Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Infiniti Q50 AWD

The Infiniti line-up has always been sporty and is oft considered the Japanese equivalent of BMW, offering performance oriented cars with a touch of luxury. It's volume seller of the last decade, the G sedans and coupes, were among some of the best driving cars among the Japanese luxury brands. In fact, I nearly bought a G35 and a G37 when each car came out, the only thing holding me back being the slightly sub-standard interior materials and the poorly executed manual transmission shifter and clutch. However, if you were looking at the cars with automatic transmissions, they really were fantastic cars to drive. However, to replace the G37, Infiniti has developed not only a whole new car, but has also adopted a whole new naming scheme. What was once the G37 is now the much more non-sensical Q50. However, a lot more than the name was lost in this transition. The new Q50 may be a step up from the G37 in terms interior quality, but seems to have sacrificed some of its sporting character at the altar of luxury.

It was a rather cold and windy day when I went to test the Q50, and yet the dealership was quite busy, the only salesperson available being someone who was brand new to the dealership. While I waited to be helped, I took the opportunity to acquaint myself with the appearance of this new model. The new design, clearly evolved from Infiniti's recent concept cars, is generally attractive, with taut haunches, an upright grille, and a shape that is quite athletic. Unfortunately, it is so toned down from the more sinuous Essence concept that the end result is a profile that is a bit generic and the rear end bears some resemblance to the M37, but also any number of other cars that have recently been introduced. It is certainly distinctive and recognizable from the front, but the rest of the car feels a touch forgettable. Perhaps this is the result of automotive design becoming a touch too derivative these days and too many cars are starting to look too similar to each other.

Grab the door handle, give it a tug, and the door opens with a slight hollowness to it that is further accentuated when you pull the door shut. Inside, the materials feel better than those used in the G37, but there are still a few pieces that feel a bit cheap and the wood grain panels covering various parts of the dash look terribly fake and plasticky. Honestly, I do not understand why manufacturers continue to lacquer their wood trim pieces to such a glossy shine because it inevitably just ends up looking like cheap plastic. Between two of the large pieces of shiny fake wood covering the center console sits two digital display panels, the lower one being a touch screen. Unfortunately, Infiniti has chosen to make this screen with a very shiny surface, resulting in both glare issues as well as fingerprints being visible everywhere. Luckily, the important bits for driving, including the seats and steering wheel, feel well made and comfortable. The pedals are set just right and it was easy to find a comfortable seating position.

Firing up the car, it starts up with a touch of rasp in the exhaust note that disappears almost instantaneously, leaving a rather bland intake track, with little excitement, to fill the void. Setting the car into sport mode, I shift into gear and gently depress the throttle, which responds with good resistance and immediacy. The steering, in sport mode, weights up nicely and offers reasonably good feedback, but is definitely a step in the wrong direction compared with the near telepathic steering system used in the G37. 

Easing the car out of the lot, I immediately notice something odd. The car feels unsettled, seemingly swaying slightly from side to side. Quickly, I check the tire pressures, but they look right on spec. Weird. At this point, I consider if perhaps it is the road surface, so I continue to observe after some turns onto a few different roads, but the oscillation, which has no specific frequency and seems to be following the undulations and imperfections in the road surface, continues unabated. Figuring that the road cannot possibly be this bad and that there might be something wrong with the car, I casually mention the weird sensation to the salesperson, who cheerfully tells me that this is a feature of the car's active steering, which is made possible by the steer by wire system that Infiniti introduced on this car. This trick system basically relies on sensors and electric motors to control the steering, although a conventional steering column is present in case of electronic system failure, allowing it to not only adjust the steering effort, but also make minute corrections at the wheels to compensate for the road surface. Unfortunately, this system is precisely what causes the swaying motion and quickly becomes tiresome as it results in this uncomfortable sensation. I am sure to the average driver, this would be unnoticeable after a few miles of driving and the first phone call, but to an enthusiast, it is going to be very distracting and uncomfortable. Luckily, I am told that the system is fully defeatable.

Luckily, Infiniti opted not to mess with the fantastic VQ motor, which repeats here in its latest iteration, providing plenty of power and the same familiar thrilling thrust. Of course, the presence of the AWD system does sap a tiny bit of the power, but it is hardly noticeable when you dip into the throttle. And as much as the steering system leaves a bit to be desired, the throttle controls definitely offer excellent control. Unfortunately, Infiniti saw fit that to tamp down the Q50's exhaust note to the point that it is muffled beyond recognition. None of the raspy exhaust note that the G37 is notorious for makes it into the cabin, though it is still audible from outside the car.

With all of the systems so heavily controlled by the computers, the steering, throttle, and transmission feel are fully adjustable as a part of the adaptable settings. Sport mode offers the most direct feel with sharp throttle, crisp shifts, and weighty steering. Switching to eco mode makes everything go limp, with the throttle becoming unresponsive, the steering feather-light, and the transmission languid. Each mode is distinct enough to be extremely noticeable and actually makes a dramatic difference to how the car drives. The one constant, regardless of mode, is the brakes, which remain strong and linear throughout, instilling confidence that car will stop when you want it to.

Pulling the car back into the dealership, I took advantage of the one truly useful piece of technology, Infiniti's Around View camera setup, to maneuver the car back into a slightly awkward parking spot. This is probably the only piece of tech on this car that I not only have no complaints about, but would actually want to have included, and feel should be included, by all manufacturers. Getting out the car and doing a final walk-around, I made one final note that the trunk of the Q50 continues the trend of being smallish with a tiny opening, a characteristic that also pervaded the G37 line-up.

Unfortunately for Infiniti, they have created a solid chassis and motor, but ruined it with a bunch of technology for technology's sake. The G37 was always great fun precisely because it had an analog authenticity to it. Just to make sure I was not romanticizing it, I took a comparable G37x out on a test drive and affirmed that as a driver's car, the G37 is unquestionably better in just about every way. There is a sharpness to it that the Q50 simply lacks, in large part because of the layer of electronic wizardry that separates the driver from the driving experience. While I realize that some of this can be turned off and disabled, the inclusion of it to begin with strikes me as a disappointment because it takes what was a promising new car and makes it merely mediocre.