Something is afoot at Infiniti Motor Company.
Along with poaching Johan de Nysschen from Audi and Michael Bartsch from Porsche, the former Nissan subsidiary has gained freedom as an independent, Hong Kong-based entity, streamlined their product lineup nomenclature with a sea of capital Qs, and embedded an engineer into their spanking new Infiniti Red Bull Formula 1 race team.
In other words, Infiniti is hell bent on becoming the next big thing by nabbing would-be Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz fans willing to trade blue chip brand recognition for a slice of leather-lined alternative luxury.
Infiniti’s will to power is characterized by an insistent technological thrust, and the first palpable fruit of their labor is the 2014 Q50.
The Q50 was intended to replace the G37 — that is, until product planners decided to keep the G37 through the 2015 model year, at the earliest, as a downmarket alternative to the new Q.
At first glance, the reworked Q50 ticks off the usual boxes of model refresh upgrades: High-tensile steels help drop weight by 54 lbs (to 3,574 lbs), exterior dimensions are lower, longer, and wider, and interior volume has grown. An a la carte array of drivetrain options include the choice of a 328 hp, 3.7 liter V6 ($36,700) or a 360 hp gas/electric hybrid combo which produces 360 hp and 29 city/36 highway miles per gallon ($43,950). Either setup can be ordered with sportier “S” suspension and trim, and/or all wheel-drive — a plethora of powertrain possibilities.
But the real differentiator here is the tech toys, the most supreme of which is the world’s first production steer-by-wire setup, which Infiniti calls Direct Adaptive Steering. The system claims quicker response times thanks to a lack of rubber bushings or hydraulic slop, while driver adjustable ratio and effort levels enable up to 32 different combinations of settings. Using an ECU to read steering wheel angle, a calculation is made that determines how far to move the steering angle actuator; meanwhile, another ECU returns force feedback to the driver, a la that steering wheel hooked up to your Playstation or Xbox.
But wait, there’s more: Paired with lane departure control and adaptive cruise control, the Q50’s Direct Adaptive Steering system is sentient enough to take the reigns entirely and leave you to more interesting (and potentially dangerous) tasks, like Tweeting, Vining, and Pinning, if that’s your thing.
Lining the Q50’s significantly improved interior are posher and more satisfying materials. Dominating the center console is a logically arrayed sequence of hard buttons and the curious combination of an 8-inch upper touchscreen (of average resolution) which is stacked above a 7-inch touchscreen (with surprising sharpness). Integrated Facebook, Pandora, Twitter and the like carry the theme, but sorry, the main attraction here is really the driving.
Infiniti claims the new Q50 is quieter, more refined, and more efficient compared to its predecessor, but don’t fool yourself: This car is all about the available driver assists. Acceleration is brisk in the V6 and saucy in the Hybrid (yes, the allegedly eco-conscious are rewarded for their seeming restraint and deeper pocketbooks), but the magic really begins when you let go of the wheel and trust the computers. Straight line driving works well enough, with the system’s slow, deliberate wheel corrections enforcing lane discipline. Gentle turns are also managed with ease, thanks to a windshield-mounted camera and processing module that tracks lane position and directs the steering system. But when the road bends with more variability, the turning becomes lazy and hesitant, invariably prompting a quick grab of the wheel before things get messy. In that way, we wish the system were a touch less like a timid exec and more like a CEO.
Around town, feedback from the digital steering feels natural enough, with the variable ratio settings yielding far more noticeable results than the changeable effort selections. Steering feel during medium speed driving is also appropriately innocuous, but when the going gets fast and twisty, the inputs get weird. The Q50 responded clumsily to steering inputs along the tighter stretches of highway.
While I found myself disconcerted by the Q50’s visceral attempts at making minced meat of a canyon road (and possibly me), at least the steering delivers on its promise of clean, vibration-free feel thanks to its untainted links to the road below. Likewise, the Q50’s cabin is a relatively quiet, comfortable space that’s available with modern trims like woven aluminum inlays, making cars like the BMW 328i seem even more Spartan and overpriced.
If there’s one takeaway from the Infiniti Q50, it’s that the debut of steer-by-wire technology is the first in a long, slippery, and potentially delightful slope towards self-driving cars. Beneath its swoopy resculpted shape is enough technology to herald the next golden age of automotive engineering, one where we drive ourselves until we don’t feel like it — opting, as baritone pilots often suggest, to “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”
Though essentially electronic, the steer-by-wire system offers a clutch-actuated linkage that reverts to a mechanical, rack and pinion setup in the unlikely event of electronic failure. And while ghosts in the machine and potentially catastrophic electronic SNAFUs were apparently of enough concern to raise a cascade of technical questions from the press at a regional product launch, no journalist stopped to ask why the Infiniti Q50 simply wasn’t equipped with a conventional steering system.
Against the relentlessly competitive microclimate of German luxury sedans, it seems the Japanese contender needed a one-two counterpunch in order to one-up the competition. Whether this is beauty or bête noire, at least the Q50 steps up as clear and present choice for those whose faith in technology exceeds their nostalgia for tradition.
All photos: Basem Wasef/get-gadget