Contesting in the compact executive segment is like trying to academically stay afloat at the prestigious Heidelberg or Munich Technical universities. Ja, this is very much Germania’s institution. With some of her brightest, most sophisticated, athletic and experienced children on the roll, the school floors are littered with the bones of many an a-Ford-able X-Type and more-desirable-than-reliable 15-series Alfas.
But today we have a new student of Japanese origin joining us (strangely enough, she speaks American English better than she does Japanese). Thrilled to have another overseas pupil in the class, IS and S60 flash her their most welcoming smiles. C-Class and A4, unfazed, barely look up from their books. 3 Series is absent (he rarely attends lectures, but aces all the exams every year anyway).
They don’t come even remotely close to realising it, but the ‘new girl’ is in fact a returning student. Thanks to a thorough makeover by stylist Shiro Nakamura and a newly-acquired degree in advanced steering systems, none of her classmates recognised her as the quiet, plain Jane they knew as G Sedan. But how many hearts would her new-found beauty and brains win her this semester?
Amusing image, isn’t it? But lest I end up writing the entire screenplay for the next instalment of Pixar’s Cars, I’d better stop here and get down to business. As you would know from our 2013 Top Five cars list, some time back, I enjoyed a short taster of the Infiniti Q50 – along with its world-production-first ‘steer-by-wire‘ system – at the Nissan 360 event in California.
Be honest – if I didn’t tell you it carried forward the G Sedan’s FM (front-midship) platform, along with its double wishbone-front and multi-link rear suspension, would you really have guessed? After all, the Q50’s appearance is clearly galaxies away from that of its frumpy and frankly prosaic-looking predecessor, being a well-proportioned blend of all the desirable classic physical qualities of man and woman.
Let me explain. The long, sculpted and projectile-shaped nose, hawk-eye LED headlamps, big twin tailpipes, wide mesh front grille, 245/40 R19 alloys and the S variant’s glowering front bumper convey aggression, dynamism, dominance and power. Taming and softening it all are discreet chrome detailing, dainty surfaces, the almost-organic crescent-cut C-pillar and the way the roof glides down to meet the rising rear hips before sweeping up in a curved lip at the boot lid. It’s a very sensual design indeed.
I’m not sure if the same can be said of its interior. Everything seems to be locked in portrait orientation, particularly on the centre stack, where vertical air vents and a plethora of climate control buttons stacked on top of each other frame two seven- and eight-inch screens on a pretty upright cliff face. The spokes of the steering wheel are equally button-infested; goodness gracious, there’re more buttons in here than you’d find in a haberdashery.
There is a clear enough impression of luxury – albeit a slightly old-fashioned one – exuded by the maple wood and aluminium trim, stitching and bright-coloured leather. Switchgear materials are of notable quality, particularly the metal-and-leather gear knob, knurled InTouch infotainment control knob and Drive Mode Selector. Still a rather pleasant place to be in, and a big improvement over the G Sedan’s cabin.
Quite a big car, this. Length, width, height and wheelbase are 4,783, 1,824, 1,443 and 2,850, making it 33 mm longer horizontally, 51 mm wider and 10 mm shorter vertically than the G Sedan. The class-leading wheelbase is retained to a tee, beating even that of the new standard-wheelbase W205 Mercedes C-Class by 10 mm and pretty much eclipsing all the others in the compact exec playground.
And that’s not all. While everybody else in the class holds about 480 litres in the boot, the Infiniti Q50 can stomach 500 litres (G Sedan 382 litres) – although the hybrid can only take 400 litres due to the 346-volt lithium-ion battery under the boot floor. Generally, where space is concerned, you won’t be left wanting – unsurprising really, when you consider the fact that Infiniti’s been in the States for so long it’s pretty much become a naturalised American citizen.
3.7 litre V6 (left) and 3.5 litre V6 hybrid
But now that it’s added Europe, China and Japan to its portfolio, it has had to tone down its voracious appetite by introducing two small, fewer-cylindered, direct-injected and force-inducted motors borrowed from Daimler. A 2.2 litre four-cylinder turbodiesel goes to Europe while a 2.0 litre four-cylinder petrol turbo will be offered in Japan (Skyline 200 GT-t), China, and before the year ends, in Malaysia.
Unfortunately the Merc engines weren’t yet available at the time. I only got to try, very briefly, the 3.7 litre V6 petrol and 3.5 litre V6 petrol-hybrid powertrains in the Q50 S 3.7, Q50 Hybrid and Q50 S Hybrid – all RWD (AWD variants are also available). First things first: we’re not going to get the big 3.7. We should be getting the hybrid, although since it almost certainly won’t be locally-assembled, it’s going to ask a whole lot for you to take it home.
Of course, these powerplants aren’t new. The hybrid powertrain is the Q70 Hybrid/M35h’s, and the 3.7 litre VQ-series V6 has been an Infiniti staple for nearly half a decade. But that doesn’t matter – what you really want to know is whether that steering system feels like it’s been made by Logitech, right?
Ten years in the making, Infiniti’s Direct Adaptive Steering system does without any mechanical connections between the wheel in your hand and the wheels on the tarmac, relying instead on electronic signals to transmit steering inputs. Infiniti asserts that the system transmits the driver’s intentions to the wheels faster than a mechanical setup, and only gives the driver feedback that he or she needs (road surface and grip conditions in, excessive vibrations out). Big claims.
A lane-keeping function is also incorporated – using a camera mounted above the rear-view mirror, the system ‘sees’ the road markings ahead and subtly steers the car to keep it within its lane, while making equally discreet corrections for crosswinds or surface undulations that could throw the car off its intended course. Three ECUs constantly check the overall operating condition, and a back-up clutch can provide conventional physical connection if absolutely necessary.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, I only had one day at the event. Having finished driving and photographing the L33 Nissan Teana, I was running out of time, but I couldn’t go without giving this a go. Excitedly, I stepped aboard the Infiniti Q50 Hybrid on the ‘World Course’ – the same makeshift, cone-marked circuit I drove the Teana on.
Initial impressions were good. The car pulled away with a spring in its step, whirring softly in EV mode. Give it more throttle and the 3.5 litre V6 seamlessly chimes in with its 302 hp and 350 Nm of torque, to join the electric motor’s 67 hp and 270 Nm of twist. Delivery is relatively linear, and when you make pedal meet metal, you are rewarded with a near-instant purposeful surge, with a sweet soundtrack to match.
Then came a corner, and I’d nearly forgotten about the car’s pièce de résistance since it all felt so normal up to that point. I turned in at moderate speed and was pleasantly surprised by the quickness of response, the low ratio and the adequate weight. While feel and feedback could not be accurately evaluated (an airfield is about as flat a surface as you can get), nor vehicle ride comfort for the same reason, I can safely substantiate the steering system’s claims of speed and response.
The Drive Mode Selector offers Snow, Eco, Standard, Sport and Personal modes which influence the behaviours of the engine, gearbox, throttle, steering and Active Trace Control. I didn’t get to properly try this out, but in Personal mode, which obviously allows custom settings, you can tweak two aspects of the steering: weight (Heavy/Standard/Light) and response (Quick/Standard/Casual). You even have three Eco pedal reaction force settings (Off/Soft/Standard). Pretty impressive.
Done with the hybrid, I moved over to the even shorter ‘Performance Course’, where the S variants – the Q50 S 3.7 and Q50 S Hybrid – were waiting. Going the S (Sport) route gives you a more aggressive-looking front bumper, sports-tuned suspension and brakes (four-pot callipers fore, two-pot callipers aft), shift paddles, aluminium foot pedals and front sports seats with thigh extensions.
I didn’t realise how the hybrid’s mountain of immediately-available torque had me spoilt until I drove the Q50 S 3.7. By any means, 328 hp and 365 Nm of torque are not to be scoffed at, but they’re only to be found at 7,000 and 5,200 rpm respectively. As such, the spread of power is most linear here, and you don’t have to be as precise with the loud pedal as you do in the hybrid – just mash it!
The familiar seven-speed auto with Adaptive Shift Control and Downshift Rev Matching (used on all automatic Q50s regardless of engine) rows through its ratios cleanly even when hurried, and kicks down eagerly enough. The shift paddles don’t turn with the steering wheel and so are made tall, but they look good and feel good to operate, being hewn out of solid magnesium and having a relatively short click travel.
With a wide, sweeping semi-circle approaching, I engaged Sport on the Drive Mode Selector, gingerly tucked the long nose in and gave it the beans. With Active Trace Control’s involvement reduced, the tail was more prone to stepping out, but the reining in was done gradually, precisely and instinctively – all via electronic signals. Took me a while to ‘brain’ that; clearly a lot longer than the system took to assess the situation!
By the time I got into the Q50 S Hybrid, I was convinced of the new Infiniti’s sporting nature. It’s not so much the power (although there’s plenty of it), but rather the delicacy and poise with which it carries itself through bends. A rapid slalom revealed a commendable ability to yaw and stay pretty much flat, thanks to a balanced, unyielding chassis.
You know what? This is a car that’s really not bad at all to drive. At least on an airfield – I will say that much. The real world with its potholes, manhole covers, sudden dips, thin-and-tall speed humps and uneven cambers beckons, and is almost certainly a completely different story which, hopefully, will be coming your way very soon indeed.
Having acquitted herself well in the Driving Dynamics and Space lesson, Q50 packs up her books and gets up to leave. 3 Series enters the classroom at that very moment. She pushes her LED spectacles further up her nose, tucks a lock of hair behind her wing mirror and smiles wryly at him as she saunters past. He shoots back a suspicious and incredulous glare. Now where have I seen that chick before…
Infiniti Q50 Hybrid
Infiniti Q50 S 3.7 and Q50 S Hybrid