Breaking into an established scene requires more than persistence and the usual fortitude, especially if the doors remain wedged shut in welcoming newcomers. Sometimes, instead of just banging away head on in an attempt to break in, novelty in application helps, as does taking a left-field approach, especially when the entrenched is seemingly immovable.
Case in point, the premium compact executive sedan segment. While the general C-segment seems to be falling by the wayside, especially here in Malaysia, the upper range part of the segment continues to perform nicely, led by the F30 BMW 3 Series and, in a different manner, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
It remains a prime piece of land, this, and as such there’s no shortage of contenders vying for a slice of the pie – though not overly brimming in this market, options are wide enough; there’s the Lexus IS, ageing Audi A4 and the object of this week’s review, the Infiniti Q50, the latest challenger to enter the fray.
The former two haven’t taken much away from the leading duo (there was a time when the Audi did, but like I said, it’s ageing, and ageing only means one thing), so it’s the turn of the Q50 to bat. There’s plenty of novelty in its application, and it’s certainly left-field in its approach, but is it good enough to take the spend away from the establishment?
For starters, the looks – or at least the first take of it – should ensure that the Q50 wins more friends than its predecessor. This of course when taken from the front and front three-quarter on, even as far as dead-on from the side. Viewed from these angles, the design and line flow is a major leap from the sedate-looking G Sedan, the car it replaces.
The squat, bold front and low set side profile stance are quite arresting in terms of visual appeal, and the 19-inch triple five-spoke alloys (wrapped with 245/40 run-flat rubbers) on the test example, the range-topping Q50S Hybrid, helps dress things along.
Things take a bit of a turn south at the rear though, especially when viewed in the flesh. It might just be me, but somehow or rather the curvy bits of the back end don’t quite gel with the presentation from that winsome nose up to the C-pillar. Coincidence then, that most of the photos of the car in the presentation material favour a front-on view?
As you’d expect a range-topping model to be, the interior of the Q50S is loaded, both in terms of trim and equipment. Among the items on the kit list are dual-zone automatic climate control (with rear console-mounted vents), 12-way adjustable driver’s seat (eight-way for the front passenger seat), a 14-speaker, 12-channel Bose Premium Audio System, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and solid magnesium paddle shifters.
In terms of overall presentation, the outlook – complete with leather seats and ‘Kacchu’ aluminium trim – is thoroughly modern if you compare it with that of say, an M25, but there’s still a Japanese-feel to its scope. Nowhere is this more evident than in the centre console stack, which tries to offer every centimetre of usable space into buttons and screen area, of which two serve the car.
Called Infiniti InTouch, there’s a seven-inch colour touchscreen sitting below an eight-inch VGA one, the latter the primary display for driving-related info. It’s operable by touch, steering-wheel switches or the Infiniti Controller located behind the gearshift selector.
The lower high-res screen, meanwhile, offers control over audio system and climate control settings (all accomplished digitally via the touchscreen), and also presents a variety of feature displays plus selection aspects for vehicle settings. A third screen, a five-inch TFT LCD colour display, resides in the instrument cluster, and offers navigation, audio and vehicle info via scroll selection.
Some points about the operational aspects of InTouch before we move on, concerning the two main screens – there’s plenty of viewing area and legibility aspects are high, but a few in-use anomalies to note.
One is that the upper screen’s default view is of a digitally presented analogue-shaped clock, and each reset brings this back on, no matter what your last screen setting is (say, fuel consumption tracking); you’ll have to scroll to the chosen setting with the controller, and repeat it each time you start the car. Bit painful, this.
The other concerns the lower screen, not so much in its GUI or resolution but rather its long boot up process, timed at nearly a minute. Given that many drivers might want to set things up before driving off, this takes away some of the gloss in having to wait or do the necessary adjustments or selection on the fly, when on the move.
Otherwise, if you like screens, this is just the thing for you. They’re plenty bright too, even at night (which isn’t always a neat thing). The five-inch TFT colour display screen in the meter assembly is a standout though, and even saved the car from performance-related blushes (more on this later).
Under the bonnet resides what the automaker calls a Direct Response Hybrid System, made up of a 3.5 litre twin-cam Atkinson-cycle V6, quoted here at 298 hp at 6,800 rpm and 338 Nm of torque at 5,000 rpm (Jonathan’s US test drive review of the car quotes 302 hp and 350 Nm) and an electric motor offering 67 hp and 270 Nm of torque.
Total system output is rated at 364 hp and 546 Nm, the power being put to the rear wheels via a seven-speed automatic transmission with Adaptive Shift Control. It’s good enough to haul the Q50S from standstill to 100 km/h in 5.1 seconds, a time that embarrasses many a hot hatch.
The drivetrain isn’t new, having been adopted from the M35h, but the automaker has given the system a number of modifications and improvements. These include an improved engine start time, the prevention of acceleration shudder from a standing start, smoother acceleration and a wider EV operation range.
The EV motor is claimed to be able to directly power the car at speeds of up to 100 km/h, but if there’s very little load in use speeds of up to 110 km/h is achievable, as managed repeatedly during the review cycle. In operation, transitional aspects are good, and it’s efficient too; out of the 294.5 km done during the test period, 104.7 km of this was accomplished on electric power alone.
The car also incorporates a full suite of the automaker’s driver assist systems. On the list are Lane Departure Warning and Prevention, Blind Spot Warning and Intervention, Back-up Collision Intervention and Predictive Forward Collision Warning as well as an Around View Monitor with moving object detection, on top of the usual raft of safety kit like traction control and vehicle dynamic control.
There’s also the star of the show – though it has been covered previously in the review of the car from the Nissan 360 event, a quick recap on the Infiniti’s Direct Adaptive Steering is probably in order.
The “steer-by-wire” system eschews a traditional mechanical coupling, instead relying on electronic control of front-tyre steering angle and steering input. Three ECUs constantly monitor the system, with a back-up clutch offering a conventional physical connection if the electronic system fails (it’s disengaged otherwise).
Aside from offering improved response, the customisable system is able to isolate that thrown up by road imperfections and surface changes, only offering feedback that’s needed.
There’s also Active Lane Control, in which the steering system – working together with a lane detection camera mounted above the rear-view mirror – monitors lane markers and controls steering movement to reduce the need for steering correction by the driver. Operating from 70km/h and above, the result is improved high-speed straight-line stability.
Four fixed drive modes are available on the Q50S Hybrid via its Drive Mode Selector, these being Snow, Eco, Standard, Sport, which tailor the behaviour of the engine, gearbox, throttle, steering and Active Trace Control – the latter adjusts vehicle braking and engine torque to enhance cornering feel.
There’s also a fifth mode, Personal, which allows the driver to customise drive-related settings such as engine/transmission response, steering weight (Light/Standard/Heavy) and response (Quick/Standard/Casual) as well as the level of Active Trace Control and Active Lane Control input.
As for performance, the first impressions weren’t great, the ride being notably hard and gritty, to the point of the suspension crashing about over ruts. It wasn’t until the onboard tyre pressure monitoring system revealed that all four tyres were running at 46 PSI (nominal, 35 PSI) and the necessary correction made that things changed for the better (neat thing then, the multi-info display).
Once settled, there was much to like. Given the available output the Hybrid can muster, straight-line push is impressive, and the car feels effortless on in-gear take up. Ride is composed at high speeds, and another plus point is the quietness of the ride at speed, something that I’d venture is class leading. Likewise engaging is the growl coming off the V6 at full pelt.
As for handling, you’d be forgiven if you thought the ‘driver focused, rear-wheel drive, perfect weight distribution and cornering performance’ bits being bandied about in what’s tagged a “true sports sedan layout” is talking about some other car we know.
Nonetheless, that which is touted holds up well enough. For sure, the Q50 is inherently sportier than the car it replaces. Push it and you’ll find it handles acceptably well, with a definite tautness and precision in placement missing from its predecessor. It corners rather flatly, and follows-through cleanly enough. In short, it’s actually quite accomplished when pressed.
It is however presented very matter of factly, utterly devoid of emotion, and the clinical presentation is best exemplified by the electronic steering. Positives include a fast response and an easy-working assist at lower end speeds. It also offers the Q50S the ability to track very neatly in a straight line, with aspects of reduced feedback from road peculiarities easily noted.
The issue I have with it – and the rest of the vehicle – is that the feel and actual articulation leaves a lot to be desired when you actually try to drive the car, even with the rather intrusive ALC switched off.
There’s no real communication from the wheel; it feels empty in loading off-centre, and there’s an unshakeable sense of artificiality about how it presents its feedback (hollow) and weight (both light and heavy are what they suggest, but lifelessly so), so it’s left to the chassis to tell you what’s happening, and that also feels a little too electronically-assisted for my taste.
If it sounds that this is being hard on the car, it really isn’t – like I said, it handles quite well, performs nicely in many areas that matter, and is very well specified. It’s just that it’s missing some key blocks (primarily, emotion and with it, emotional appeal) that would otherwise edge it close to its primary competitor.
Love it or hate it, the 3 Series cannot be ignored, because it’s the go-to car for most buyers entering into the segment. Some come into it because of the car’s underlying dynamic abilities, but mostly it is the aura from this, projected across the range, that draws the majority in.
Perception is a powerful thing, built up through time, and every manufacturer seeking to play that particular field has inevitably had to pitch its offerings against the benchmark in the category. Most, with the exception of Mercedes-Benz, which has plied a different tack with its C-Class (generally, that of luxury and refinement), have attempted to take on the Bavarian head on at a game it has mastered completely.
Few have succeeded, despite radically overhauling the approach to their game – witness Lexus and its third-gen IS, it of rakish looks and significantly improved dynamism. Despite it all, the XE30 hasn’t exactly flown off the showroom floor, though the soft adoption rate could arguably well be due to the lack of a smaller displacement engine (which is coming).
In the end, the Infiniti also doesn’t square up completely to the BMW in driving ability, but it has some noticeable pluses over the German – the cabin is a more spacious affair, and when it comes to interior material and trim it’s definitely ahead of the F30. In this regard, it’s hot on the heels of the new W205 C-Class (review out next month).
There’s enough to suggest that it’ll gain some purchase in the segment, aided by the availability of the Q50 2.0t, which has just made its way into the local showroom – all said and done, an under RM400,000 offering that’s the Q50S will be very much a rarity on the road, and hardly representative of the type.
Indeed, the RM250,000 2.0t, equipped with a 2.0 turbocharged Mercedes engine (the M274, as found on the W212 E-Class facelift and upcoming W205 C 200) offering 211 hp and 350 Nm of torque from 1,250 to 3,500 rpm, is the focal point, and for what it is should present a very interesting alternative to buyers, especially those with a left-field view.
It’ll have most of what’s found on the Hybrid kit wise, which will make it far better specified than the competition. And with that drivetrain, it won’t be a slouch either.
All said and done, the Q50 represents a quantum leap – there’s plenty of novelty in the form of tech, and it isn’t half bad as a drive experience. Sure, it’s a bit clinical in its approach, as the view offered by the Hybrid shows, but there’s plenty to like elsewhere, not least the element of luxury, a spacious and well-appointed cabin as well as decently pretty face (mind the rear). Is it good enough to pry the doors open? We shall see.