2019 Infiniti QX50 a serious contender in luxury CUV market
Industry-first engine tech tops the billing for Infiniti's genuinely new luxury-compact crossover
A delectable selection of challenging driving roads snake through the canyons and ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains west of L.A., yet the prescribed drive route for the 2019 Infiniti QX50 missed the best of them.
No matter. There was still enough en-route swooping and swerving to confirm the QX50 corners and rides as well as you'd expect of any modern luxury crossover.
And besides, chassis dynamics weren't our focus on this test drive. Not when the QX50 pioneers the first production application of an "if only" engine technology that has tantalized engine designers for decades.
That said, the VC-Turbo engine is hardly the only thing that's new on the 2019 model. On a scale of freshness, the QX50 gets as close to 10 as anything ever does in this era of global architectures and common componentry.
It rides atop a totally new architecture based on a front-drive layout (though all-wheel drive is standard in Canada). An automotive-first use of Super High Formability steel enables a BMI (weight-to-size) ratio claimed to be among the segment's best.
Measuring 4.7 metres from snout to stern (and 1.68 metres tall), the QX50 slots in at the larger end of a compact luxury CUV segment that spans from the Lincoln MKC's 4.55 metres to the Jaguar F-Pace's 4.73 metres. Within Infiniti's own hierarchy, it's one up from the entry-level QX30, and replaces a decade-old RWD-based predecessor formerly known as the QX37, née QX35.
Infiniti says the new look hews to the marque's signature "powerful elegance" design and also, says design chief Alfonso Albaisa, strikes "the perfect balance between lust and logic." Make your own mind up about that, but the signature D-pillar treatment does help the QX50 stand out from the herd.
Even more distinctive is the VC-Turbo engine under the hood. Two-litre four-cylinder turbocharged base engines are pretty much the norm in this segment, but nothing else duplicates the QX50's USP – a variable compression ratio (CR).
Why is that a big deal? Because a variable CR resolves the conflict between three basic realities of piston-engine design: Higher CRs maximize efficiency; higher CRs also raise the risk of engine-wrecking detonation; and the harder the engine is working, the greater the risk of said detonation.
Very simply, the VC-Turbo is able to maximize the compression ratio (up to 14:1) for peak efficiency in light-load driving, minimize it (to 8:1) for maximum-effort driving and seamlessly vary it between those limits for in-between situations.
How does that pan out on paper? Maximum outputs of 268 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque rank at the high end of class norms but are not class-leading. But combine those outputs with a projected 9.0 litres/100 km combined fuel consumption and the VC-Turbo concept starts to justify itself; the competition varies between 9.5 and 11 litres/100 km (though some offer diesel or hybrid options that can out-Scrooge the Infiniti).
Of course, the fuel economy isn't only a function of the engine design. Weights and aerodynamics are factors, and so is the transmission: Uniquely among its peers, the QX50 employs a continuously variable transmission (CVT) versus rivals' six-to-nine-speed conventional stepped transmissions. That's a mixed blessing. CVTs can optimize both acceleration and fuel economy, but their subjective drive feel isn't everyone's cup of tea.
Be that as it may, Infiniti expects the QX50 to become its biggest-selling nameplate in Canada. And while there's only one powertrain, no fewer than five trim grades cater to varying tastes and budgets. ProPILOT Assist, which is among the industry's more advanced packages of almost-autonomous driver-assist features, is standard on the mid-grade and up, along with Infiniti's other industry exclusive: steer-by-wire steering.
Pricing will be announced closer to the late-spring on-sale date, but it's safe to assume the MSRPs will be competitive. And we know now that the vehicle itself already is.
- Base price: TBA
- Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo
- Transmission/drive: Continuously variable automatic/all-wheel
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.0/100 km combined (estimated)
- Alternatives: Acura RDX, Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Buick Envision, Cadillac XT5, Jaguar F-Pace, Lexus NX, Land Rover Discovery Sport, Lincoln MKC, Maserati Levante, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Porsche Macan, Volvo XC60
It's not easy to make a two-box shape stand out but the QX50 manages it, with its "double-arch" grille, "crescent-cut" D-post and deeply sculpted body sides.
Kudos to Infiniti for providing a relatively lofty driving position – a theoretical SUV asset that, in reality, is increasingly rare. "Curated" interior materials include aluminum or open-pore maple trim, Ultrasuede accents and hand-stitched semi-aniline leather. There are also up to four screens: two (integrated) in the centre stack, another in the gauge cluster, the fourth being the available head-up display. Rear-cabin space is competitive, though the seat could use more thigh support.
The claimed 0-97 km/h t ime of 6.3 seconds is in the ballpark with rivals' base models, if a bit conservative given the QX's engine outputs and CVT transmission; as well, many competitors offer higher-power engine options that the QX lacks. That said, the VC-Turbo engine is creamy smooth and spins with a distinct sound that, while unusual, is not unappealing. Less appealing are the periodic, seemingly random surges of engine rpm that are intrinsic to the continuously variable transmission when driving briskly.
Infiniti pioneered many of today's driver-assist technologies, but competitors have followed suit, so the available aids, while advanced, do not leapfrog the opposition (though Infiniti's steer-by-wire technology remains unique). Consider ProPILOT Assist to be partial Level 2 autonomy, combining all-speed adaptive cruise with stop-and-go, and autonomous lane following that still, however, requires a hand or two on the wheel most of the time.
Cargo-volume numbers are near best in class, and a sliding rear seat further enhances space and versatility.
In one generation, the QX50 goes from also-ran to challenger in the luxury market's happeningest segment.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.