First Drive Review: 2014 Infiniti Q50 – Infiniti is Trying Extremely Hard

 

The Infiniti Q50 is the shock of the world, because it’s the replacement for the popular G37 at a time when the company’s trying harder than ever to beat up BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz in the sport sedan segment. What does “Snap” have to say about it? Read on…

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Just jumped into a few Q50 sedans in Spain and I can reaffirm that, in some respects anyway, Infiniti still has work to do to get into the same breath as BMW or Audi. But they are working their asses off to do just that.

Infiniti was launched by Nissan in 1989 in North America and has really never gotten very close to the business success and reputation of Lexus or BMW and others. The company is absolutely not a disaster, but it has essentially launched and relaunched itself at least three times that I can remember. Now Nissan’s premium brand is saying it is relaunching itself again and the starting point is this Q50 sedan that was first shown in a humble little booth at the Detroit auto show at the start of 2013, and which started deliveries in August in North America.

Part of the trouble is that both Nissan and Infiniti will forever battle against both the Toyota-Lexus juggernaut as well as against the Honda-Acura pair for grabbing buyers’ awareness. (Changing the mother brand’s name in the U.S. market in 1981 from legendary Datsun to Nissan was also a very questionable choice, no matter how justifiable it may have seemed.) The pair of Yokohama companies has always suffered image and awareness challenges in certain key regions of the world and the unwritten rules of Japanese etiquette dictate that Nissan-Infiniti cannot aggressively try and disgrace the other two Japanese pairs in public. So, they must simply strive to do it all on their own merits and by differentiating themselves from the others in clever ways.

Another thing I have never grasped about the Japanese premium brands is that they were invented to exist only in North America. Why?? You could say in some ways that the reasoning is obvious if you think back to those golden years in the North American economies versus the rest of the planet at that time. But still, it makes no sense whatsoever to me to not be selling these Infinitis as Infinitis everywhere. They are all sold still as Nissan variants in Japan.

For the past decade or so, Infiniti models have been hit and miss with the public, and this most recent decision to invest big in the brand comes hot on the heels of rumors that Nissan not so long ago was that close to folding Infiniti entirely and nailing the doors shut. But now we have the Q50 for starters (replacing the G37 four-door) and then later in 2014 will come the Q30 small crossover. Recently appointed Infiniti executive design director Alfonso Albaisa and the existing teams around the world have created a stunning new design language for the company, I must say. That’s a good start and it’ll take a lot more than good looks to save Infiniti, but the Q50 is, in my opinion, as great looking in its way as the class-dominating latest BMW 3 Series.

Infiniti Q50 Test Drive in Barcelonaq_50_001_hires

2014 Infiniti Q50Infiniti Q50 Test Drive in Barcelona

Okay, blah blah blah, Infiniti needs to finally launch and keep flying on good product and marketing momentum. In Europe, the Infiniti business headquarters were recently moved to Switzerland on Lake Geneva in order to separate the brand from Nissan also physically, while in Asia the administrative HQ has left Yokohama and taken up snazzy offices in Hong Kong. So, this is a ground-up philosophical sea change attempt and I wish them all the best.

At this testing event in and around Barcelona, I was able to try the Q50 2.2-liter turbo-diesel with engine supplied by Mercedes-Benz, and the Q50S Hybrid using a fairly simple parallel system with a 298-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 gas engine and 67-hp lithium ion battery stack wedged behind the rear seats, over the fuel tank, and in front of the trunk space. The hot seller over here in Europe, should the selling be hot, will no doubt far and away be the 2.2-liter turbo-diesel. The electric-boosted hybrid carries nearly every option and feature you could dream of in just one set loaded trim level. You can vary your Q50S hybrid with either rear-wheel drive or permanent all-wheel drive. I tried both and….

There is a LOT going on here in this first Infiniti hybrid model for the D segment. Infiniti is claiming zero-lift aerodynamics while at cruising speeds and I can attest that the car feels good from that perspective. As regards the hybrid setup, they are claiming to be the only ones with this Direct Response system. This is essentially a KERS type of thing that at select moments of throttle input gives the 3.5-liter V6 and standard 7-speed dual-clutch automatic greater torque for more time. In fact, estimated acceleration for the AWD Q50S hybrid (which incidentally replaces the current M35h that has used the first version of Direct Response) is 5.0 seconds to 60 mph. Get the car in the proper setup and it does feel that quick.

Also new and included on the Q50S hybrid are direct adaptive steering (DAS) and Active Lane Control (ALC). These technologies can be calibrated using the onboard touch screen display and there are officially up to 96 settings available via 10 different sets of functions. I see exactly what Infiniti is going for here, and I’ll be lenient and say that I applaud them for being the first to sell true steer-by-wire technology to the premium-midsize public.

2014 Infiniti Q50

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It certainly gave me a lot to think about. There is no doubt whatsoever that this sort of invasion of electrics for all functions is the future. All I know is that Infiniti has taken a huge leap of faith here in order to be able to differentiate the brand and to trumpet that they were the first. And I am eager now to keep trying it until they actually dial it in. I asked every expert present for the name of the supplying development partner for DAS, but they were clearly under orders to not tell me. In an all-wheel-drive Q50S hybrid with optional 19-inch wheel and tires, lane control, and DAS, I very soon wondered about what customer takeaway Infiniti (and Nissan) were hoping for. Because the feel at the steering wheel and the cruising stability of the whole chassis while these various technologies are fully engaged are noticeably like a dance couple that needs a little more practice together. When I went into the multitude of menus to moderate the levels of assistance and switch off the ALC the Q50S started to feel like a car I could happily compare to a BMW 335i.

The next day, I drove a Q50S hybrid with rear-drive chassis and that was even better, so I feel that it’s just a matter of Nissan-Infiniti working with that unnamed supplier to make the software and ECUs communicate properly and seamlessly. Because the technologies are all right up the alley of Infiniti type customers, I have no doubt about that. Infiniti, for instance, claims the most responsive steering in the world with DAS. Well, this is true from my on-track and around-cones experience, but in such a car I do not ever want to be out-steering a go-kart; it really was rather shocking. Their idea in this is to make your steering input as little as absolutely possible and they have succeeded, but now they need to dial it back a bit.

Where the DAS is exceptional is over rough pavement and Infiniti had constructed a piste of lumps alternating left and right to show me. It was nothing short of remarkable in this scenario because the steering wheel essentially did not move in my hands, the decoupled steer-by-wire rack doing its job while the steering wheel stayed pretty much straight. I’ve never once felt anything like it before and it was great.

The new Q50 has the longest wheelbase in the segment, so there is good front and rear space for the entire crew. From the outside, I am truly a huge fan of the new design language and this may be the best looking car in this segment period, so long as they can avoid overcooking it with too many twinkly chrome touches and overthought options packages. Inside, the work is neat and these standard adjustable seats are extremely fabulous. The seats do precisely what Infiniti is advertising, too, in that I could drive all day non-stop and not feel back stress at all.

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2014 Infiniti Q50Infiniti Q50 Test Drive in Barcelona

Unfortunately the location of the battery pack slightly high up and at the rear is a liability to the dynamic feel of the Q50S and it speaks volumes about how marginally important this trim of the Q50 actually is to the business case worldwide. In addition, the gains from the KERS-style idea are nearly lost in the heavy weight of this trim of the car – 4,145 pounds estimated. Then, too, that battery pack location leaves drivers with just 9.4 cubic feet of cargo room in back, which is frankly not good at all.

Starting price in the U.S. for a rear-drive Q50 with 3.7-liter V6 – carried over from the G37 – is quite good at $37,605, but the full-on tech-heavy AWD hybrid tested here starts at a whopping $54,655 and that is a huge chunk of change. So, though I am enthusiastic in general about Infiniti’s new Era of Q, this first slate of offerings…is waiting for the Q30 crossover for company, let us say.

The Q50 is a dramatic replacement for the tough old hard-riding G37. Just like Chevrolet with the new Stingray Corvette, Infiniti has lumped in a whole truckload of technology and features in order to make the car a worthy competitor, checked box for checked box, versus the market segment stalwarts. Whereas the Stingray is a massively convincing new car in its segment, the Q50 is probably going to be dressed down hard by the world’s press because it just has too much going on and it’s not all operating in perfect sync yet. The possibilities are tremendous for this stunning package, so I trust they’re heading back to their drawing boards even before deliveries begin in order to improve whatever they can in the onboard drivetrain software.

The goal is 40,000 sales worldwide for the Q50 lineup and I think they can hit that if they are smart. How many of these 40k will be loaded hybrids I shall not hazard to say.

2014 Infiniti Q50S h AWD

Engine: 3.5-liter V6 + lithium ion battery stack

Power: 359 HP / 403 LB-FT

Transmission: 7-Speed Auto

0-60mph Time: 5.0 Seconds (est.)

Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive

Curb Weight: 4,145 LBS

Seating: 2+3

Fuel mpg: 22 CITY / 31 HWY (Est.)

MSRP: $54,655 (Q50S AWD hybrid)

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