by: Jag Dhatt
We Canadians have a lot to be proud of – our hockey, maple syrup, uncharted wilderness, and of course, our people. Names like Bryan Adams, Rachel McAdams, Ryan Reynolds, Donald Sutherland, Pamela Anderson, James Cameron, Wayne Gretzky, and Margaret Atwood resonate with people around the globe. And now, it’s time to add Karim Habib, Infiniti’s new head of design, to that list.
Habib was born in Lebanon, but after civil war broke out in the country, his family left for Iran. When turmoil began in that country, the family moved to a couple of different countries in Europe before finally calling Montreal, Quebec home. “It was not easy moving from place to place,” reminisces Habib. “Upon reaching Montreal, we knew this is where home would be.” Although Habib has moved to various cities around the world for work, his mother still resides in Montreal, where he visits her often and dines at his favourite coffee shops and diners. “I like going to the B&M for hamburgers and milkshakes,” laughs Habib. “It’s not high end, but it’s delicious.” I think it’s the Canadian in him that makes him modest.
What is high end is Habib’s rich history in the automotive industry. He obtained his Mechanical Engineering degree from McGill and after attending design school in Switzerland and California, the young designer had caught the eye of Chris Bangle, BMW’s Chief of Design. In 1998, Habib was hired by BMW and was responsible for designing the new 7-series. He then made the move to Mercedes-Benz, owned by Daimler AG. In 2011, Habib returned to BMW as Chief Designer.
In July 2017, Habib became Head of INIFINITI Design, Nissan’s luxury brand. This winter, while attending the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto, I had the privilege to sit and talk with the soft-spoken Habib, who shared some personal insights on his move to Infiniti and what he envisions for the future.
After a successful venture with BMW and Daimler, what prompted you to make the move to Infiniti?
I came to Infiniti because it’s a brand that I feel has tremendous potential. In the past, the brand has made some real gems, like the FX45 and G35 Coupe. And now, Infiniti is now at the cusp of a new era, with the brand announcing that it will be building EV’s and it’s going to be mostly an electrified company. Thus, this is an opportunity for me, as a designer, to go beyond just the cars themselves and think of the brand as a whole and I find that inspiring as a day job.
Where did Infiniti’s Design Team get the inspiration for the Q Inspiration Concept?
Well, to be honest, the vehicle was started just a little before I joined Infiniti and the vision was to deal with new proportions. If the future is going to be EV motors, you don’t need the hood to be so long anymore. So, we had to create an elegant big sedan with a short hood, which is quite unusual. For Infiniti, there has to be a human character to the vehicle, with sensual, muscular forms, and this is what will inspire us for future Infiniti models.
What is your earliest memory of Infiniti with respect to this humanistic approach?
Actually, the first ad for Infiniti had no pictures of cars – it only had pictures of birds flying, with the narrator explaining how the engineers were inspired by nature to create a product for humans. It’s a beautiful idea that the humanistic approach is really a part of Infiniti and we want to make an important part for the future.
Why do some concept cars never see the light of day while others do?
Well, that’s a very essential question for car design. I think there’s different types of concept cars. Some are really there as laboratories, as experiments to test something for the future. Then there are the concept cars that are there to introduce a future model that is coming, and that is intentional by the manufacturer. With Infiniti being a part of the Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi alliance, we have the ability to invest in more experimental, more futuristic types of cars. And these are built to push the brand forward and maybe even push cars, in general forward. And some of these can only be hand made with no intention of going into production.
Why don’t some manufacturers, including Infiniti, build EV cars that are large and attractive like a Tesla?
Haha. That’s a question that can be answered in two parts. When EVs started to appear, it was difficult to know if customers wanted an EV to be recognizable as an EV or if they wanted an EV to be pretty. I think we’re coming to the point where we’re realizing that actually, people want pretty cars that are EV. Remember that about fifteen years ago, when Toyota first launched it’s Prius, it was a non-classical beauty car that broke away from the norm and it was a huge seller and still is today. And buyers of the Prius wanted to show they were different through that. I don’t know if that’s the case today. People now know that EVs can be great cars, can be fun cars, can have great range and can be pretty. And for city dwellers, they can be practical.
How will the design element for Infiniti effect future cars with respect to better fuel economy and a lower carbon footprint?
Basically, two things – weight and aerodynamics. Designing better aerodynamics to achieve a lower drag is a big part of what we do as designers, to create more efficient forms and shapes. And this is not a trend, but an evolution in car design. With respect to weight, that becomes a question of investment – investment in materials or the maturity of a material in mass-scale production. We would like to use carbon fibre, but it’s still very expensive. Now, aluminum, which wasn’t ready for mass production fifteen years ago, is becoming seen more and more in cars and trucks. And this is just the beginning of finding light-weight materials.
What do you envision for future Infiniti products?
Well, recently we announced that we will be an EV company, which means the majority of our vehicles will be EV or hybrid and that’s going to happen soon. I’m super happy about that because it gives us the ability to create products that are forward looking and future proof of vehicles. As a designer, it gives us the opportunity to create the concepts around new technology, which can be ground breaking.
What is your favourite Infiniti vehicle today?
My favourite Infiniti today – I would have to say the QX50. It was all finished before I arrived and Alfonso [Albaisa] and the team did an amazing job on everything. Honestly, the interior quality is fantastic and for footprint, it has the best space in the category. And it has a very nicely balanced proportion and it’s an excellent, excellent package.
Although Habib and his family now live in Tokyo, he will be overseeing the studios in San Diego, Beijing, and London. When asked about what really stuck out in moving to Tokyo, Habib replied, “It’s culture shock on so many levels, but the people and country are amazing. It’s a great place for Infiniti headquarters as the culture is rich, which is reflected in the brand’s vehicles.”
Habib easily fits into the list of amazing Canadians. “As an immigrant, Canada opened its door to my family and later, the doors to the world.” He speaks four languages and is now learning Japanese, but thankfully he says, “Everyone at Infiniti speaks English well.”