Infiniti Q50 V6 Hybrid AWD: Moving with the times

The flagship of Infiniti’s Q50 medium sedan line packs a huge amount of leading-edge technology, yet is it fully up to pace?

ONE emergent truth about Infiniti is that impressions gained from exposure to product here now should not necessarily completely define what this brand is all about.

Nissan’s premium marque arrives locally last year – a timing that coincided with a radical brand metamorphosis.

All this means what we are getting now is in some ways really only filler material – it’s all pretty good stuff, but not as radical or as enthralling as what will ultimately show up.

Two cars exemplify this. One is the Q50 sedan that I recently spent some time driving.

The 3.5-litre V6 Hybrid S Premium AWD (yes, a mouthful) is the flagship of a three-strong line, which otherwise offers in pure 2.0-litre four cylinder format.

What you see with this $94,990 flagship is a blend of quite advanced technology – the key element being a really interesting 268kW/546Nm hybrid drivetrain – installed in a bodyshape that is well into its design life.

The end result is a car whose promise and huge technology delivery is tempered a little by the model’s age and upbringing.

If this car expressed all that Infiniti was ever going to be about, then you’d probably be left with mixed feelings.

But, as I say, to think that the Infiniti product we see now is as good as it will ever get is a misnomer. To understand as much, just take a gander at what the brand is displaying at the Detroit motor show this week.

As I write this, the Q Inspiration has yet to be fully unveiled, but what has so far been revealed is very promising again. You’re looking at a car very much with the emergent times, an electric sports sedan with soulful styling and no small amount of technology that, while incredibly advanced, is actually a lot less sci-fi than you might think – in fact, every core aspect is quite relevant and very achievable.

The display vehicle is a concept yet not one set to go no further than the show scene. A production future is not only guaranteed but it is also high priority, with the brand suggesting this swish shape could be in the world’s streets by 2019, alongside a raft of EVs from across the industry. 

So it’s serious. And it deserves serious attention, not simply because of the blindingly obvious fact that EVs are a necessity, now. Also, it shows that Infiniti is out to play hard.

One factor about the Q Inspiration that has not been highlighted is that it is not created as current Infiniti product, the Q50 included, are: Namely, as a version of existing product from, and also used by, brand parent Nissan.

This is a pure electric model in its own right, rather than an electric variant of an existing car. It sits on a new platform, and will not share this with the Nissan Leaf. That’s a big step in the right direction toward enhancing Infiniti’s standing in the public mind set.

And so back to the Q50. As Lexus has found, it's a long, hard-fought battle to convince prestige buyers to trade-in their Audis, Mercs and BMWs for a Japanese alternative. This medium sedan is not wholly best-prepared to achieve any particular victory in that struggle.

The positive about the car is that it is well-built, keenly priced, and in some ways a cutting-edge alternative to what Germany foists, not least in respect to its petrol-electric drivetrain, which is a pathfinder into a territory that the Europeans are only now starting to explore.

This engine is certainly a highlight of the experience. Performance-wise, it is just as smooth and thrusty as any regular V6, but in respect to thrift it ekes far better results than you would normally ever hope to see from a unit of this capacity and output.

On my longest drive, spanning 400kms’ open road operation, it eased out to a 7.5 litres per 100km optimum – that’s within striking distance of the cited factory optimal of 7.1L/100km and also within cooee of what I would normally expect to see from my own turbodiesel Subaru Outback.

With Q50 every powertrain is linked to a seven-speed automatic direct shift transmission, with magnesium paddle shifters at V6 level. Every other Japanese brand that plays with hybrids (and you can guess which I’m mainly talking about) prefers to marry their petrol-electric driveware to a constantly variable transmission.

By using an actual gearbox, then, Infiniti is breaking with convention, but don’t think that makes it the odd man out. Quite the contrary, in fact, because the occasion cog shifting stumble notwithstanding, the Infiniti setup is quite probably far more satisfying than using a CVT.

Not only does it escape all the shrieking refinement issues that hang over cogless drive, but you also get a sense that you’re gaining a fact more direct connection with what the powertrain is up to. Also with what it can provide: CVTs all seem to want to change up a ‘gear’ just at the point where you sense the engine is really starting to engage. The auto here will do that only in its most laidback setting; go into a sport mode and its character is far more involving. It’s the sort of thing that will hugely appeal to people who prefer to ‘drive’ rather than simply be taken for a ride.

The other side of the coin is that the car’s actual design is dated and inconsistent in its design – it simply niggled that each of the digital displays has a different display logic and font set.

Also, though it is packed with latest driver aids and smart phone-style features, much of what you get is confusing in operation. It is a rather cosy four-seater sedan, especially in the rear – which lacks for lower leg and headroom – and its driving demeanour is, ultimately, more relaxed than you might expect given its punch and visual rakishness, while the steering has a funny lock-to-lock feel. Oh, yes, and because of the hybrid hardware, the boot is quite small: Just 400 litres’ capacity claimed.

It’s an intriguing car, then, with obvious positive and negative aspects. I cannot say that I did not like it; but I would say that it just didn’t grab my attention as much as I thought it might.

And not just mine: It was interesting just how ‘invisible this car’ seemed to be during my tenure. Friends who are used to seeing me driving around in the latest and greatest were a bit confused about this car’s ‘newness’, and I could understand why. One core challenge for Infiniti as a new car brand is that not only almost every model it can offer here has probably been preceded to market by grey import equivalents, but so too have the donor cars.

That’s very much the case with the Q50, which we’ve seen not only in that guise but also in its alternate Nissan roles; as a Skyline, 240K and G37. Infiniti styling, of course, is different but not wholly enough to make it that difficult to pick the familial association. What isn’t so easy is establishing the changes between the facelift car I drove and its forebear; the changes are very subtle – a slightly reshape bumper, different grille and altered daytime running light housings up front, a new boot lid, bumper and tail-lights around the back.

Interior alterations are just as modest; a new steering wheel, upgraded cabin lighting and a step up to a Bose Performance Series auto system. The latter is pretty decent and in keeping with a brand commitment to provide a high level of nicities. Hence beyond the expected stuff like multi-zone climate control, leather trim and electric front seats, you’ll find dual touchscreen displays, GPS, digital radio, LED headlights with daytime running lights, Bluetooth audio and phone connectivity, paddle-shifters, Active Noise Control technology, keyless start, a sunroof and 19-inch wheels.

This model also lays out active lane control, radar-guided cruise control with low-speed autonomous braking, reverse camera with an around-view monitor, blind-spot warning, a back-up collision radar that brakes the car when backing out blindly, and active front lights with automatic high-beam.

All Q50s also come with a drive mode selector with four settings – Standard, Snow, Sport and Personal – allowing the driver to tweak steering weight and transmission responses. The car also remain alone in its category by having a drive-by-wire Direct Adaptive Steering system, which has no mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the steering rack (except in cases of electronic failure, when an explosive bolt fires and creates a mechanical link).

All this leaves impression of the Q50 being something of a Mensa machine, and you wouldn’t be wrong. It carries an incredible array of top-line electronic assists and, on top of this, an astounding amount of control and customisation: The in-cabin system can learn driver’s preferences and settings, and includes full-sentence voice commands. It even includes apps with software update capability. The trick is to get to grips with it and, unfortunately, some of the accessibility aspects are just too tricky to bother with. At least the Bluetooth set-up is straight forward.

Anyone used to opposition hybrids that only deliver their electric assist at low speed and/or at start up, but give not real assist out on the open road, are going to be surprised and delighted by this car’s ready ability to amble along up to 100kmh in full electric mode.

It’s only for short periods, but nonetheless the fact that it does this at all is quite commendable and clearly has a positive impact on the fuel burn, moreso than the drivetrain’s Eco mode than the alternate Normal, Sport and Personal. The latter allowing for configurable steering and throttle response settings according to the driver’s preferences.

It quite possibly sounds wussy to admit that Eco was used for much of my long open road drive, but frankly the road and traffic condition – lots of other cars, none in a particular hurry, and few places for overtaking - made it a better choice than any other.

It is, of course, more involving in Sport, where the zest elevates to the point of the rear wheels spinning, if only for a moment before the fronts engage, when given a standing start boot-full. Not that it asks for this: The VQ35 engine, though rapid, is also so refined that it doesn’t ultimately lend any particular aural incitement to be driven hard.

The Q50 in this format is an intriguing car, in that it seems both modern and also a little time-worn; despite all the technical innovation. Which is as you would expect given how long it has been around. The model age is such that it unavoidably starts off on a back foot here; a recipe that surely would have wowed when it first arrived now doesn’t seem to have any immediate ‘buy now’ cachet when measured against all the obvious like- or near-priced alternates.

Even so, Infiniti definitely remains a brand to be watched. And it certainly is not one to be underestimated.