In Style + Design

Test Drive: Infiniti QX50

Being a challenger brand is never easy, particularly in one of the world’s most competitive car markets, but when a company has been at it since 2012 and a lot of people still don’t recognise the badge, you know they’re up against it. That’s the situation Infiniti – which is to Nissan what Lexus is to Toyota – finds itself in, despite trying various vehicles of different shapes and sizes over the years, but it could all be about to change with the launch of one Goldilocks vehicle; the QX50.

There are more than 50 car makers competing for a market that nudges just over one million sales each year, and the competition at the premium end is perhaps the most intense of all. The big three Germans – Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi – eat most of the sales pie chart, with Lexus, Jaguar and Volvo fighting for scraps, and Infiniti, so far, surviving off crumbs.

The QX50 could change that, not just because it’s a new and exciting looking entrant in the biggest premium segment of all – mid-size SUVs – but because it offers something truly revolutionary; an entirely new form of engine technology that its competitors have been trying, and failing, to master for years.

It’s called a Variable Compression Turbo engine, or VC-Turbo, and it’s a small four-cylinder petrol unit that can produce the power and torque you’d expect from a far bigger V6, matched with the fuel economy of a small diesel motor. It is, in motoring terms, the equivalent of alchemy, or like producing a delicious burger with just 10 calories and zero fat.

The trick is the variable compression technology, which has taken years of research by Infiniti, and parent company Nissan, to perfect, and is the subject of more than 300 patents. Furrow your brow for a second in a scholarly way as we explain how it works. Basically, engines generally either run higher compression ratios, for better fuel efficiency, or lower ones for more excitement and power. The trick, for the best cars, is finding the perfect compression ratio that can provide a bit of both.

If you could switch ratios constantly while on the fly, however, which is what the VC-Turbo can do – by using a multi-link system that ingeniously changes the reach of the pistons on demand – you’d be able to offer the best of both worlds.

The QX50 is the first production car in the world to offer such an engine, and on paper it sounds pretty impressive, with 200kW and 380Nm, impressive figures for a small, 2.0-litre engine, and claimed fuel economy of just 9.0 litres per 100km.

Infiniti knows that tech will draw some people, and tech-loving blokes in particular, into the showroom, but it also knows this car has to look and feel premium, and it does, in a way that no Infiniti has quite managed before.

The external proportions are just right and the quality and feel of the surfaces and touch points in the interior are spot on, and possibly even better than what Lexus, its closest competitor, offers.

There’s plenty of room in the back seat for actual, full-size humans and clever touches like Bose noise-cancelling speakers, for a quieter cabin.

We can’t tell you if they work, however, because our exclusive preview drive was held on brutal, unsealed roads in a rugged corner of Mongolia. The noise from the gravel roads, and occasional surprise ditches, was quite something, but what was impressive was how well the QX50, a soft roader rather than a big, tough SUV, held together.

As for the engine, it’s an absolute belter, with the kind of mid-range shove that puts a smile on your face, and feels like it must be coming from a far bigger engine.

Hit the throttle from anywhere over 3000rpm, in any gear, and there’s surging acceleration on tap. It’s slightly slow off the line, sadly, which limits its 0 to 100km/h dash to 6.3 seconds (which is still pretty good). That hesitation is most likely caused by its Constantly Variable Transmission, rather than the engine itself, which seems very willing.

The QX50 will go on sale early next year in Australia, so Infiniti isn’t talking about pricing just yet, although you can bet it will be both competitive and tempting. And that you’ll be seeing a lot more publicity around the Infiniti brand once it has something this exciting to sell.

Published 23 August, 2018