BACK ON TAR­GET 2019 In­finiti QX50


Motor Trend (USA) - - Contents - Words Jonny Lieber­man

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.

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