With revolutionary engine tech and an all new platform, the QX50 marks the transition of Infiniti from a top-level also-ran to a top-notch luxury contender
Reinventing the wheel. It’s a phrase taken to mean unnecessarily expending time and effort trying to do something in a drastically new or different way, and is usually used negatively. But reinventing the engine? Well, nobody’s said anything about that.
That’s exactly what Infiniti has been doing for the past two decades, developing tech that will help keep internal combustion alive. Mazda’s also been working on its own devilishly clever technology, but Infiniti’s innovation is the first to reach production.
It’s called VC-Turbo, and is claimed to be able to marry the best that petrol and diesel engines have to offer – but more on that later.
The vehicle it’s chosen to be the standard-bearer for this new tech? Why, the new QX50 crossover.
No surprise really, considering the sport utility vehicle (SUV) segment is seeing continued rapid growth all around the world, according to automotive market research firm JATO.
If Infiniti’s going to have its best shot at having its new technology adopted, it’s going to be in an SUV – even if we here at CarBuyer generally detest the high-riding things.
Thing is though, once in a while something comes along to remind us why the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover (or genre)” exists, and the QX50 is one such thing.
In addition to the engine, the QX50 also sits on an all-new platform – front-wheel drive-based, instead of rear-wheel drive-based like its old Nissan-derived platform – which we’re guessing will go on to underpin many of the company’s future mid-sized offerings.
To start off with, the QX50 looks good. Really good. Its proportions are elegant, its trimmings restrained, and its details intriguing. We particular love the slim head/taillights, the zig-zag kink in the D-pillar, and the twin peaks on the bonnet that fall away to form a sort of clamshell effect.
It certainly looks more discreet than the BMW X3, less divisive than the Lexus NX, and sharper than the Mercedes-Benz GLC. Even the slick Volvo XC60 would have trouble in a pageant against the Infiniti.
The inside too, is classy and distinctive. The asymmetric look is a clear progression Infiniti’s existing design language, and it’s paired with an appealingly plush mix of materials – the pale open-pore maplewood inserts and swathes of fuzzy suede being the tactile highlights.
Bonus points too for the physical buttons for the aircon and audio controls, which we maintain are far safer than having to dig through multiple menus to find the correct function.
Apart from being nice to look at, the QX50’s interior is also a very comfortable place to sit in. The front seats are well-padded, and even ventilated to boot, while rear passengers enjoy masses of legroom, as well as adjustable backrests.
Those rear seats can slide back and forth too, to provide more cargo room as needed – up to 881-litres with the seats up, Infiniti claims, although we suspect this figure wasn’t derived with the seats in their most reclined and rearward position.
So far, so pleasant then – and normal too. The QX50 doesn’t shout about what it’s packing in its oily bits, which makes the driving experience all the more striking: this thing is fantastic on the move.
We’ll start with the big headline: the engine. It’s a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that Infiniti calls VC-Turbo. This stands for Variable Compression, and it’s the first engine in a production car that’s able to alter its compression ratio on the fly: between 8:0 and 14:0, prioritising performance or economy as the situation demands.
The upshot is that this tech allows the engine to deliver the power of a V6, the torque of a beefy diesel, and the fuel consumption of a meek 2.0-litre.
Based on our test drive, we think Infiniti’s probably overselling the economy credentials slightly, but boy does it pack a punch. The VC-Turbo’s 268hp and 380Nm peak outputs aren’t the highest (the Jaguar E-Pace packs 300hp and 400Nm), but each of those horses certainly feels plenty healthy.
Off the line and at full throttle, the engine feels a little ho-hum, but in part-throttle roll-on acceleration, the QX50 really shines, transporting you from 50 to 90km/h in the blink of an eye.
It’s borderline addictive, feeling the swell of torque hustle the car’s not-inconsiderable 1,890kg to silly speeds with unfettered haste.
What’s even more impressive about this engine is its refinement. We’re not sure if it’s due to the active engine mount or a side effect of the VC’s mechanisms (probably both), but this has got to be one of the smoothest four-pots today.
Where the stop-start system in most cars would shake the whole vehicle when waking the engine, in the QX50 you can only (barely) hear, not feel it working. Under full-bore acceleration too, there’s a distinct lack of vibrations filtering to the cabin.
Also exceptional is the QX50’s ride, normally our chief bugbear of SUVs. Despite wearing huge 20-inch shoes, the car floats over rough roadworks and cushions road humps both big and small, which really adds to the luxury of the drive.
There is a price to pay, the QX50 displaying an obvious reluctance to rapidly change direction and a remarkable amount of understeer at the limit, but the trade-off in comfort is well worth the compromise.
At this stage you’re probably thinking “mmm, fast, comfortable, spacious, looks and feels good inside and out – perfect”! Well, unfortunately, there’s a huge fly in the ointment: in this age of smartphones and tablets, where device graphics are crisp as your own eyesight, response times are quick as thought and the infinite knowledge of the internet is at your fingertips, the QX50’s infotainment system is simply unforgivable.
Where all its rivals sport large displays, slick interfaces, and cohesive, consistent operation, the QX50s’ twin screen is a mish-mash in its looks: the bottom, glossy screen is fine, although it’s a magnet for fingerprints, but the graphics for the top screen – reserved for navigation and the surround-view camera – look more 2009 than 2019, and it’s intensely jarring how different the two look.
Meanwhile, you can’t search for locations in the navigation unless you know the street address, and typing anything into the 7.0-inch bottom screen is a major distraction because the keys are small and the screen is so far down the console. Perhaps worst of all is that Apple CarPlay/Android Auto aren’t even available as options to help you skirt this issue.
Furthermore, although the equipment list is decent (panoramic sunroof, 16-speaker Bose sound system, tri-zone aircon, 360-degree camera, nine airbags and four USB ports as standard), there’s no active safety tech such as blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist, forward collision warning, or autonomous emergency braking to speak of.
This lack of onboard tech is a seriously glaring contrast to the impressive engine tech – especially in this digitally connected world where smartphones are used as an analogue to basically anything with a screen – and could understandably be a deal-breaker for some.
Still, it does earn some reprieve by being the cheapest mid-sized premium SUV around, and by massively outgunning all its closest competitors. Its $195,800 (with COE) price tag for the Essential model undercuts rivals by at least $15k, and is the one we’d pick over our Sensory test car, which costs $212,800.
Make no mistake, in this application the VC-Turbo technology works extremely well, and we’re intrigued to see how it’s applied in future models. But for all that innovation, the lacklustre infotainment means we can’t recommend the QX50 without a caveat.
If you’re plugged into the digital age, the QX50 is simply not smart enough; otherwise if your idea of luxury is based on what you can see, touch and feel, then its handsome styling, quality interior and sublime road manners are near the top of the class.
Infiniti QX50 Sensory
|Engine||1,997cc, inline 4, turbocharged|
|Power||268hp at 5600rpm|
|Torque||380Nm at 1600-4800rpm|
|Gearbox||Continuously Variable Transmission|
|VES / CO2||C2 / unknown g/km CO2|
|Price||$212,800 with COE|