By Andrew Ganz
Thursday, May 20th, 2010 @ 12:00 pm
 
After nearly bottoming out a decade ago, Infiniti is back in high style, living up to its never-ending name by cranking out new products with a quickness. First it was a trio of variations on the G37 theme, followed by an impressive M sedan. Now, the coddling luxury brand has reinvented its full-size QX56 SUV in an effort to take away the Escalade's crown in this politically incorrect segment.


No, the QX56 doesn't fit into the new world order of eco-friendly hybrids that run on unicorn droppings and feature hemp-infused seat covers, bamboo tires and biodegradable steering wheels. But it does unquestionably serve a large and discriminating audience.

Timing is everything
Three buck-a-gallon premium unleaded and an increasingly broad emphasis on "green" products might not make the kind of climate conducive to introducing a high-end, full-size luxury SUV, but Infiniti has done its research.

Sales of the outgoing QX56 are way up so far this year - an increase of nearly 160 percent over 2009's first four month figures. While Infiniti can't quite explain the surge in demand for its now lame duck 'ute, the brand intends to capitalize on its increased market share by rolling out the vastly improved, all-new 2011 model.

Infiniti says it sees the market leveling off at around 100,000 full-size luxury SUVs annually, a number we've heard echoed by segment sales leader Cadillac. These high-end brands make the valid argument that many American families still want a full-size utility vehicle that can tow a trailer and haul the entire group in luxo-lined comfort. Full-size luxury SUVs offer more capability than tarted-up crossovers and well-heeled buyers are willing to pony up the cost of entry and to keep filling the tank with dino juice.

No Patrolling
The QX56 bears more than a passing resemblance to Nissan's world-market Patrol - a big SUV you've seen painted white with massive UN decals that stars in CNN coverage in third-world countries - but Infiniti assures us that the design and engineering is all theirs, not Nissan's.

Finally a global brand competing in every major market outside of Japan, Infiniti has made an impressive effort to differentiate its products from those offered by Nissan. Infiniti has its own research and development department and it was under that banner, the company's North American public relations team was quick to point out, that the QX was born. Then, the finger-pointing tale goes, the Nissan team decided that Infiniti's fancy-pants SUV would make a nice seventh-generation Patrol.

The Patrol sells mostly to commercial buyers and well-heeled individuals living in the Middle East; its demographics are among the most fascinating of any new car on the market in that buyers regularly list more than one wife on owner surveys. If nothing else, the Patrol has room to haul the harem.

The bulging front fascia, functional side air inlet (driver's side only) and swoopy D-pillar are nothing at all like the outgoing Nissan Armada-based QX56. They lend the QX a distinctive style that falls short of the restrained elegance you'll find on a Range Rover.

Since we're neither Sheikhs nor UN workers, we can't comment on the Patrol. But, boy, if it's anything like the QX, those Sheikhs and their wives are traveling in comfort.

Road mannerisms
Under its bulbous hood, the QX features Infiniti's latest 5.6-liter V8, a sophisticated, direct-injected mull that debuted earlier this year in the 2011 M56 sedan. In this application, it's mated to an adaptive seven-speed automatic transmission with a manual-style shift gate and Infiniti offers its big 'ute with either rear or four-wheel drive. About 60 percent of QX56s will 4x4s; the system defaults to an automatic mode that only uses the front wheels when slip is detected, although it offers a permanently engaged four wheeler mode for loose terrain and a low range for off roading or perhaps pulling a heavy boat out of a lake.

Despite boasting significantly more power - 400 horsepower peaking at 5,800 rpm (versus 320 horsepower in the outgoing model) and 413 lb-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm, the new 5.6 is actually quite a bit more frugal. Don't go thinking it's a Yaris, but 14 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway (16 mpg combined) is actually quite acceptable for a Godzilla-esque SUV that weighs more than 6,000 lbs.

The V8 is silky smooth at idle, although it makes itself known with a respectable growl and limited in-cabin vibrations when put to work through the rolling terrain outside of Louisville. The seven-speed automatic fired off soft, but predictable shifts and felt imminently suited to the QX56's girth. Interestingly, it features rev-matching downshifts when guided through its manumatic shift gate. The benefits of this will be lost on most owners, but as enthusiasts we appreciate the nod to performance.

Likewise, even with the extra large optional 22-inch wheels (20s are standard), the QX's supple ride was undisturbed over any terrain we threw at it during our brief, rain-soaked drive of Kentucky's horse country.

In many ways, the QX is aimed directly at those in the horse breeding community. Capable of towing a class-leading 8,500 lbs. (tied with the Lexus LX570), the QX56 seems like a natural fit for well-heeled equine enthusiasts.

While certainly not a sports car, the QX56 proved an adept cornering vehicle when optioned with the automaker's Hydraulic Body Motion Control System (part of a $5,800 Deluxe Touring package that also includes 22-inch alloy wheels, upgraded leather trim wrapping heated and cooled seats and a few other goodies). The relatively simple lean-reducing system directs fluid from one side of the vehicle to the other in order to keep the tall QX remarkably flat during hard cornering. Our only reservation with the system is its potential to endow drivers with a sense of overconfidence that could fade quickly if the QX is pushed too hard.

Add in an Around View Mirror system, which shows a Google Maps-esque overhead view of the QX for parking and Distance Control Assist, which can maintain a set distance from traffic and even bring the QX to a complete stop, and you wind up with a whole complement of safety-oriented conveniences designed to keep drivers from plowing into each other. Let's just hope those drivers remember that not every vehicle can stop itself before plowing into the braking Grand Marquis in front of it.

Rain king
Our opportunity to sample the QX56 on the winding two-lane roads surrounding Versailles, Kentucky (which, incidentally, is pronounced Ver-sales), was cut short by torrential rains that flooded side streets and even some major thoroughfares. We waited out the deluge in warm, dry comfort inside the QX56.

Although not quite as over-the-top luxuriously elegant as Infiniti's new M sedans, which feature silver-sparkling real wood trim, the QX generally follows the same upscale design theme. Chair-like seats featuring a bit too much lumbar support are wrapped in your choice of good or great (semi-aniline) leather trim. The seats are raised high off the ground, reminding us of the first generation Land Rover Discovery or even the Mitsubishi Montero. Fortunately, the rest of the interior is much more attractive and conveniently laid out.

Despite its massive interior volume the latest QX feels more intimate than before - and that's a good thing since the old model felt more like a dressed up fleet vehicle than a luxury human hualer. The front seats feature plenty of room, while the second row is truly stretch-out comfortable. Overall cargo volume bests the competition and passenger comfort handily tops the much larger Escalade EXT we recently sampled.

Naturally, there is no shortage of buttons to press to control the optional navigation system, climate control and rockin' Bose audio system that, unlike so many Bose-branded systems before it, seems to have found its highs and lows.


Star rivalry
The crest-and-wreath brand's Escalade has essentially owned the segment ever since hip hop's stars migrated out of their Lincoln Navigators, although Mercedes-Benz's GL, Land Rover's Range Rover and Lexus' GX 460 and LX 570 have emerged as serious rivals.

The QX56 doesn't offer the powertrain flexibility of the GL, which is available in thrifty and torquey GL320 Bluetec diesel configuration, nor does it offer the wider selection and greater degree of luxury found in Land Rover and Lexus showrooms. What the QX brings to the table is expansive interior space and genuine truck capability.

Why you would buy it:
A Ford Expedition doesn't offer quite the level of comfort or dealership experience you're seeking and you want a rock solid hauler capable of moving a gaggle of rugrats and a trailer in opulence.

Why you wouldn't:
Your current vehicle's passenger seats have never seen use and you don't know what a trailer hitch does.

Leftlane's bottom line
Although Infiniti thinks truck-based luxury SUV segment is here to stay, we have to wonder about how these guzzlers will meet upcoming line-wide federal fuel standards.

For now, however, we'll live in the moment and say that the Infiniti QX is undoubtedly the segment leader for those who want three rows of reasonable comfort and the ability to yank a boat or horse trailer from here to kingdom come. Refined and civilized, the QX56 boasts some of Infiniti's best interior detailing yet and with a price that matches the outgoing 2010, it's a sure fire bet that this 'ute's market share will continue to grow.

2011 Infiniti QX56 2WD base price, $56,700.
2011 Infiniti QX56 4WD base price, $59,800.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.