 a month, 36 months, 36,000 miles. Extra miles were cheap and the dealership management always just threw the down payment away, so most people paid about $450 a month, tax included, for a 45,000 mile contract with nothing out of pocket. “t” models were $15 a month more.

The numbers were ridiculous. The cars were “capped” — sold to Nissan Financial — for about $34,000. The three-year residual was expected to be about $29,000. Ha! We had six-month-old buyer’s-remorse specials on the lot that wouldn’t fetch $29K. Nissan was just sending its problems into the future. Who cares? At that price, we could make them disappear.

Still, plenty of buyers could think of reasons to look this gift horse in the mouth. Almost nobody liked the looks. The trunk was minuscule and the rear seats didn’t fold. The sunroof was steel, not glass. The car was noisy and cramped inside. Although it was essentially a four-seat 300ZX, it wasn’t a four-seat 300ZX Turbo, which meant it was slow. (JDM variants got a 4.1L V8 and a turbo 2.5V6, as I recall.) Infiniti had virtually no brand equity, to put it mildly. We all learned that our best chance to move the iron was to convince unaccompanied spouses to sign before the better half could show up and say, “$399 is a lot for an Altima.”

The irony was that there was plenty to love about the J30. It was put together like a Zenith El Primero. The materials quality shamed both Lexus and ze Chermans. The “t” was a little spooky at high speeds, since the HICAS never seemed to give the same response twice in third-gear corners, but that was part of the fun. The stereo was damned good. It really felt like a high-quality piece.

My new boss was new to the auto industry. This was good, because he didn’t do anything that sales managers typically did, such as scream incoherently for no reason. He let us take weekends off. Most importantly, he didn’t understand the NADA Guide and therefore he always paid Dealer Retail for trade-ins. Once I understood that, I called my father and he dragged his boat-anchor Audi 100LS into the shop, crossing his fingers that the transmission didn’t perform its usual gearchange gymnastics during the test drive. His wish was granted and he left with two $399/month J30s. One was triple black, the other was blue with a cream interior. Most importantly, they were 1994 models. The 1995 car was chock-full of cost-cutting and it was obvious when you sat in one.

Our no-hassle sales philosophy and enlightened approach to customer satisfaction didn’t help us sell used cars at Dealer Retail plus a few grand. The lot filled up. The floorplan overflowed. One day the dealership principal showed up at the building. It was before noon and he was sober. These were bad signs. The sales manager was escorted out of the building. The replacement was a fat, oily Macedonian fellow from a Hyundai shop in the iffy part of Columbus. His first official act was to wholesale most of the used lot at a six-figure loss. His second official act was to fire the sullen-looking college kid who parked his Kawasaki Ninja on the showroom floor in the evenings. Thus released, I walked the earth like Caine, or at least rode it like a douchebag, until my next dealership job. It was there that I witnessed a salesperson exchange sex for a chance to sell a Thunderbird, but that’s another story.

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35 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1994 Infiniti J30 and the Magic Lease...”

  • avatar

    Great story, great insight into the early days of Infiniti but jeeze you’ve GOT to tell us the Thunderbird story!

    • 0 avatar

      I owned a 97 J30 for about 2 years. It was ten years old when I got it but it was in great shape, I put 70k on it in 2 years and only had one minor repair about 300 bucks I think. The car stero did indeed rock and yes the truck was small but it rode very well, great AC. Sure the backseat was small but I never sat there, they were never very popular ,AND i WOULD NEVER BUY ONE NEW It was a great used car. Gotta love that they never held their value.

  • avatar

    Sad that decency isn’t rewarded at all in the automotive business…and I think I speak for many of us when I say we’d much rather hear about the “other” story involving the Thunderbird…

  • avatar

    Design purity aside, I’ve never cared for cars with droopy rear ends like this one and the Altima. Add to that list the 1996+ Sable which looks like it’s pinching a loaf…eww.

  • avatar

    I love it, the sales manager was new to the car business and didn’t understand dealer retail NADA book prices so he paid that for trades.

    This can’t be a true story can it?

    BTW dealerships do not use the NADA book for anything but to book the retail price for sending deals to the finance companies-the finance companies use NADA book values for determining the loan amount. Dealers use the regional black book which is a semi monthly compilation of local auction prices. The same vehicle can have vastly different values in different parts of the country. Usually if an appraiser is unfamiliar with a particular vehicle’s value he calls a dealer of that brand he knows and his wholesalers for buy figures and bases his appraisal on those numbers.

    If this story is true it is an absolute classic, one of the funniest I have ever heard after spending 30 years in the car business.

  • avatar

    Jack, Hope you break the ice on that T-bird story … then, hopefully, Bertel will cut loose with some of his more saucy biography tales!

  • avatar

    $40,000 for a car with no brand value, less usable room than comparable Nissans, and no good engines? I’ve been in the J30 and I like its responsive engine, RWD, and luxury features, but it’s not worth that much, especially in the early 90s. Even a brand new Lexus ES is $2,000 cheaper and it offers space, luxury, and cachet.

  • avatar

    I’m just shocked they were trying to sell a Nissan Primera as an Infiniti…

  • avatar

    I was living in Columbus (and near graduating from OSU) at about the same time you worked at that Infiniti dealership. Somehow makes me feel closer to the story…

    And a great story at that. Thanks for sharing!

    My favorite dealer stories mostly revolve around Ricart. One day I was out at a patio bar, listening to a band. Fred Ricart, the local mega Ford dealer, who was infamous for his cheesey commercials, happened to be cruising across the bar patio when one of the guys in the band noticed him and said “well look at this ladies and gentleman, we have a minor celebrity with us today, Fred Ricart…” Fred haphazardly raised his hand to wave at anyone who might cheer his presence as he made a b-line toward the bar, but that wasn’t in keeping with the overall crowd sentiment.

    Instantly, three beer cans went flying across the patio from different directions, but all headed toward Fred’s head. He ducked almost as beautifully as George W ducked those shoes…

    I had just bought a Nissan Sentra from Ricart, and while I didn’t throw a beer at his head, I certainly understood those who did.

    Now about the Thunderbird story…

  • avatar

    A 1994 J30t was my first car. My mother bought it new as part of some special vendor purchasing rewards program at a pretty substantial discount. Ten years later it was passed down to me. I loved that car, it had fantastic handling and while not nearly as fast as the G35 my mom replaced it with, my reckless 16 year old self saw 135 mph once on an empty freeway at 3am. The comments about the quality of the interior don’t do it justice. There were NO hard plastics ANYWHERE. While ultimately flawed, it was a fantastic car. The JDM version was available with the 4.5 V8 from the Q45 and I still think about finding one in good shape and doing an engine swap. That car with 350 hp would be just about perfect.

  • avatar

    Those images of W ducking the shoes were priceless! Especially the fast, spot on second attempt.

  • avatar

    Hmmm…Infiniti. If there is one phrase that could describe them is “rudderless potential”. Whether it be the new M or the cars described in this article.

    I owned a G20 (new 1992 model) for 12 years. It was a great car, with double-wishbone front suspension, a great shifter, and a nice compromise between handling and comfort. The engine was spritely, but it could use a bit more power (the slushbox added at least 2 seconds to the 0-60). Think of it as a conservative Acura Integra. It was a good, if under appreciated car in it’s time. The big mistake was the next iteration — they should have stepped away from the Primera platform. That was fixed with the G35, but that introduced it’s own problems (both a little chintzy and a little feminine looking).

    The J30 epitomized what was wrong with Infiniti for the next 10 years. Strange looks. Crippling features (e.g. small trunk). It’s as if no one asked “What would *you* want in a car?” The brand continued to have so much potential, and continued to blow it.

    BTW: The Q45 rocked.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Great Story Jack. I believe you about J30s being well built, I still see a number of them around.

  • avatar

    While I never drove the J30, I personally thought it was one of the best designs to come out of Japan in the early 90’s. The interior was far superior to anything that Audi or BMW could put together, and the organic exterior still looked great 15 years later. I could see RWD and the compact interior as liabilities in this class though.

    In hindsight, the only car I would still keep from that era would be an ES300; the formula for that car hasn’t wavered much in 20 years and it still pays Lexus dividends.

  • avatar

    Cough up that T-bird story NOW!!!!!

  • avatar

    My 1996 G20 (bought new for just $17.7K) gave me over 270K miles of mostly trouble-free service, apart from the usual fifth gear pop-out (which I ‘solved’ by putting up with four forward gears until the tin worm got the rest of the car.)

  • avatar

    This was one sexy design. Say what you will, every car has issues, european cars from this era didn’t have real cup-holders. We need more unique cars on the road.

    • 0 avatar

      @vent-L-8 – Amen; so many cars on the road are so close stylistically that if you didn’t look at the badge you wouldn’t know who manufactured it.

      I loved the J30 – my father’s black-on-black ’93 bought just a few weeks after they began importing to the US in April ’92 – also, delivered to him just 3 days before I got my driver’s license (and not allowed to drive it). My sister referred to that car as the “museum car” – in it’s 11 years with him (until an untimely death due to a moron in an XJ6 running a red light), it looked like it could have come out of the showroom. He would still be driving it if it hadn’t been totaled.

  • avatar

    Sorry, but I’ve never been able to take the ES seriously (until the latest edition). To me it always looked like a bland Camry (the Mercury:Ford as ES: Camry?) and looked cheap to me, especially the versions with the two-tone paint. They always seemed to be driven by female realestate agents.

    I will admit that the latest ES looks mighty sharp.

  • avatar

    Great story. Are you still in car sales?
    It was fun watching the you-tube ad. The car phone was a gas.

    It is funny how all the luxury car adds have a upper class English accent (mostly faux) spoken with a whispered undertone.

    A lot of J30 cars turned up in my neck of the woods. To me, they looked like a joke, but for some reason they look better today

    I agree with the G20. I almost bought a used one myself.

  • avatar

    10 years ago, I had an older guy that worked for me that had a 1994 J30. It was the only car that he had ever bought new. It was the only J30 I had ever seen up close, and it was a nicely put together car. He bought it new and used it for commuting some days (he also had a Honda Civic hatch for his commute) as well as using on the weekends. It still looked good in 2001, and while we both work other places these days, but from what I hear he still owns the car. I think he’s gotten his money out of it.

  • avatar

    Nice work Jack – can’t wait for the follow up.

  • avatar

    Ah, the mid ’90s – era of black rotating cars in commercials. Every one of them, it seemed. So much for imagination… “Hey, guys! I know what’ll differentiate us! We’ll put a blowing cloth in the background instead of pure white!” “Genius!”

  • avatar

    Ah, Ricart…

    I once spent a wasted afternoon at Ricart inquiring about a Miata purchase. This was before I learned not to ever give the keys to your current ride to a dealer.

  • avatar

    Gotta love the jazzy 90s porno music in the back ground.

  • avatar

    Jack, could you elaborate on the cost-cutting measures between the ’94 and ’95 models?

    A coworker bought a ’94 (I think) J30, pearl white over beige leather, in 1999. It was a beautiful car… until he slapped 11″ Daytons on it.

  • avatar

    Nothing funnier than seeing all the Infiniti salespeople being forced to wear the same black/black ensemble that Jonathon Pryce wore in the commercials. Somehow it looked a lot better on Pryce than it did on a 5′ 8″, 290 pound sweat-soaked sales guy about halfway through a Saturday of demo rides in 95 degree Atlanta heat.

  • avatar

    What was the cost-cutting that was done in 1995? The history I was able to find said no significant changes.

  • avatar

    Always liked J30. Thought it’s about the best looking sedan, until the new 2011 M37 arrives.

  • avatar

    A couple who lived on the same street as I did had a J30 and an Acura SLX. Nice people, weird luck.

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    This is a general reply re: cost-cutting in the 1995 cars. The feature list was mostly the same, but the “t” cars lost HICAS and the seats were visibly crappier. The cars just didn’t look as nice… I realize that’s nonspecific but I heard it from every salesperson on the lot.

  • avatar

    where you goin with that gun in your hand

  • avatar
    Jeff Puthuff

    What’s so special about Michael Caine’s walk?

  • avatar

    Just to clear things up on the JDM specs, this was sold in Japan as a “Leopard J’Ferie”, and was only available with the VG30DE V6 or the VH41DE V8.

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