BACK ON TARGET 2019 Infiniti QX50
THE GROUNDBREAKING QX50 MOVES INFINITI FORWARD
A new engine technology moves Infiniti forward. Jonny Lieberman
At some point in the past I spent time behind the wheel of the old QX50; however, I have no memory of doing so and as such hold no opinion of Infiniti’s compact premium SUV. Well, other than it was never much to look at.
The all-new QX50 is handsome. Detractors will grumble that it resembles a Mazda CX-3. So what? The Ford Fusion has looked like an Aston Martin for years. We’ve all survived. The QX50 shows off Infiniti’s talent and affinity for putting sharp creases into curved metal. Such handiwork is impressive from a stamping perspective with the added benefit of looking premium. The interior is (for the most part) pretty spiffy, as well—especially on higher-trim models with the blue suede accents. I do have one giant gripe, but let’s save that for later.
But enough about design and materials. The QX50 will go down in the annals of
car (geek) history for one very important reason: It’s the first production vehicle to come with Infiniti’s Vc-turbo 2.0-liter inline-four. The VC stands for variable compression, and the Vc-turbo can run at anywhere from 8:1 to 14:1. If the governing computer sees a need for 10.5:1, the engine’s compression can switch to that ratio in an instant. Long story short, the high 14:1 compression ratio is great for low-load, high-mpg cruising. The 8:1 ratio is best for creating big power with the help of a turbocharger. Based on the driver’s right foot, the engine literally repositions the bottom end of the connecting rod to vary the compression.
Peak output is 268 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque from 1,600 to 4,800 rpm. The Vc-turbo replaces the old VQ 3.7-liter V-6, which was good for 325 hp at 7,000 rpm and 267 lb-ft of torque at 5,200 rpm. Obviously, the old engine made a ton more power than the Vc-turbo. But look at where the VQ delivered its power; no previous-gen QX50 owner ever intentionally revved his or her engine out to 7,000 rpm. Plus, not only is torque increased with the new engine, but its peak also shows up at very low revs.
As the ever-quotable Bob Lutz famously said, “Americans buy horsepower but drive torque.” In other words, yeah, the “big” number is lower, but do people buying SUVS like the QX50 actually care? I doubt it, and Infiniti is betting
on them not, either. Besides, compared to the 2.0-liter turbo I-4s found in the competition—audi Q5, Mercedes-benz GLC, BMW X3, Lexus Nx—the Infiniti nonetheless makes more horsepower. Also important as gas prices edge upward again: Fuel economy is up by a whopping 35 percent compared to the old QX50— 26–27 mpg combined instead of 20.
The Vc-turbo has some other cool features, too, such as a multipath cooling system, variable geometry oil pumps, and plasma-transferred wire arc cylinder liners (as found on the Nissan GT-R). The turbo bolts right to the cylinder head to reduce spool-up time and turbo lag.
In the early morning light of the rapidly approaching age of the electric car, we are seeing wonderful engineering Hail Marys. Take Mercedes-benz’s new M256 inline-six, a beltless, starterless, alternatorless 48-volt tour de force, complete with an electric supercharger. Mazda has developed a fuel-saving, torque-boosting compression ignition system. A Swedish company called Freevalve is set to put a camless valvetrain into production. With the Vc-turbo, Infiniti joins the chorus of innovators proving the internal combustion engine ain’t dead yet.
Vc-turbo works quite well. I was never in a situation where the QX50 felt underpowered. On crowded L.A. streets where we rarely managed to go the speed limit, the engine was calm and quiet, and I wasn’t even thinking about the technological marvel sitting inches in front of my right foot. The light turned green, and taking one for science, I stomped my right foot down. Just like that, the Vc-turbo roared to life. I was suddenly piloting a quick SUV, just as advertised. You can’t detect when the compression ratio changes. In fact, attaching the conrods to the moveable secondary linkage smooths things out to the point where the engine doesn’t need balance shafts. I truly am blown away by this engine.
That said, I have real issues with Infiniti’s choice of transmission. The Vc-turbo is a transverse-mount engine and thus won’t play with the fine sevenspeed automatic found in the Q50 and other Infiniti products. And rather than talk with its joint venture besties Mercedes-benz to borrow the reinforced seven-speed dual-clutch from the GLA45 (which Infiniti already uses in downrated form in the QX30), Infiniti instead installed the ponderous, oft-derided CVT found in the QX60 and both the Nissan Maxima and Pathfinder.
Why would you bring to market one of the most technologically advanced engines ever sold and mate it to a hated transmission? Cost savings, likely. But it’s a bad pairing. I’d imagine a constant gear ratio would allow the engine to vary the compression most efficiently. Even if that’s not the case, and especially when you put the QX50 into Sport mode, the transmission does everything enthusiastic drivers hate about CVTS. It holds the engine at high revs even if your foot is off the throttle. Plus, you know, it doesn’t actually shift.
Now, to the structure: The entire QX50 platform is new. The body-in-white is 23 percent stiffer than before. Lighter, too, but we’ll wait until we plop one on our scales to be sure exactly how much. The old QX50 was derived from the G sedan (now called the Q50) and as such was front-engine and rear-wheel drive. That’s a great combination for a sport sedan but, as it turns out, a fairly crummy way to lay out a small SUV. The new QX50 is frontengine, front-wheel drive, but (of course) it can be had with AWD.
Why is this better? Basically, a front-engine, rear-drive vehicle has
With the Vc-turbo, Infiniti joins the chorus of innovators proving the internal combustion engine ain’t dead yet.
its transmission behind the engine, eating up precious cabin space. In a Fwd-derived vehicle, the transmission can be next to the engine. In terms of roominess and cargo capacity, FWD platforms are the better way to build a people schlepper. Years ago a friend of mine had to sell her Infiniti SUV because her infant’s car seat wouldn’t fit. No such problems will happen with the new QX50. In fact, the spacious baby hauler now sports reclining rear seats.
Like the Q50 sedan and Q60 coupe, the QX50 comes with Infiniti’s much maligned—and let’s be real, rightly maligned—steer-by-wire technology. However, unlike the Q50 and Q60, the QX50’S virtual steering feels pretty good. The SUV steers just like a normal vehicle and as well as any of its competitors. Sports car good? No way, but then that’s not the segment the QX50 competes in.
Speaking of steering by wire, the QX50 can be had with Nissan and Infiniti’s Propilot Assist, which under certain conditions can steer, brake, and accelerate the vehicle. Until passenger cars come packing actual artificial intelligence, it’s best to think of all systems resembling Propilot Assist as fancy forms of cruise control. Basically, they can relieve a little bit of the suffering from being stuck in stop-and-go traffic. In addition, these not-quite-autonomous systems prevent you from killing others if you look at a text message or open a bottle of water. (Ahem, don’t text and drive.)
But while Propilot spares headaches, I was frustrated by the dual-screen navigation and entertainment system. Infiniti claims that two screens are preferred by customers because that setup allows the map to be permanently displayed. Sure, always having a map is great. But there’s an excellent way to have a permanent map (like in my Audi Allroad) as opposed to Infiniti’s bad way. And like Lexus, Infiniti weirdly refuses to put current mapping technology into its vehicles. No one will explain why.
Perhaps worst of all, the fonts and user interfaces for the two display screens are a UX nightmare. The lower touchscreen is controlled not by the rotary controller (that’s for the top screen) or even by touching it but by a bunch of plastic buttons below the bottom screen. And on the sides. The whole mess makes no sense. It’s as if a haptic hand grenade went off and the designers said, “It’s good enough. Let’s get lunch.”
Premium SUVS are huge sellers and huge profit centers for carmakers. Get it right, and the money rolls in. Get it wrong, and, well, there’s really no getting it wrong. The stakes are just too high.
For the most part, Infiniti got the QX50 right. The exterior is gorgeous and looks premium. It’s fuel-efficient yet powerful. It’s small on the outside but large on the inside. The QX50 is even priced competitively, starting at $37,545, with a fully loaded AWD model clocking in at $61,995. My quibbles aside, the most competitive segment in the luxury car world just got a whole lot more cutthroat. More like this, Infiniti. More like this. n
ODD KNOB Infiniti’s rotary knob controls the top screen only, which makes zero sense.