The arrival of the all-new Infiniti Q50 may well be remembered as a make or break moment for the luxury car brand, as it represents its first serious play at winning over a reluctant Aussie market.
Since launching here in late 2012, Infiniti has sold a total of just 389 cars – cars that were already well into their lifecycles.
So there’s a lot riding on this first-generation Infiniti Q50 to deliver sustainable sales in what is an already hotly contested market.
Up against established heavy hitters in the mid-size luxury segment, Infiniti is hoping aggressive pricing and a boon of high-tech features will be enough to get it over the line.
Priced from $51,900 plus on-road costs, the entry-level Q50 2.2d undercuts every one of its rivals’ base models, including the Audi A4 ($55,500), BMW 3 Series ($52,300), Lexus IS ($55,900), and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class ($59,900) – all of which are petrol-powered.
Moreover, Infiniti is due to launch a 1.8-litre petrol turbo model later this year, which is expected to be even cheaper. The badge is also competing at the upper end of the market with its flagship Q50 Hybrid, which starts at $67,900.
While the styling on older Infiniti models, such as the distinctive FX SUV (now QX70), were considered an acquired taste, the new Q50 is far less confronting – and according to Infiniti, represents the future direction of the brand’s styling.
But this is still a car that probably shouldn’t count design as one of its key buying triggers.
For the Q50, it’s much more about the plush interior and raft of new technologies the car introduces, most notably Infiniti’s Direct Adaptive Steering – the world’s first steer-by-wire system on a production car.
This groundbreaking technology eliminates the mechanical link between the driver and the front wheels while maintaining a mechanical backup in the event of a power failure.
Another world-first for the Infiniti Q50 is something called Predictive Forward Collision Warning that alerts the driver to risks ahead by sensing the speed/distance of not only the car in front, but also the second vehicle ahead.
There’s also a new Active Lane Control system that uses a camera system to look for lane markers and automatically fine-tunes your lane placement in an almost undetectable manner. It’s a step towards autonomous driving and largely a function of the car’s steer-by-wire technology.
The touchscreen infotainment system is also well worth serious praise.
It’s called Infiniti InTouch and comes with dual touchscreens – a lower 7-inch version and a higher one that’s an inch larger. The lower screen offers iPad-style clarity and effortless functionality, while the upper unit is controlled via the Q50’s rotary controller and displays the navigation graphics.
There’s also an exhaustive list of standard features, which sees the base model Q50 2.2d GT equipped with leather upholstery, LED headlamps with daytime running lights, intelligent key with smart access and memory settings, leather upholstery, electrically operated front seats, drive mode selector (Standard, Sport, Snow, and personal modes), the aforementioned dual touchscreen displays with satellite navigation and Bluetooth phone with music streaming.
The Q50 S grade adds larger 18-inch alloys (19s on the Hybrid), sports front bumper, Direct Adaptive Steering with Active Lane Control, sports suspension and opposed-piston regenerative brakes (Hybrid only), magnesium-modified paddleshifters, moonroof and a 14-speaker Bose audio system.
The top-shelf Q50 S Premium grade also introduces a host of safety technologies, including active front lighting with high-beam assist, adaptive cruise control, forward collision avoidance with emergency braking, blind spot warning and intervention, lane departure warning and lane departure prevention, reversing collision intervention and 360-degree around-view camera-based monitoring system.
There’s a high-end ambience to the Q50’s cabin, with loads of soft-touch plastics, offset with plenty of leather and metal accents. The front leather buckets are superbly comfortable and the driver’s bolster is electrically adjustable.
General cabin space is good, too, and rear-seat legroom is on par with the Q50’s rivals. There’s also a generous 500 litres of boot space in the diesel models, reducing to 400 litres for the Hybrid versions.
Mind, some of that boot space is attributable to the lack of a spare wheel or even a space-saver across the entire model range, instead relying on run-flat tyres should a puncture occur.
The big-seller in Australia is set to be Infiniti Q50 2.2d (at least until the petrol version arrives), which uses a 2.1-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine borrowed from Mercedes-Benz.
Producing 125kW and 400Nm and teamed with the standard seven-speed auto, it’ll go from 0-100km/h in 8.5 seconds.
Behind the wheel, though, it feels less inspiring and less punchy than some 2.0-litre rivals developing less torque.
There’s the usual off-the-line turbo lag, and with peak torque only arriving between 3200rpm-4200rpm you’ll need to keep the throttle buried should you be on any kind of a mission.
That’s largely the result of the Q50’s transmission, which is slow to shift (more pronounced on the upshift) even in the Sport mode using the paddleshifters.
In terms of refinement, the diesel’s engine noise is well muted on light throttle, but of course creates more of a racket if you’re trying to achieve those published acceleration times.
For those looking for a bit more poke from their Q50, then the Infiniti Q50 Hybrid (available with RWD or AWD) is billed as the performance model of the range.
And it does feel immediately quick.
Armed with a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine plus a 50kW electric motor, the Q50 Hybrid produces a combined output of 268kW and 546Nm of torque to claim 0-100km in 5.1 seconds (5.4sec for the AWD version).
By comparison, the equivalently priced Lexus IS300h F Sport, which uses a smaller 2.5-litre engine paired with an electric motor, takes 8.5 seconds to reach 100km/h.
Power is delivered effortlessly, but keep the throttle pinned and there’s a seemingly endless dose of thrust on tap.
There are no slow-to-shift transmission issues, either, as the hybrid uses a unique dual clutch-pack hybrid system that effectively speeds up, and smooths out, the gearshifts.
Unsurprisingly, the Q50 Hybrid is capable of travelling solely on electric power, but what surprised most was just how much throttle you could apply from a standing start before the V6 kicked in – certainly more than the Lexus.
The Q50’s pièce de résistance is its unique steer-by-wire technology mentioned earlier, though even with Q50 models not equipped with the system, drivers can select either a ‘standard’ or ‘heavy’ steering weight using the Drive Mode Selector.
We sampled both the conventional hydraulic system and the new Direct Adaptive Steering on the same Q50 2.2d, and the differences between the two were quite staggering – especially on some fast windy roads.
It’s no surprise that current Formula One World Champion, Sebastian Vettel, helped tune the steering feel. Whereas the hydraulic steering employs a fixed steering ratio, which in the Q50’s case is neither quick nor slow (just right for daily drive duties), the steer-by-wire system is able to quicken the ratio to near-supercar levels of response at the touch of a button.
By selecting both the ‘heavy’ and ‘quick’ settings on the lower InTouch screen, the routine Infiniti Q50 diesel was immediately transformed into a grin-inducing corner-carver.
Another bonus with the system is there’s no kickback through the steering wheel, even over the bumpiest roads at the maximum legal speed. In fact, there’s no movement at all in the wheel – quite extraordinary by current standards.
It’s made even better by the Q50’s excellent body control and strong all-round grip levels. It’s a car that feels beautifully composed, even over poor road surfaces.
In all, the Q50 offers a relatively comfortable ride with sufficient suspension compliance from its double wishbone front and multi-link rear set-up. And inline with its sporty pretensions, it errs on the firm side.
It has taken rival Japanese brand Lexus more than 20 years to build a luxury brand in Australia, so it’s probably fair to say Infiniti has a long road ahead.
That aside, by offering the world’s first production car steer-by-wire system, competitive pricing and a super luxurious interior, Infiniti has produced a worthy contender in the Q50 – one that deserves much more than a cursory look by value-conscious luxury car buyers.