2019 Infiniti QX50 First Drive: Back On Target


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A writing job at Motor Trend can be described like this: Every year, you drive every new car, truck, SUV, and minivan on the market, and you have to generate an opinion about each and every one.

At some point in the past I spent time behind the wheel of the old QX50; however, I have no memory of doing so and as such hold no opinion of Infiniti’s compact premium SUV. Well, other than it was never much to look at, though the malformed metal goes back to the pre–Johan de Nysschen days when the lumpy thing was called the EX35.

But things change. I just spent the day with the all-new 2019 QX50. Let’s just say I won’t be forgetting this one anytime soon.

The new QX50 is handsome and honestly good-looking. Detractors will no doubt say something about how Infiniti’s newest crossover resembles a Mazda CX-3. So what? The Ford Fusion has looked like an Aston Martin for years now. We’ve all survived. The QX50 shows off Infiniti’s talent and affinity for putting sharp creases into curved metal. Such handiwork is impressive from a stamping perspective with the added benefit of looking premium. Plus, the crescent kink in the D-pillar is the first time that particular design trait has worked on a production Infiniti. For proof, check out the hard side of a Q60. Tell me that C-pillar isn’t odd. With the QX50, it totally works. The interior is (for the most part) pretty spiffy, as well—especially on higher trimmed models with the blue suede accents. I do have one giant gripe, but let’s save that for later.

The QX50 will go down in the annals of car (geek) history for one very important reason: It’s the first production vehicle to come with Infiniti’s VC-Turbo 2.0-liter inline-four. The VC stands for variable compression, and the VC-Turbo can run at anywhere from 8:1 to 14:1. If the governing computer sees a need for 10.5:1, the engine’s compression can switch to that ratio.

The VC-Turbo also features variable displacement, though a) VD-Turbo would have been a horrible name, and b) the displacement grows only from 1,992 cubic centimeters to 1,997; it remains a 2.0-liter throughout. Long story short, the high 14:1 compression ratio is great for low-load, high-mpg cruising. The 8:1 ratio is best for creating big power with the help of a turbocharger. Based on the driver’s right foot, the engine literally repositions the bottom end of the connecting rod to vary the compression.

Peak output is 268 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque from 1,600 to 4,800 rpm. The VC-Turbo replaces the old VQ 3.7-liter V-6, which was good for 325 hp at 7,000 rpm and 267 lb-ft of torque at 5,200 rpm. Obviously, the old engine made 17.5 percent more power than the VC-Turbo does. But look at where the VQ delivered its power. Let’s be honest: No QX50 owner ever intentionally revved his or her engine out to 7,000 rpm. Plus, not only is torque increased with the new engine, but the peak also shows up at very low revs.

As the ever-quotable Bob Lutz famously said, “Americans buy horsepower but drive torque.” In other words, yeah, the “big” number is lower, but do people buying SUVs like the QX50 actually care? I doubt it, and Infiniti is betting on them not, either. Besides, compared to the 2.0-liter turbo I-4s found in the competition—Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLC, BMW X3, Lexus NX—the Infiniti makes more horsepower. Also important as gas prices edge upward again: Fuel economy is up by a whopping 35 percent compared to the old car—26–27 mpg combined instead of 20.

The VC-Turbo has some other cool features, too, such as a multipath cooling system, variable geometry oil pumps, and plasma-transferred wire arc cylinder liners (as found on the Nissan GT-R). The turbo bolts right to the cylinder head to reduce spool-up time and turbo lag.

In the early morning light of the rapidly approaching age of the electric car—Infiniti, for instance, just announced that every new car starting in 2021 will be “electrified”—we are seeing wonderful engineering Hail Marys. Take Mercedes-Benz’s new M256 inline-six, a 48-volt beltless, starterless, alternatorless tour de force, complete with an electric supercharger. A Swedish company called Freevalve is set to put a camless valve train into production. With the VC-Turbo, Infiniti joins the chorus of innovators proving the internal combustion engine ain’t dead yet.

The entire QX50 platform is new, too. The body-in-white is 23 percent stiffer than before. Lighter, too, but we’ll wait until we plop one on our scales to be sure exactly how much. The old QX50 was derived from the G sedan (now called the Q50) and as such was front-engine and rear-wheel drive. That’s a great combination for a sport sedan, but, as it turns out, a fairly crummy way to lay out a small SUV. The new QX50 is front-engine, front-wheel drive, but (of course) it can be had with AWD.

Why is this better? Basically, a front-engine, rear-drive vehicle has its transmission behind the engine, eating up precious cabin space. In a FWD-derived vehicle, the transmission can be next to the engine. In terms of roominess and cargo capacity, FWD platforms are the better way to build a people schlepper. Years ago a friend of mine had to sell her EX35 because her infant’s car seat wouldn’t fit. No such problems will happen with the new QX50. In fact, the spacious baby hauler now sports reclining rear seats.

Like the Q50 sedan and Q60 coupe, the QX50 comes with Infiniti’s much maligned—and let’s be real, rightly maligned—steer-by-wire technology. However, unlike the Q50 and Q60, the QX50’s virtual steering feels pretty good. The SUV steers just like a normal vehicle and as well as any of its competitors. Sports car good? No way, but then that’s not the segment the QX50 competes in. But hey! For the first time ever I’m saying something nice about Infiniti’s literally disconnected steering. What a world …

Speaking of steering by wire, the QX50 can be had with Nissan and Infiniti’s ProPilot Assist, a system that under certain conditions can steer, brake, and accelerate the vehicle. Until passenger cars come packing actual artificial intelligence, it’s best to think of all systems resembling ProPilot Assist as fancy forms of cruise control. Basically, they can relieve a little bit of the suffering from being stuck in stop-and-go traffic. In addition, these not-quite-autonomous systems prevent you from killing others if you look at a text message or open a bottle of water. (Ahem, don’t text and drive.) Although no Infiniti employee would own up to it, this flavor of ProPilot Assist feels an awful lot like Mercedes’ last-generation DTR+ Steering Assist.

If you’re not a fan of engineering, you’re probably just now waking up from the discussion a few paragraphs up about the revolutionary VC-Turbo engine. All that matters is: Does it work? Yes, it does, quite well as a matter of fact. I was never in a situation where the QX50 felt underpowered. On crowded Los Angeles streets where we rarely managed to go the speed limit, the engine was calm and quiet, and honestly I wasn’t even thinking about the technological marvel sitting inches in front of my right foot. The light turned green, and taking one for science, I stomped my right foot down. Just like that, the VC-Turbo roared to life. I was suddenly piloting a quick SUV, just as advertised. You can’t detect when the compression ratio changes. In fact, attaching the conrods to the moveable secondary linkage smooths things out to the point where the engine doesn’t need balance shafts. I must reiterate that I truly am blown away by this engine.

There are two things I don’t like about the QX50. One is the transmission. The perfectly fine seven-speed automatic found in the Q50 and other Infiniti products only works with longitudinally mounted engines. The VC-Turbo, though, is transverse. Re-engineering a longitudinal transmission into a transverse-accommodating one is no doubt expensive. Infiniti does have a transmission lying around that mounts east to west and can handle a good deal of torque. Unfortunately it’s the CVT found in the QX60 and both the Nissan Maxima and Pathfinder.

As such, I just gotta ask: Why oh why would you bring to market one of the most technologically advanced engines ever sold and mate it to a hated transmission that’s never going to be good enough? Cost savings, I know. But it’s a bad pairing, and I don’t like it. I can’t even believe a CVT is a good pairing to the VC-Turbo engine. I’d imagine that a constant gear ratio would allow the engine to vary the compression most efficiently. Even if that’s not the case, and especially when you put the QX50 into Sport mode, the transmission does everything enthusiastic drivers hate about CVTs—namely hold the engine at high revs even if your foot is off the throttle. Plus, you know, they don’t shift. However, most customers will never consciously rev past four grand.

The other letdown is the dual-screen navigation and entertainment system. It’s flat-out disappointing. Infiniti claims that two screens are preferred by customers because that setup allows the map to be permanently displayed. I agree with them that always having a map is a great feature. But as the owner of an Audi Allroad, I know that there’s an excellent way to have a permanent map as opposed to Infiniti’s bad way. In fact, with the Audi I can have the map in front of me or on the main nav screen. Or both. People cross-shopping the two vehicles will notice.

Perhaps worst of all, the fonts on the two display screens are different! Don’t marketing departments always say that the ideal customers for vehicles like this are architects and graphic designers? It cheapens an otherwise lovely interior because you are always reminded that one screen was sourced 10 years before the other. That decade-old map software is not atrocious, but it’s worse than all the competition, save for Lexus. And like Lexus, Infiniti weirdly refuses to put current mapping technology into its vehicles. No one will explain why. Then there’s the lower touchscreen, which is controlled not by the rotary controller (that’s for the top screen) or even by touching it (because it is after all a touchscreen) but by a bunch of plastic buttons below the bottom screen. And on the sides. The whole mess makes no sense. It’s as if a haptic hand grenade went off and the designers said, “It’s good enough. Let’s get lunch.”

Keith St. Clair, Infiniti’s director of project strategy, said that the QX50 is “probably our most important launch ever or right up there with the Q45.” Big statement, sure, but small premium SUVs are both huge sellers and huge profit centers for carmakers. Get it right, and the money comes rolling in. Get it wrong, and, well, there’s really no getting it wrong. The stakes are just too damn high.

For the most part, Infiniti got the QX50 exactly right. The exterior is gorgeous and looks premium. It’s fuel-efficient yet powerful. It’s small on the outside but large on the inside. The QX50 is even priced competitively, starting at $37,545, with a fully loaded AWD model clocking in at $61,995. My quibbles aside, the most competitive segment in the luxury car world just got a whole lot more cutthroat. More like this, Infiniti. More like this.

2019 Infiniti QX50 2.0t
BASE PRICE $37,545-$39,345
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.0L/268-hp/280-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION Cont. variable auto
CURB WEIGHT 3,800-3,950 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 110.2 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 184.7 x 74.9 x 66.0 in
0-60 MPH 6.2-6.4 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 24/30-31/26-27 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 140/109-112 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.73-0.74 lb/mile
ON SALE IN U.S. Currently