Apr. 8—Japanese luxury brands are going back to the future to find their mojo.
First Acura time-traveled back to the 1990s to rediscover its sporty roots. The successful journey brought us the Acura NSX supercar and athletic RDX and MDX SUVs. Infiniti is using the same method to aid its SUV fortunes.
Say hello to the sexy QX55 — created from the frozen DNA of an Infiniti FX found after a trip in the way-back machine. I took it to Hell (Michigan) and back.
QX55 is the first Japanese fastback to brave the compact luxe segment against the German trinity of BMW X4, Mercedes GLC Coupe, and Audi Q5 Sportback. But it’s not the first fastback Infiniti SUV. Indeed, Nissan’s premium brand pioneered the racy SUV concept waaaay back in 2003 with the FX. With a rear-drive layout, a long hood that arrived an hour before the cabin, and salacious looks, FX (which eventually became QX70 under Infiniti’s new nomenclature until it disappeared in 2017) was a German-like SUV hottie before the Germans ever thought of it.
Why Infiniti killed it is a head-scratcher. But now it’s been reborn as the smaller QX55. Talk about your sexy mom car.
My Slate Grey tester oozed sex appeal. Not that the stylish, square-back QX50 is a wallflower. But the QX55 is Kim Kardashian in spandex.
Sultry headlights frame a bigger, poutier front mouth. The grille — flanked by big intakes — is laced with an origami-inspired mesh. The coupe-like roof plunges into round rear hips dressed with a bold black belt under exotic LED taillights. It’s the love child of the FX and Q Inspiration Concept that turned heads at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Drive up to the school pickup line slowly and let the other parents stare. But under that hot bod, QX55 is less ambitious than FX/QX70.
Gone is the rear-wheel-drive-based architecture. QX55 conforms to the front-wheel-drive-based architecture common to both the QX-50 and cousin Nissan. Gone, too, is the throaty, 325-horse V-6 engine. Sigh. As 21st century emissions regs have forced more turbo-4s, graveyards are filling up with sixes.
Like a good basketball coach, however, Infiniti squeezes every bit of talent out of its small, four-piston lineup. The QX55 drivetrain gives 110%.
Rotating through a 90-degree left-hander onto Unadilla Road outside Hell, I drifted the QX55 across the asphalt, the all-wheel-drive system scrambling for traction as I floored the throttle on exit. Smartly, Infiniti has made AWD standard on halo QX-55 (the volume QX50 comes standard with front-wheel-drive) so drivers can take full advantage of the torque on hand.
We motorheads pooh-pooh continuously-variable-transmissions, but Infiniti’s is an exception. It mimics a proper automatic tranny’s stepped shifts — but without the often rude, jerky downshifts.
The CVT and 280-torque, 2-liter engine make a happy marriage. With the gas floored coming onto Unadilla, I was able to immediately access the engine’s deep well of low-end torque. To the moon, Alice.
The chassis shivers a bit under this duress — the QX55 can’t match the exquisite Mazda CX-5 or BMW X3 for handling — but the drivetrain, like the exterior, is all about emotion. Dialed into SPORT mode, the turbo-4 roars its approval through twin rear pipes. I wrung the QX55’s neck across Hadley and Hanker roads.
This emotional satisfaction comes a healthy $6,000 beneath competitors BMW and Mercedes, offering Infiniti as a value play in the segment (while offering a more premium coupe appearance than its Acura RDX A-Spec and Lexus NX F-Sport trim competitors).
Those savings have to come from somewhere and it’s the interior where the QX55 lags its German peers.
Nissan COO Ashwani Gupta once called Infiniti “Nissan-plus” and the interior of the QX55 doesn’t pop like other digitized luxury cabins. Sure, there is nice stitching and a Monaco Red leather option, but the knockout, $25K Nissan Sentra compact car has more character inside. The dual, stacked touchscreens remind of a last-decade Honda Accord — the tiny top screen often difficult to read in daylight due to reflection.
The rear seats were friendly to this 6-foot-five-inch reviewer, thanks to their ability to recline and slide 6 inches. Think Ford Escape, which employs a similar feature. Mainstream vehicles are killing it these days. Next to my $59K QX55 tester in the driveway was a $39K Mazda CX-5 Turbo, which matched the Infiniti feature-for-feature — head-up display, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assist, auto wipers, sunroof, all-wheel-drive, turbo-4, the works. Talk about value.
Among its luxe peers, however, the QX55 puts Infiniti back in the spotlight. Just like the good ol’ days. “The QX55 is daring, unconventional,” says QX55 planning chief Eric Rigaux.
Here’s hoping QX55 continues the momentum with a performance, Red Sport variant stuffed with more horsepower to take on a BMW X4 M or Audi SQ5 Sportback. More daring. More sex appeal. More value.
After my fling through Hell, I picked up my favorite pastrami Rueben at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor and set course for home on I-96. Those twin screens came in handy — the upper for Android Auto navigation (if you have an iPhone, the connection is wireless) — the lower for radio. I barked nav instructions to the phone and was off.
Like Acura, Infiniti puts its blind-spot warning on the A-pillar rather than at the edge of the mirror, where it can be more difficult to see. Blind-spot systems have become so good these days, I’m probably saving thousands on disc surgery by not craning my neck to check blind spots.
Nissan has milked good publicity from its ProPilot driving assist features (remember the Star Wars ads?), and the same system is imported into QX50. While not ready for prime time on secondary roads, it works competently on busy four lanes … until I came to a stoplight.
Like Nissan’s system, the QX55 waits until the last minute to brake for vehicles in front of you. So late, that my tester would activate the vehicle’s emergency vehicles braking system.
Glancing at my trip data, I registered 18.5 mpg on the 150-mile round trip to Hell. That’s a long way from the advertised 26 mpg, and more on par with the 18 mpg in the good ol’ FX’s V-6. I must have been having fun.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at [email protected] or Twitter @HenryEPayne.