Car reviews - Infiniti - Q50 - range
Punchy powertrains, clever transmission, value for money, excellent chassis, edgy design
Room for improvement
Busy low-speed ride, steer-by-wire lacks feedback, tyre roar, no regular petrol option until Q4
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6 Feb 2014
THE market for premium SUVs may be one of Australia’s fastest-growing, but the mid-sized passenger segment remains top dog for luxury brands.
With rivals such as the soon-to-be-replaced Benz C-Class and BMW’s 3 Series considered chief rivals, Infiniti has set itself a big challenge – but also given itself a big opportunity.
But how does the largely unknown Infiniti drag upwardly mobile buyers out of their German – or Japanese, in the case of Lexus’ IS – metal in favour of its offering?By loading it with standard features, for a start. At $52K, the base GT diesel comes with 17-inch wheels, dual touchscreen displays on the fascia, satellite navigation with traffic updates, DAB+ digital radio, LED headlights with daytime runners, leather seats and keyless start with memory.
There are also four driving models – snow, normal, sport and one you can personalise – that tweaks the transmission response and steering weight.
Push further up the range to the $58K ‘S’ diesel and you get active lane control, magnesium paddle-shifters and a 14-speaker Bose stereo, while the $62K ‘S Premium’ diesel adds radar-guided cruise control with autonomous braking at low speeds, a blind-spot monitor, a back-up collision radar that brakes the car when backing out of a blind car space if it detects a car coming from a perpendicular angle, and active front lights with automatic high beam.
All versions above GT grade also get a unique steer-by-wire system that ditches a conventional rack-and-pinion set-up (with steering either electrically or hydraulically assisted) in favour of an ECU and three cables with a mechanical backup. We’ll get to that bit later.
All told, it is sharp value at this end of town. Furthermore, the cabin is a lovely place to be, with dual touchscreens – a transmission tunnel dial such as BMW’s iDrive may serve better, but Infiniti’s setup is still effective – plush seating and decent head- and legroom in the rear.
The diesel engine mentioned is a Daimler-sourced 2.1-litre unit with a healthy 400Nm of torque from 1600rpm through to 2800rpm, and 125kW of power. By year’s end, a 2.0-litre petrol – also borrowed from Daimler – will be available, potentially from sub-$50K.
The 2.1 diesel is familiar from Benz offerings, and remains a strong and willing unit with plenty of grunt low in the rev band. The seven-speed automatic is well matched, with generally intuitive shifts, and a sports mode that holds a lower gear for swifter responses.
It is not the quietest unit, though, and some vibration can be felt through the wheel. When combined with some evident road and wind noise on a highway it can take the edge off cabin refinement.
Those wanting a little more dynamism – and quietude – can get the petrol-electric Q50 hybrid, which kicks off in ‘S’ grade at $67,900, climbing to $73,900 for the ‘S Premium’ with AWD (the only Q50 to come with a four-paw drivetrain). Both get bigger brakes and firmer suspension.
Infiniti has taken the same approach as BMW with its ActiveHybrid 3 by making the hybrid a pseudo-sportscar, unlike Lexus’ more economy minded IS300h.
The 268kW/546Nm V6 petrol-electric combination – including a 3.5-litre petrol engine, a 50kW electric motor and lithium-ion battery – returns 6.8 litres per 100km in two-wheel-drive layout, rising to 7.2L/100km when all four wheels are driven. The rear-drive version can also hustle from 0-100km/h in a seriously fast 5.1 seconds.
Both the engine and motor have their own clutches, designed to ease the transition from electric to petrol power. Like most hybrids, the Q50 is fully electric in reverse.
Plant your foot, and the claimed 0-100km/h sprint time is easy to believe, and the V6 lets out a muted but still gusty warble. It sounds rather coarse from outside the car, though.
Power delivery is smooth, as one might expect from a larger capacity engine, while the claimed fuel figure of 6.8L/100km is a reasonable one: we exceeded it, but we also had our right foot planted...
Again, the transmission is well calibrated, and was rarely wrong-footed on our challenging road loop. The magnesium paddles are tactile but situated too far from the wheel for comfort, but work well enough once clicked.
Throw the Q50 at some corners, and it’s apparent that Infiniti’s aspirations to chase BMW aren’t entirely far-fetched. The chassis is stiff and the turn-in sharp, while body control is above-par.
The hybrid’s firmer dampers caused a little more ‘skip’ over high-speed corrugations, but in both we attained some serious mid-corner speed on a closed loop.
The ride can be a little busy at lower speeds, specifically on rougher regional roads. On the 17s it is noticeable, on the 19s more so.
Infiniti has made a song and dance about its new steer-by-wire system. It is razor-sharp on centre, and required inputs are minimal, meaning you can get a nice ‘flow’ going through fast sweepers. It also means you can easily apply too much lock, forcing you to correct and have another crack.
But we think there’s a distinct lack of feel or feedback, an unfortunate consequence of ditching the mechanical link to the front axle. It’s hugely competent, but not overly tactile.
For us, the conventional GT diesel is the pick, but maybe we’re just sticklers that should move with the times. The hybrid is a sparkling combination, and the forthcoming Mercedes petrol will likely move the range forward again.
In terms of value for money, the Q50 should rightly send some ripples through its segment. The fact that it happens to be a sharp-looker with good road manners – mostly – and excellent powertrains means it is well worth a look. If you aren’t a badge snob, that is.
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