Test Drive: 2015 Infiniti Q50

Can something be too good for its own good?

The Infiniti G35 and G37 seemed to come so close to knocking the 3 Series off its pedestal that anything less than a 3-killer for Infiniti’s latest compact luxury sport sedan, now rebooted as the Q50, would be a disappointment.

The G35 was a tough act to follow, but more than any other Japanese marque, it was a contender that packaged sporty dynamics to match the best in the segment.

However, it’s a strange case of the market dictating, a brand listening and delivering a product that we critics perhaps weren’t looking for. The G35 was a tough act to follow, but more than any other Japanese marque, it was a contender that packaged sporty dynamics to match the best in the segment, with character and value all its own, though perhaps not quite the same polish and poise as the benchmark in this category.

And then along came the new 3 Series, which was bigger and softer and more luxurious, but still a driving machine at heart, though the door was open just a crack. Cadillac’s ATS trumped it for its driving manners, but fell short on practicality, Mercedes-Benz has reclaimed its luxury leader status with the new C-Class, Lexus IS has the reliability card up its sleeve and while Audi’s A4 matches it step for step in most cases, the BMW still dominates the sales charts by virtue of its cachet and familiarity, and a proliferation of body styles and trims for every taste (and lack thereof).

Infiniti came to the table in this generation armed to the teeth with technology and value, but has it lost its charm in the process? Does it even matter? Perhaps it does. We see none of the usual surge in sales usually coupled with new models, an interminable wait for the new coupe based on the same new platform, and only a prototype of a proper sport model to take on the M3s and AMGs of the luxury world.

Sales of the Q50 in North America are well off the high water mark of the G in 2007, even when accounting for the coupe now being sold as the Q60. Infiniti, however, is buoyed by its burgeoning sales in China and other global markets, while in North America SUV and crossover sales have helped make up the difference and help the company achieve some modest gains.

Where Infiniti is proposing a hybrid as its performance model, that’s a path others have gone before and failed to capture anyone’s interest.

Head-to-head: Comparison Test: 2015 Infiniti Q50 AWD vs 2015 Acura TLX V6 SH-AWD

In this segment, first impressions matter, and the Q50 somehow makes an interesting design seem bland, perhaps because of the lack of a giant and scary grille. It certainly has the angry headlights that are de rigueur these days, so much so that there is a distinct resemblance to an angry internet cat, but the silky curving character lines seem lost on a car that comes across as soft and somewhat generic. I find the details stunning, but the whole comes off rather bland.

Inside, the design remains even more conservative, a dominant vertical centre console, with a bit of flare in a metallic trim accent line running down the right side of the centre stack and then slashing across the console, separating the shifter and controls from the large cupholders, set in a panel of glossy wood veneer. I don’t like it.

I was also frustrated by Infiniti’s move to the double screen setup that afflicts Honda and Acura products. While it creates more screen real estate, the touchscreen on the bottom is slow to respond and seems full of useless functions, except the ones that are redundant to features available on the top screen, which is controlled via the dial and buttons on the centre console. This controller isn’t as flexible or capable as the ones found in German products from BMW, Audi and Benz, with neither the touchpad handwriting recognition tool nor a consistent, logical menu layout. These two screens seem to be working in a strange world of redundancy and disarray that is only eclipsed by Acura’s tortuous system.

Thankfully, the screens are surrounded by simple buttons for the climate control, with soft, luxurious materials throughout the cabin, and once you’ve selected your audio favourites and set up your phone, it is a smoother experience. More successful is the steering wheel, with thick, meaty spokes and supple, thick leather, and clever controls for the adaptive cruise control, driving aids and basic audio, phone and voice command. The gauge cluster is also a win, with a helpful colour information display between the bright clear primary gauges.

The seats were covered in similarly plush leather and the front positions comfortable at all times, but the second row seemed confining despite listing legroom and shoulder room competitive with anything in the class. The large centre tunnel and centre seat hump make that position almost intolerable. Outboard seats were more reasonable, a but a slight shortage of headroom and the dark interior perhaps made the back seat seem more confining than it actually was. The trunk is on par for this class, with split folding rear seats and a pass-through for longer items.

For all my quibbles with the infotainment system, the Q50 retains its essential goodness on the road, though its priorities may have shifted. The 3.7L V6 is still standard equipment, making an impressive 328 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. With all that power and AWD, you wouldn’t be wrong to expect a fair bit of thirst, and at 12.5/8.7/10.8 L/100 km for city/highway/combined ratings, it’s neither a leader nor the worst offender (the heavier, more powerful S4 comes to mind), and in our tests we saw 10.6 L/100 km in the summer heat with A/C blasting and 12.3 L/100 km in winter conditions, so expect no worse than the latter.

Don’t forget, this is the Q50’s base engine, available from under $40K, and trouncing the competitors’ two-litre turbos for power, and even topping many of the other V6 powertrains in the segment. We spent some time earlier this year in a basic AWD car, and this past week we sampled the AWD Limited with a few options packages, and both shared the same quiet confidence and capability, but perhaps without the same engagement noted in previous generations.

On paper, much is the same: the ride is supple and well controlled, the steering quick and precise, the power is enthusiastic, even for its corpulent 1,746 kg, and it has the requisite sport mode to sharpen throttle response and character. What may be lacking is a certain amount of crispness to the feedback, through the steering, the muted chassis, the increased sound insulation and greater ‘refinement’, a pitfall the 3 Series managed to avoid despite getting bigger, softer, more refined, and something Audis have been gaining.

The car is no less capable, to our senses, and the Dunlop Sport 5000 245/40RF19 tires held on admirably when pushed, but the rewards seem lacking when pushing. The seven-speed automatic is smooth yet not particularly sharp and AWD undetectable – even in our earlier winter test, where it kept the car planted and surefooted at all times.

While this is not intended as a condemnation of the Q50, it is a bit sad that what it does best is crawl along in stop-and-go traffic. Yup, radar cruise control with lane keep assist and almost every latest driver aid is on deck and ready to beep, buzz, brake and even nudge you back into your lane if you should stray. It is pretty wonderful. Some of you out there might fear the rise of Skynet, but I found that the Q50 relieved a couple of 15-minute stretches of the most stressful parts of my day. The Infiniti’s system feels the most natural and seamless of the automated driving experiences I’ve tried.

While crossing segments slightly, this price point and these capabilities made me think of the Audi S3, also equipped with reassuring lane keeping and adaptive cruise and hitting about the same price point. But get away from traffic, even if only on that last onramp, and the S3 comes alive, the exhaust, steering and handling crackling at your senses.

The question is, how many people are looking for that? The Q50 has a decent back seat and trunks, fine quality interior, all the gadgets and technology of many flagships and standout power. What it may lack for in feel and character, it certainly makes up for by being good. Or does the fact that it’s so good make it seem like it has no particular character? While anonymous works in certain segments, and from brands that are better established, younger luxury brands like Infiniti need to continue breaking the mould and challenging conventions, with perhaps a little more variety in the lineup, with a more efficient basic needs engine to appease those that simply want the luxury without the power, and a true performance variant to give the whole lineup a sporty glow by association. The Q50 is good, but it needs to be better.

Warranty:
4 years/100,000 km; 6 years/110,000 km powertrain; 7 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/100,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Acura TLX
Audi A4
BMW 3 Series
Cadillac ATS
Lexus IS
Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Volvo S60

2015 Infiniti Q50 AWD Limited
2015 Infiniti Q50 AWD Limited
Base Price $39,950
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,995
Price as Tested $51,780
Optional Equipment $9,735 (Deluxe Touring & Tech Package – $4,300; Premium and Navigation Package – $3,900; Moonroof Package – $1,250; Asgard grey - $285)
Optional Equipment