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Infiniti built the Q50 in the hopes of rivalling the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class and the Audi A4. (Infiniti)
Infiniti built the Q50 in the hopes of rivalling the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class and the Audi A4. (Infiniti)

First Drive Infiniti Q50

This is the car that will convince BMW fans to try a Japanese brand Add to ...

Without a hint of false modesty and reflecting a competitive mindset that does Infiniti-sponsored F1 champion driver Sebastian Vettel proud, Infiniti people say the 2014 Q50 sedan “is, without question, the best sedan we’ve ever built.”

I love to hear things like that. Reminds me of when Joe Namath predicted the Jets would win the 1969 Super Bowl – and then did, beating the heavily favoured Baltimore Colts 16-7. Or when Babe Ruth called his home run “shot” in game three of the 1932 World Series.

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Chutzpah. Broadway Joe had it. The Babe had it. And, in 1994, a fat, 45-year-old George Foreman had it, too. As the story goes, he told HBO’s Jim Lampley that at some point in their heavyweight title fight, then-champion Michael Moorer would stand right in front of him – Foreman – and it would be lights out.

Sure enough, in the 10th round, Moorer did just that. Foreman landed a right to the forehead, then a right to the face. Moorer wobbled, his knees buckled and his reign as heavyweight champ ended with him flat on his back, out cold. Foreman had exorcised the demons created by the Rumble in the Jungle beating he took at the hands of Muhammad Ali.

Infiniti is hoping the Q50 has the stuff to deliver a knockout blow to the likes of the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class and the Audi A4 to name three. As well, Infiniti hopes to reinvent itself entirely, just as the once-fearsome-fighter-turned-preacher Foreman did in the 1980s and 1990s.

And yes, as Infiniti launches the Q50 – it’s in showrooms now – the leaders of the brand also recognize Cadillac and its ATS and even the Lexus IS as rivals, too. But for Nissan’s premium brand, what matters most is to best the big three Germans – BMW, Merc and Audi.

As Nissan Canada’s chief product planner puts it, “To be an acknowledged member of the world’s premium automotive brands,” says Tim Franklin.

No easy task. The Germans essentially own the world of expensive cars. Toyota is trying to raise its Lexus brand to premium contender. Ford wants Lincoln to be recognized as a world-beater, as well. General Motors is pumping up Cadillac’s lineup with some pretty good cars, too – the award-winning ATS, the XTS and the new CTS. But who are we kidding? All of them are playing to earn top spot among the second tier of premium brands.

Second tier is not good enough, say Infiniti Motors Ltd. chairman Andy Palmer and president Johan de Nysschen. “We need Infiniti to be in the same competitive set as BMW, Mercedes and Audi,” says Palmer, who is ultimately responsible for Infiniti, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Nissan.

The Q50 is the truest measure of how close Infiniti’s plan is on track today. This sedan (with a coupe coming later called the Q60) lays out the template for “the design, performance and technology direction for a new generation of Infiniti automobiles,” says Franklin, at a press drive of the new sedan that starts at $37,500 and tops out at $56,450.

Here’s what Franklin and his colleagues say will set the market buzzing about the Q50, and future Infinitis by extension.

Design: Handsome, sure, but more importantly, the new models must reflect a level of craftsmanship we’ve not seen from Infiniti. Think Audi as the bogey for interiors, in particular – only better. It’s also a slick design (0.26 co-efficient of drag), with LED “signature” lighting up front that looks inspired by the brilliant lighting work Audi is doing with its new models. Yes, Audi.

Performance: Even the base Q50 has a 3.7-litre V-6 rated at 328 horsepower (6.7 litres/100 km highway and 10.6 city). It’s strong, but the surprise is the hybrid – a performance powertrain with a combined 360 hp and fuel economy at 5.6 highway/7.0 city. Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, however. We believe this is a car “that connects the driver to the road,” Franklin says.

Refinement: In a nutshell, the car feels expensive but beats competitors on pricing, feature for feature – and the technology is easy, even intuitive to operate.

The Q50, for the record, replaces the G37. The old G was a respectable car, but it never managed to match the 3-Series, try though it did. I’d argue the G was as close as any Asian-sourced sedan has come to being a 3-Series. Close but no cigar means the G was an afterthought among its target shoppers.

But something interesting has happened in the past few years. The latest version of the 3-Series has softened and grown in size, just as the Infiniti product planners have stiffened the backbone of the G’s replacement.

When you drive this Infiniti, you’ll find it is gentle in stop-and-go traffic, yet when the speeds climb, the handling tightens. The car is able to eat pavement as well or better than something similar from Bavaria.

True, the only gearbox is a seven-speed automatic. Okay, a true performance luxury sedan should have a manual gearbox on the options list. This autobox is quick and smooth and you can control it through magnesium shift paddles on the steering column. Moreover, you can dial up a number of driving modes using a toggle on the centre console: standard, sport, eco, snow and personal. Doing so adjusts the shift patterns, the throttle sensitivity and steering effort.

Perhaps it is the steering that is the most pause-worthy. What Infiniti calls “direct adaptive steering” is slick. A traditional steering shaft connects the wheel in your hand to the wheels up front and on the ground, but it won’t come into play unless the drive-by-wire system fails. In every other circumstance, a sensor reads what you’re doing with the wheel, and from there an electronic brain directs electric motors to manage the steering rack that points the front wheels.

Most amazing: the electronics are designed to give the driver feedback, just as if you were managing a purely mechanical system. Franklin says the benefit comes in a design that filters out irritating feedback, such as little vibrations that can be tiring on a long drive.

The truth is, Franklin is part of a gang who say their car is a dynamic match for anything in its segment – and bests them all with a package of mind-blowing technologies.

For example, “active lane control” is a camera-based system capable of steering your car and keeping it in its lane during a highway drive. The car will also tell you and help you if something is in your blind spot; warn if you’re leaving your lane; help prevent a back-up collision, and show you on a monitor everything that’s around you. “Predictive forward collision warning” can even warn you of a hazard up ahead – beyond your vision by seeing under the car in front.

Franklin says he’s reluctant to talk too much about all the gizmos, because doing so can undermine the story about how well the Q50 drives. I could, indeed, spend a couple of thousand words reviewing the dual screens in the console, the Bose sound system, the control layout and all the rest. Instead, I’ll just say that, without cracking the owner’s manual, I managed to deal successfully with all the gadgets on board.

That left me free to worry about how the car drives. Or enjoy it. Rear-drive or all-wheel-drive, the Q50 was a surprise to me. It seemed docile in the city and a monster on open, inviting roads.

So what’s the problem facing Infiniti? Getting people to test the car and buy into the brand – accept it as the equal of the Germans. That won’t happen overnight. So the question: Will Infiniti be patient and stay this new course, or follow in past footsteps and jump around looking for quick fixes when it seems buyers are slow to respond?

We’ll see.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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