Wheel to wire
Muskoka, Ontario – In any other car, if your steering wheel wasn’t attached to the front tires, you’d have a problem. In Infiniti’s new Q50, it’s basically the point.
This new model is the replacement for the G37, the first sedan to use Infiniti’s new naming system of Q for cars, and QX for SUVs. It continues to use a 3.7-litre V6 as before, but the engine has been tuned for greater fuel economy, the styling is more aggressive, and there are new technologies, including that aforementioned steer-by-wire, and a gas-electric hybrid model.
Disclosure: Accommodations, meals, and a predetermined driving route were provided to the author by the automaker.
Pricing starts at $37,500 for a rear-wheel-drive model, and $43,400 for all-wheel, rising to a high of $51,750 for the Sport AWD Deluxe Touring and Tech. The hybrid, which comes in rear-wheel or all-wheel, ranges from $47,000 to $56,450.
Drive-by-wire throttles are now an industry standard, but Infiniti says this is the first time such a system has been used on a production vehicle for steering. When you move the steering wheel, sensors determine the angle and send the information to a central controller, which in turn launches the steering rack’s appropriate movement. There’s still a steering shaft, but it’s disconnected. If there’s an electrical power loss, a clutch instantly reconnects it so you can still steer the car.
It’s not meant to save weight—it’s actually heavier than a regular electric system—but to give the engineers room to play. The control unit can be programmed for lane-keeping and other safety systems, while the steering rack is “soft-mounted” with dampers to improve the ride. The driver can adjust the steering to a variety of combinations, including heavy, standard or light effort, and quick, standard, or casual response.
I know I’m not going to get hydraulic feel from an electric system, at least not with the current technology, but the Q’s steering fails to impress. In “heavy” feel, it’s just hard effort that seems like you’re pushing the car around, and in “light” mode, it’s floppy. The engineers also dialled out what they call “dirty noise,” such as vibration from road crowns or ruts. That makes it pleasant enough on a long, flat highway drive, but for the spirited stuff—Infiniti’s pegging this as a sports sedan, after all—I want to feel everything that’s under the tires. These systems will get better as the technology evolves, but they’re not there yet.
In heavy/quick mode on the rear-wheel model, the car felt more like a front-wheel car on hard curves. The antidote was the all-wheel version, which balanced it out much better on twisty roads.
Heavy hitter hybrid
The Q50’s 3.7-litre V6 makes 328 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque, and it’s a really sweet and smooth unit, mated to an equally good seven-speed automatic transmission. But the big surprise is the hybrid model, which carries a 3.5-litre V6 that produces 302 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, combined with an electric motor that dishes out 67 horses and 214 lb-ft of torque. Despite its extra weight, the hybrid is quicker off the line than the Q50, and it switches seamlessly between gasoline and electric power. Several manufacturers are making some really good hybrid systems these days, and this is one of them.
I like the aggressive new styling, especially the snarly new nose. The cabin design is clean and the seats are very comfortable, but it’s all a bit underwhelming inside. It would be a fine interior on a $32,000 car, but my tester was almost $50,000. The front passenger side also needs a sloped toe-board design, rather than a flat floor. But on the plus side, a heated steering wheel, my new “gotta-have-it” for icy mornings, is a standard feature.
I really like the twin touch screens in the centre stack, though. The top eight-inch screen displays the navigation map, while the seven-inch screen below contains app-style icons for the phone, stereo and vehicle settings, along with any you migrate from your phone. It’s a great idea because if you’re adjusting something in the bottom screen, the map doesn’t disappear, as it does on a single-screen system. Functions that you want to access quickly, such as volume, heated seats, or cabin temperature are handled through hard buttons, as they should be.
The touch-screen can be swiped similarly to a phone or tablet. I’m generally not a fan of these high-tech screens, but this one is very simple, and I could figure it all out without delving into the owner’s manual, which earns it top marks.
Personal settings for up to four drivers can be entered as icons on the screen, remembering such things as the radio station, temperature, seat position, navigation, and phone settings. The key will do the same, switching it to your preferences when you unlock the car.
Steer, don’t stray
Along with the adaptive steering, Infiniti also claims that its Active Lane Control is a world-first production performance technology. It uses cameras to determine the lines on the road and, when activated, it steers the car to stay in the centre of the lane. Acura has a similar lane-keeping system, but Infiniti’s version is nowhere near as squirmy. Still, I don’t care to have the wheel moving in my hands, and after trying it for a while, I left it shut off.
The car also monitors vehicles in front and warns if you’re getting too close, but there’s a twist: the radar beams are mounted low enough that they go under the vehicle in front, if it isn’t too low-slung, to monitor two cars ahead and help avoid “chain reaction” collisions.
Overall, the numb adaptive steering aside, the Q50 is a decent enough car. Its major drawback is that’s all it is, without anything compelling enough to put it at the top of the “in my driveway” list. There’s not a lot to set it apart from the equally un-compelling Acura RLX, possibly its closest competitor, and I wouldn’t take it over the superior-handling Cadillac ATS. Steer-by-wire is fascinating from a technical standpoint, but unfortunately, its best days are definitely still ahead of it.