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Driven: The Q starts here for Infiniti hybrid

Join the Q: First impressions suggest Infiniti’s hybrid sports sedan is worth lining up for.

Petrol-electric Infiniti Q50 mid-sizer puts Lexus IS300h on notice

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Infiniti logo13 Sep 2013

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

IF THE Infiniti story hasn’t yet gripped you, perhaps it’s because the limited range available so far only represents the opening chapter of an intriguing and historical saga.

Welcome, then, to the Japanese luxury brand’s potential bestseller, the Q50 – assessed here in compelling S Hybrid guise.

This is, according to Infiniti, the first of a new wave of next-generation models that will challenge the hegemony of the established Euros.

Everybody from Infiniti’s chief executive down promises that the Nissan luxury brand is changing everything, from design and technology to the fanatical attention to detail. Words like “seduction” and “youth” are buzzwords frequently bandied about.

No pressure on Infiniti’s BMW 3 Series rival, then.

With the weight of so much expectation, it was one of the star attractions at Nissan’s 360 Global Drive exhibition in California this month, especially in light of the gargantuan job the car has ahead. Everybody wanted a piece of the shiny new Infiniti.

To bring everybody up to speed, Q50 replaces the G series sedans, coupes and convertibles, whose famous ancestors include the Nissan (and Datsun, and Prince before that) Skyline – the genesis of GT-R, don’t you know.

For a marque scrambling to reposition its lot in life, that’s one hell of a heritage, and one that even BMW – let alone the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS, and Audi A4 – would be secretly envying. Probably.

But enough background. Let’s look ahead.

In the metal, the Q50 is more striking than the distortion-effect blobbiness of the official photos suggest, due mainly to its aggressive rear-drive bias proportions, big wheels, and low stance.

For fans of true sports sedans, the cabin is welcomingly snug, rather than inordinately large like the latest 3 Series, with ample space up front (on exceptionally well-bolstered seats) and sufficient room in the rear.

The ambience in the up-spec Q50S is modern Japanese luxury but without the fussiness – meaning impeccable build quality, high-grade plastics punctuated by cool metallic trim, and plenty of advanced technology. The look is elegant and inviting.

Standout features include crisp instrument graphics, cool Smartphone-style screen slide controls for the audio system, an intuitive selector knob for the myriad media and vehicular functions, and a logically presented centre screen. To say this is Infiniti’s best cabin sells it short – though of course cheaper versions may not be as salubrious.

Downsides aren’t many on first impressions – but we spot the foot-operated park brake and wonder why on earth a company obsessed with revolution persists with such a 1950s anachronism. Rear vision isn’t great, either, but at least there are a gaggle of cameras around the car to help you manoeuvre. And the boot is deep and wide but a bit short –and with no split-fold access, thanks to the drivetrain gubbins tucked up ahead.

The hybrid drivetrain combines a petrol engine with an electric motor, though the former is a big V6 rather than a puny four, and the latter includes a lithium-ion battery – Lexus, meanwhile, sticks with cheaper, heavier nickel metal hydrate ones.

With maximum power and torque outputs – a considerable 264kW at 6500rpm and 365Nm at 5200rpm respectively – channelled to the rear wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, it is clear from first ignition that the Q can easily stand for quick.

Even in low-fat ECO drive mode, the smallest rear-drive Infiniti is no slug, stepping off the line with serious intent, and then maintaining the rage with absolutely no hesitation or fuss.

Meanwhile, if it doesn’t feel that fast, that’s because the occupants are in a cocoon of numbing refinement. You can partly blame the satiny sweet power delivery of the V6 up front for that. Normal/Auto mode ups the ante with faster acceleration, while the Sport drive setting – surprise, surprise – delivers punchier performance on every level. Make no mistake. This thing is fast, leaping into action with instantaneous intent.

The dual personality extends to the variable weight of the controversial drive-by-wire steering – an option on most Q50s, and one that is backed up by a mechanical connection “just in case”.

Very light in Eco and still a tad on the wispy side in Normal, the helm finally firms up decisively in Sport, involving the driver with sharp responses and more than a modicum of feedback.

However it was difficult to judge just how natural the steering really feels, since the roads we sampled the Infiniti on were mostly smooth and straight the few fast bends we did encounter revealed a sweet and balanced sports sedan of intriguing character.

Similarly, the ride quality remains a mystery – though the 245/40 R19 tyres did transmit the occasional jolt inside.

On first impressions, then, we’re very confident that the company has stepped up its game considerably, infusing the petrol-electric Q50S Hybrid with a stirring and sporty character that is different to the detached efficiency of arch rival Lexus’ pioneering hybrids.

If the pricing is competitive – and we hear that the more basic version of the newest Infiniti we drove might start well south of $60,000 – then we reckon life for the 3, A4, C, and IS has just become a whole lot more complicated.

This is the car to make Infiniti in Australia.

Like a great novel, the Q50S Hybrid was difficult to put down and walk away from. We’re eagerly awaiting the company’s next Aussie chapter to start in January.

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