Q60 Red Sport: Plenty to intrigue

Infiniti is pushing for attention in New Zealand and one of its top head-turners is the Q60 Coupe. We drive the just-arrived Red Sport flagship.


For: Impressive styling, superb engine, generally pleasing dynamics.

Against: Messy and cramped interior, awkwardness to some driver assist tech, feels a bit date

AS a catwalk for classic vehicles, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance staged annually at the California beachside golf resort is now unsurpassed.

Only the world’s best get onto the hallowed lawn, and while the primary focus is on the past, there’s room for cars that look to the future, too.

With a week to go until the 2017 event, potentially the best design study is from a most unexpected quarter and reaches both way

Simply: Because it can. Prototype 9 from Infiniti results, the Nissan sub-brand explains, from it imagining what kind of car it might have created had it been involved in 1940s’ motorsport.

Quite a reach for a marque that, having been created in 1989, has absolutely no historic context is no whacky racer. Overlook the Infiniti-styled grille and everything about this Samurai Silver Arrow is impressively ‘period’; those thin bias-ply tires wrapped over centre-locking wire wheels, the bulging screws around the driver's seat, a ladder-frame chassis, leaf spring suspension, hydraulic rotary type dampers… it’s all straight out of a bygone time.

Just the drivetrain is new. Electric cars are as old as automobilia itself, but back then the technology behind this car’s prototype electric motor and battery from Nissan's Advanced Powertrain Department, would seem like … well … rocket science.

It’s weird Infiniti would go so retro and tap into a history it has no part of (even parent Nissan was barely around then, having formed in 1934).

Then again, time spent with an Infiniti road car suggested that this is a brand still in search of a sense of identity, with various parentages across its whole product line.

The Q60 coupe is an interesting case in point. Back in 2000, after years of lacklustre sales in North America, Nissan gave serious consideration to abolishing its premium brand. Infiniti survived, but a decision was made that it should focus more on producing more powerful luxury sports cars instead of just rebadged Nissan vehicles. 

The Q60, born in 2014, nonetheless comes close to breaking that rule in that it takes quite a lot of the Nissan 370Z coupe. Not everything, mind. It has a different body styling and is more lavishly equipped, and while there’s a lot of mechanical commonality, that doesn’t include the engine: This twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 is Infiniti’s alone.

It’s an intriguing product. Being seen here almost four years into its design life means it obviously isn’t as fresh as some rival models.

How important is it to Infiniti’s local ambition? Clearly coupes are niche and potentially this marque will do better with crossovers, not least an incoming compact car developed from Mercedes’ GLA, the result of an arrangement with Benz.

Even so, the Red Sport edition on test might raise interest, being a relatively fresh addition that, in assuming $114,900 flagship status, lifts the performance, specification and price level well above that delivered with the alternate $79,990 2.0-litre GT.

Apart from that special engine, married to a seven-speed auto, it also hits the tech high notes with a potentially clever two-mode adaptive chassis and six-mode fully electric steering system and outfits with a lot of other good stuff: Track-sorted tyres and performance Akebono (four piston 355mm front, two piston 350mm rear) brakes.

This edition also carries the Infiniti ‘safety shield’ with predictive forward collision warning, back-up collision intervention, blind spot warning and intervention, lane departure warning and prevention and a tyre pressure monitoring.

Luxury also increases. Unlike the 2.0-litre, this car carries high-quality Nappa leather on the seats and real carbon-fibre trim flanking the centre stack.

Don’t read too much into the fiery designation. Red Sport isn’t a codex for tyre-smoking hooliganism. While the engine has plenty of fire, with 298kW and 475Nm, Infiniti suggests this derivative is more a direct competitor for the premium versions of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 4 Series, Audi A5 and Lexus RC coupes rather than a rival for the Mercedes-AMG C 63, BMW M4, Audi S5 and Lexus RC F coupes. 

The external examination earns high points. While the RC is more the antithesis of modern Japanese design, on the move and at the kerbside, and viewed from every angle, the G60 is alluringly handsome; low-slung and nicely proportioned, it has just enough aggression – those red-painted callipers, the fat tyre and wheel set – to look the business without going totally Tokyo gangster.

It definitely attracts attention. On the second day I had it, a neighbour who happened to be following behind when I drove into town from our rural home called me up and requested that I stop so she could give it a better look over.

The cabin environment as a whole imparts the sporting ethos quite well; the front seats are supportive, low-slung and well-presented and the driving position is pretty much spot on.

Yet it’s also here where the wrinkles show. Even though the build quality is immaculate, the design looks a bit dated and some of the detailing is not particularly on par with the premium intent.

It’s not so much that borrowing switches and other controls from mainstream Nissans isn’t a bad idea, more than the process is just too obvious; the quality of some of the plastics that a couple of those controls are rendered in isn’t exactly expensive.

Some of the instruments and their operability is a design confusion; setting the distance parameters on the active cruise control is far more challenging than it needs to be.

The colour trip computer screen and twin centre screens – 8.0-inch upper and 7.0-inch lower -  also fail short; you soon spot that each of the screens presents different fonts and, to a degree, duplicate menus, while a colleague with a sharp eye for detail also reckoned note they are also of a different resolution. Nissan could do well to take lessons from its new partner in Germany. Benz just does it better.

The dual screen design affects the operability of Infiniti’s InTouch infotainment and connectivity system; though it is relatively intuitive all the same. The ‘Red’ apparently takes up upgrade that makes the system faster and allows for more personalisation and driver-preference related memory settings, but even though it ticks the right boxes with Bluetooth connectivity, digital radio, voice control, satellite navigation and a raft of other features, it doesn’t impart as the latest and greatest in look. And it also misses out on the increasingly popular Apply CarPlay/Android Auto functionality.

Speaking of absences – a digital speedometer and head-up display are both conspicuous by not being available here. It’s just what happens, I guess, as result of a car that new here in 2017 having actually been born some years earlier.

The last cockpit-related challenge with this car relates to the space it provides. Even though this is, at 4685mm long and with a 2850mm wheelbase, quite a substantial car at the kerbside, the Q60 is actually cramped inside. Only children are going to discover if the rear seat is as inviting as it looks. The boot is also quite small, with a cited capacity of 341litres. The BMW 4-Series and Mercedes C-Class coupe have substantially larger areas. The Q60’s capacity can be increased by folding down the rear seat but that also asks for compromise as it’s a one-piece backrest.

So there are flaws and the degree of acceptance of these will largely come down to how well it acquits on the road.

Don’t sweat the performance: It has plenty. One strength of this six is a broad torque band; it starts building muscle from just 1600rpm and keeps flexing all the way to 5200rpm, so there’s plenty of pull.

For all that, the full power punch requires more revving, because that purportedly peaks at 6400rpm. Even then, this unit retains its silken manners; maybe a bit too much because, even when those legs are fully stretched and you’ve snicked in the Red Sport-specific Sport Plus performance mode that sharpens everything up, the exhaust note is hardly strident. All the same, it is a terrifically swift car.

The transmission strives to play along, too. The sports modes also sharpen up the actions of the automatic, but you’ll find occasions when it just isn’t reactive soon enough. No problem because the Red Sport also has paddle-shifters.

So far, so good. But then stuff gets a bit … different. The degree of electronic interaction operating the steering and suspension is technically impressive, but does seem to be overkill, while the driver assists also raise questions, not least Active Lane Control, which in theory enacts as a momentary self-steer control but in reality is too clumsy to consider using.

The Q60 stands out from everything else in its sector – indeed, pretty much everything else, full stop – in having steering that eschews mechanical linkages for a dully electric operation. This Direct Adaptive Steering (DAS) fly-by-wire ideal is far-reaching and, for sure, has caused some headaches for the maker, though they say all the glitches have been sorted now.

The operability still remains a bit different, all the same. The plus of the system is that it becomes a be-all for all driving styles and preferences; you want light, you get light; you want meaty – well, it can do that too. Everything ties into the broader performance modes.

And? Well, it’s intriguing but that’s about it. One obvious benefit is that it helps keep the steering wheel stable when encountering larger impacts such as potholes and speed bumps. But better than a conventional steering in respect to overall wheel feel? Well, it’s no worse once you tailor it to taste.

In my time with the car, Sport Plus became the default setting simply because it alone seemed to deliver the most consistent weight, best feel and most pleasing immediacy.

What’s great for the steering is sometimes less so for the suspension. For all the suggestion about this being more a Grand Tourer than a grunter, it really is quite firm, potentially too much at times.

You know you’re in for challenging time when even Comfort delivers a jolting ride. The Sport setting certainly makes it more involving on fun roads, but you feel even more bumps. For all that, it is not outright harsh as, say, an Audi RS and Mercedes MG car can often be. The greater consistent issue is the level of road roar the tyres generate over coarse chip. But it is hardly alone there.

The upside of the tuning is genuine dynamic ability and a generous level of smart agility. Back-to-back comparison with the German models would be illuminating; in isolation the Q60 feels sure-footed enough to run with that pack. It’s more involving that the mainstream RC models, though the Lexus F might be a different story. But, overall, for a car that is supposed to be less than racy, it has quite a lot of spirit, and the suite of driving assists also seem well tuned, not least that stability control, which (again in the Sport Plus setting) is finessed to allow the car to achieve maximum attack into, through and out of corners, with just enough interaction to inhibit outright oversteer but still providing a sense of edginess.

So, yeah, there’s a real energy to how this car drives operates, but is that enough to make it truly alluring? Gotta say that for me, it wouldn’t be.

As sweet as engine and exterior styling is, the car as a whole just feels a bit too try-hard and half a generation behind some better alternates, not least in respect to much of its driver assist technology. The salient stuff is all there, but it feels like this car is stuck with the gen 1 versions when most rivals are up to gen 2 or 3.

The cabin also demands attention, if only to sort those messy ergonomic issues. Then again, it might be just too far into its production life to make that kind of rework worthwhile.

There is also still a chance the Q60 might lift its dynamic and performance gain. At the Geneva motor show in March, it displayed the Project Black S, a version of the car developed in conjunction with the Renault Sport Formula One Team.

Big air intakes, colossal 21-inch alloys, a huge rear wing and flared wheel arches are the eye candy, but what makes bigger difference is that the 3.0-litre features an F1-inspired 'energy recovery system' (ERS) to harvest otherwise wasted kinetic energy, and then using that recovered electric power to boost the power and torque.

That means a potential 25 percent increase in power - and as the 3.0 has 405hp anyway, you're looking at around 377kW using this system alone.  Wow!

This car, the Prototype 9 … they’re at least showing Infiniti is looking beyond to a better future.