LeftLaneNews

First drive: 2019 Infiniti QX50

by Drew Johnson
2019 Infiniti QX50 first drive - image 1

Infiniti's had a total rethink on its QX50 compact SUV.

When designing the original QX50 small SUV (which was known as the EX35 at the time), Infiniti decided to focus more on the sport side of the utility vehicle equation. Riding on parent company Nissan's FM front-engine, rear-drive platform, the EX35 was essentially a 350Z wagon with the added benefits of all-wheel drive and an upscale cabin.

But, as it turns out, the kind of person shopping for what amounts to a fancier Honda CR-V didn't care as much about 0-60 times and nimble handling as they did about things like rear-seat legroom and cargo capacity. Infiniti tried to address some of the QX50's shortcomings in 2016 with the introduction of a longer-wheelbase model, but it just wasn't enough to keep the nameplate relevant in a highly competitive marketplace.

So, for 2019, Infiniti is starting with a clean slate. The all-new QX50 is just that — the 2019 model doesn't share a single component with the previous-generation model. And with that ground-up redesign Infiniti is now emphasizing the utility in SUV. But has it worked?

Overview

Whereas the previous QX50 shared a platform with a number of other Nissan and Infiniti-badged vehicle, the 2019 version of the SUV rides on an all-new chassis designed to make the most of its compact footprint. Chief among changes for 2019 is the switch from rear-wheel drive to front-wheel drive, allowing for better packaging. As a result, cargo room behind the rear seats has nearly doubled to 31.1 cubic feet and rear-seat legroom is up by more than three inches to 38.7 inches. That's especially impressive considering the new QX50 is shorter than its predecessor by two inches.

Infiniti has also had a total rethink about the QX50's drivetrain. Gone is Infiniti's venerable naturally-aspirated V6, replaced by an all-new and extremely high-tech four-cylinder engine (more on this later). The QX50's transmission has also been upgraded from a conventional seven-speed auto to a CVT that simulates eight forward gears. The new 2.0L makes less horsepower than the old 3.7L V6 (268 horsepower vs. 325 horsepower), but torque has grown from 267 lb-ft to 280 lb-ft. The 50's slightly lower curb weight also helps performance.

More style, more luxury

Whereas the styling of the old QX50 was a bit frumpy, the new one is anything but. The 2019 QX50 wears tightly-sculpted body with much better proportions and closer attention to detail. That starts with a more upright front grille that gives the QX50 more of a typical SUV stance. Headlights are new-look units with LED accents and appear to flow right out of the corners of Infiniti's latest corporate grille design. Infiniti has also simplified the QX50's lower bumper by toning down the corner air inlets and removing unnecessary trim pieces, giving the SUV a cleaner overall look.

It's hard to find a flat surface on the QX50, with curvaceous hood bulges, door creases and a mini ducktail spoiler giving the SUV a sense of motion even when it's standing still. A sloping roof line combined with Infiniti's signature C-pillar kink emphasizes the effect.

There's no denying the QX50 is a sharp-looking vehicle from any angle, but the overall look is a little derivative, especially in person. We see some clear influences from Jaguar, Audi and Lexus. Still, the QX50 lands near the top of its class in terms of curb appeal.

Infiniti lauds the cabin of the QX50 as the "finest interior we've ever done," and we tend to agree. The QX50's interior is awash is premium-looking and -feeling materials. There's even a top-spec trim option that adds suede-like blue accents to the SUV's door panels and center console. However, it should be noted that we were only given access to fully or nearly-fully loaded models; the entry-level version of the QX50 might not feel quite as luxurious.

For 2019 the QX50 receives the dual-screen infotainment setup pioneered by the Q50 sedan and Q60 coupe. As with the Q50 and Q60, the top screen in the QX50 is reserved for navigation while the lower screen is used for things like music and vehicle controls. The hardware of the dual screens actually works quite well once you get accustomed to it, but the software running behind the scenes desperately needs an update. Not all menus are logically arranged and the system's graphics are decidedly last-decade, particularly for the embedded navigation. Moreover, the QX50 — which we'll remind you is a 2019 model year vehicle — isn't capable of running Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

Gauges are easy-to-read analog units with an LCD screen nestled between. A comprehensive set of controls on the multi-function steering wheel make it ease to cycle through the QX50's various settings and functions.

In the QX50's center console you'll find the start-stop button, gear lever, driving model selector, knob for infotainment controls (both screens are also touchscreens for added functionality) and a couple of buttons for the SUV's electronic parking brake (one of which is for an auto-hold feature). We found the start-stop button's low-down positioning a bit odd, but it's probably something you'd get used to over time. One thing we doubt we'd get used to is the QX50's gear lever, which is the type of unit that always stays centered no matter the gear it's in. You also don't push the shifter up for park; instead you have to push a button marked 'P' just behind the lever.

Comfort, however, isn't a QX50 shortcoming. The QX50 uses Infiniti's Zero Gravity front seats, which deliver a surprising amount of cushioning and support. Our test model was also equipped with heated and cooled seats that further enhanced our comfort.

Unlike the previous QX50, rear seat and cargo room is spacious. Either can be improved at a moments notice thanks to a sliding second-row bench. For maximum cargo capacity, the QX50's rear seats can fold flat.

An engine 20 years in the making

The 2.0L engine in the QX50 isn't just any old turbocharged four-cylinder. It's an engineering marvel that took Infiniti engineers the better part of two decades to design and build.

Known as the Variable Compression Turbo, or VC-Turbo for short, the engine uses an electric actuator to shift the axis point of the connecting rods, thereby adjusting the height the pistons reach in the cylinders. When less power is needed, the pistons don't quite make it to the top of the cylinders, which reduces compression and improves economy. When full power is summoned, the system reverts to a more typical setting where the pistons reach the top of the cylinders, increasing compression and power. Think of it as variable valve timing for your pistons.

To make the most of its fuel-saving tech, Infiniti paired its VC engine with a continuously variable transmission. The QX50's CVT is programmed to replicate an eight-speed auto and can even be controlled as such via a set of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Drive time

As we pushed the QX50's start button to bring its VC engine to life, we really didn't know what to expect. Would it sound different? Would it feel different? The answer to both, as it turns out, is not really.

At idle and around town, the 2.0L in the QX50 acts like any other turbocharged four-cylinder on the market — it's smooth with plenty of torque to shoot from traffic light to traffic light. It's only upon hard acceleration that you get a whiff that something might be different under hood.

Although imperceptible from a mechanical sense, you can feel the engine "wake up" at higher RPMs, which is presumably the result of the engine switching into high-compression mode. It's a sensation we liken to driving an old school Honda product equipped with VTEC. That can cause the engine to feel peaky at times, but it's not offensive and likely something the average driver won't even perceive.

The transmission in the QX50 is one of best CVTs we've ever driven, but that's largely because it simulates a conventional eight-speed automatic. The driving experience in the QX50 might be improved with an actual eight-speed auto that eliminates the CVT's inherent rubber band-like feeling, however slight that feeling is in the QX50. That would probably impact fuel economy, though, which is likely why Infiniti went with a CVT in the first place.

Overall performance is good but not neck-snapping, matching the expectations you'd have for a 268-horsepower SUV. Fuel economy is a QX50 strong point with AWD models rated at 24 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, netting a 26 mpg combined average. Sticking with front-wheel drive increases highway and combined mileage by 1 mpg each. We saw just under 25 mpg from the on-board computer in our AWD test car, nearly matching the EPA's estimates.

The 2019 QX50 uses Infiniti's steer-by-wire system, which does away with any physical connection between the steering wheel and the front wheels (there is a mechanical fallback system should the electric system experience a failure). As a result, the QX50's steering is devoid of an feeling and over-assisted in Standard mode. Switching to Sport modes firms up the QX50's steering, but not enough to make it appreciably better. And that's a real shame considering how good the last QX50's hydraulic-based rack was.

Handling has also been muted for the latest QX50. Whereas the old QX50 was actually fun on a twisty road, the new one feels out of its element. The 2019 QX50 doesn't exhibit any kind of excessive body lean or pronounced understeer, but it just feels unhappy when pushed even to modest levels. Even though the 2019 QX50 is lighter, it feels heavier and less willing to dance.

But most QX50s will be used to ferry the kids across town or take friends out to dinner, and that's where it excels. The QX50 is comfortable, roomy and quiet. Pot holes are dispatched easily and little noise from the outside world penetrates the QX50's cabin. Simply put, the QX50 is a wonderful little luxury pod.

Although the QX50 isn't quite an autonomous luxury pod, it is available with Infiniti's ProPilot Assist system. A wide-ranging safety suite, ProPilot includes technologies like automatic braking, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control. ProPilot also boasts a low-speed follow function that's essentially adaptive cruise control without cruise control. In stop-and-go-traffic the system keeps the QX50 a certain distance from the car ahead, meaning you can completely take your feet off the pedals. The ProPilot system is easily activated via a blue button on the steering wheel.

We found the ProPilot system to be useful on straighter stretches of roads, but it struggled on curvier roads where the steering often failed to cope with the angle of even moderate bends. To be clear, ProPilot isn't intended to be an autonomous system, but it doesn't quite measure up to the best semi-autonomous system already on the market.

Those systems — along with an around-view monitor — are helpful in city driving as the QX50 feels a little bigger than its compact designation would suggest. The dash and the hood of the QX50 sit relatively high, giving the SUV a low-feeling seating position more akin to that of a luxury sedan. Those that like the commanding seating position of a typical SUV will have to adjust to the QX50.

Pricing for the 2019 QX50 ranges from $36,550 for a base Pure FWD model to $45,150 for an Essential AWD model. Those figures are about in-line with the outgoing QX50. However, load on the options and you can get a QX50 to nearly $60,000.

Leftlane's bottom line

With the redesigned QX50, Infiniti has put the utility back in SUV. However, that added utility has come at the expensive of the QX50's sport, which was one of the most endearing qualities of the old model.

The good news for Infiniti is that the market should embrace that change — last year Lexus sold more than three times as many of its NX than Infiniti did of its QX50, proving that luxury buyers aren't really interested sporty small SUVs. Moreover, the lure of a more efficient engine and a much-improved interior should ensure the QX50 climbs to the top of Infiniti's sales charts in short order.