Can a car brand take an aging, underperforming model and transform it into a top seller? Ladies and gentlemen, I direct your attention to the center ring, as Infiniti attempts this very feat with the all-new QX50. No pushing, please; there are plenty of seats for everyone at this crossover-centric show.
Infiniti’s sales are up, but maintaining the growth means code-cracking the compact luxury crossover space, where the upside is significant but the rivalry is bare-knuckled. The segment’s value-conscious buyers demand luxury and utility in equal measure, and have little tolerance for quirkiness. It’s not lost on Infiniti product planners that, while the previous QX50 offered luxury, it was number-one in quirk. An aging descendent of the fun-but-thirsty EX35-slash-EX37, the outgoing QX50 was a rear-wheel-drive rocketship that shared a sui generis sport-crossover ethos with the retiring QX70. That the new QX50 currently replaces both its own model and the QX70 (at least temporarily) signals a major strategy change for Infiniti’s SUV line. The market has spoken; it’s features, fuel economy, and utility, not high-performance thrills, that seal the deal.
We already know how Infiniti addressed the challenge with a trick, turbocharged variable-compression engine. Where the previous QX50’s revvy VQ-series V-6 defined its sporting spirit, the new model’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder redefines this crossover in terms more commonsensical. Beefier at low revs and more usable at legal speeds, the tech-heavy new mill produces a bit more peak torque than the V-6 (280 pound-feet versus 267). More importantly, the torque comes lower in the rev range and stays table-top flat as the revs build between 1,600 and 4,400 rpm, despite a dip in horsepower from 325 for the V-6 to 268 at 5,600 rpm for the four. Active engine mounts keep the powertrain proceedings plush through hard acceleration, braking, and cornering.
Unfortunately, getting to the engine’s power means reckoning with a CVT transmission—a common feature of modern Nissan products. Unlike a traditional cog-swapper with stair-step gears, the CVT levels out engine output to maximize efficiency. It’s most noticeable when your foot goes to the floor, when it causes the engine to drone like a Cessna throttling up. It takes some getting used to, but the latest CVT’s software does an honorable job mimicking a traditional automatic transmission when it can—and it can also approximate a manual mode well enough to make paddle-shifting-by-wire on twisty canyon roads not entirely un-fun.
Nonetheless, for buyers of compact crossovers, fun is lower on the shopping list than practicality. Buyers will note an increase in steady-state fuel economy over the previous V-6, at 31 mpg highway for front-wheel-drive models and 30 mpg for AWD ones, and a combined 27 mpg for FWD vehicles and 26 mpg for AWD ones. (That said, applying a heavy foot to the turbo-four can make a real dent in the fuel supply.) The new engine is also 40 pounds lighter than the V-6 while taking up less space, factors that carry more weight in this segment than peaky thrills.
Even more vital to the new model’s makeover is its all-new architecture. Transforming the QX50 into a competitive player demanded a wholly reengineered platform. Gone is the old, G-based rear-drive setup; in is a more practical, front-drive-based toolkit with the flexibility to maximize space that manifests in a higher driving position and big improvements in rear legroom and cargo volume. Sliding rear seats boost knee space to a homey 38.7 inches.
Design-wise, attacking a segment rife with entrenched actors and hungry newcomers (oh hello, Jaguar E-Pace)—where design and luxury are often pitted against utility—is no easy task. With tens of thousands of new sales at stake, the new QX50’s refreshed looks had to err on the side of approachable while still flashing bedroom eyes at potential buyers across the dealership floor—which is where the style team earned its pay. Atop a bulldog stance, designers staked out an attractive plot of land between the radical origami of Lexus’s NX/RX and Audi’s doctrinaire Q5. Sharp creases and character lines set off what is largely a conventional silhouette, while a descending roofline nods to its predecessor’s sport-crossover roots while helping reduce drag. (The new design extracts a 6 percent improvement in drag coefficient compared to the previous QX50.) A zig-zag D-pillar is a modern Infiniti design trope that adds a bit of spark to the rear quarter.
Inside, the revitalization continues. Infiniti’s gone all-in on improving interior design and classing up the touch points and visuals with a new spate of soft materials, touting “wrap and sew” production methods that create a cleaner look. In top trim versions, an artful slash of ultrasuede in contrasting color creates an avant-garde interior-design moment. Open-pore (i.e., natural-looking matte finish) maple wood contributes a clean, Scandinavian touch.
While driving dynamics are less important to the new model than ride quality, the QX50 hasn’t completely lost its handling spark. MacPherson struts in front and multilink ones at the rear, with floating-valve dampers all around, keep body roll at bay. While road feel isn’t the new QX50’s core competency, the fourth generation of Infiniti’s adaptive steer-by-wire system is vastly improved over previous versions, offering a more direct feel.
Infiniti is using the QX50's launch to roll out its version of Nissan's ProPilot semi-autonomous system, which bundles several driver-assistance functions—including direct adaptive steering, intelligent cruise control, lane-keeping assist distance-control assist, and more under the command of a single button on the dash. The radar-and-camera-based system is similar to that introduced in the new-gen Nissan Leaf, and it's the easiest system on the market right now to turn on. Engineers chose to limit its functionality to well-marked highways that host most drivers' commutes. Acknowledging the current killer app for autonomy is heavy traffic, the system excels when volume is high and variables are few. In light traffic, though, it feels locked down, with little lane modulation in turns. The system can become confused, however, when aggressive human motorists cut multiple lanes across its field of vision, at which point it applies the brakes too harshly. Still, it’s a solid 80-percent solution for now—one that leaves room for data collection and incremental improvement over time.
For the moment, the QX50 doesn't offer Apple CarPlay; rather, it uses the company's walled-garden InTouch infotainment system, controlled via dual touchscreen displays. Passengers can opt to stream onboard media to their devices via Bluetooth. A optional new 16-speaker Bose Performance Series stereo proved an improvement in dynamic range, particularly when tested with a 1980s hair-metal marathon. (No judgement, please.)
Infiniti says the QX50's sales will favor well-heeled young families and downsizing empty nesters, prime candidates for compact luxury crossovers; the trunk, its press release says, can accommodate “three golf bags, or a stroller situated length-wise.” No doubt, giving customers what they demand will likely serve the new QX50 well, even if it rankles enthusiasts. Infiniti has deconstructed the market to within an inch of its life, and built a crossover that is competitive one both raw hard stats and more nebulous X-factors. All of which will help Infiniti to try and suss out the best possible answer to the important question: How many QX50s can the company sell?