Steve Sharpe drives the Q50 saloon
Unfamiliar though it may be at the moment, Infiniti is a name that is set to become a common one on Wearside.
Models from the luxury car arm of Nissan are a rare sight on our roads, but that will change in the next couple of years due to the company’s £250m investment in the UK.
Work is already underway at Nissan’s Sunderland plant which will produce Infiniti’s compact Q30, which will be launched in 2015.
But the company already has several models available, and the Q50 saloon is the first of a new Q strategy, a name which will be adopted by all future models – with a QX name being given to SUVs.
The Q50, an all-new model which was brought in to replace the old G37, came on sale in the latter part of last year, and is Infiniti’s entry into the luxury saloon segment, a class with an eye on the fleet market and full of big hitters like BMW’s 3 series and Audi’s A4. The segment is dominated by the German marques but the Japanese giants hope that the Q50 offers something a little different.
Indeed the Q50 is strikingly different, with its pinched flanks, grooved bonnet and coupe profile.
Add to that the distinctive front and rear headlight clusters, large front grille and ridged rear wheel arches and you get a subtle but sporty looking saloon that’s a bit of a head-turner.
Its German rivals are renowned for the quality of their interiors, so it’s vitally important that Infiniti can at least match that quality if it is going to be serious contender in the segment.
The first thing that strikes you is the large and futuristic display in the centre of the console.
There are two hi-quality screens running down the centre, an integrated satnav at the top and a touchscreen info-tainment system underneath, full of apps and such like.
It all looks incredibly high tech and very smart, the bright blue lighting scheme mirrored on the speed dials positioned in front of the driver.
Elsewhere in the cabin the materials are soft to the touch, with cushioned plastics in abundance, and there are flashes of silver plastic to lift the otherwise darkened cabin.
The switches and dials are easy to operate and all things are laid out in a clear and precise way. The touchscreen satnav is controlled by a rotary dial and voice control, as well as by pressing the screens themselves, and features all kinds of gadgets, including email access and facebook.
I’m sure with prolonged use and advice from someone considerably younger things would become clear but at first encounter it’s a little bewildering.
Things are suitably posh and understated and you feel like you’re in a quality saloon but, even with the high-tech centre piece, it does lack a certain wow factor.
This is a big car – with a long wheelbase – and space is one of a key selling points.
The boot is large and there’s plenty of headroom and legroom in the front, and the driving position is very comfortable.
The seats are a good size and supportive, and it’s easy to get comfortable thanks to electronic adjustment up, down, back and forward, with a steering wheel that goes up and down and in and out electronically too.
You’ll get no complaints from the rear passengers, either – there is a load of headroom despite the coupe shape and enough legroom to stretch out and relax on long trips.
The middle passenger will have to cope with the transmission tunnel but the ample legroom either side certainly helps.
The Infiniti Q50 is available with a 2.2-litre diesel engine or a 3.5-litre petrol/electric hybrid drivetrain.
The 2.2d comes with either a six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmission and is rear-wheel drive.
The 2.2 diesel engine can be quite raspy at higher revs and the combination of wind noise whistling in, some road rumble coming through and the engine noise means that refinement levels are behind its big German competitors.
But there’s a strong engine with good mid-range torque, which means that the big Q50 performs admirably.
Acceleration from standing is swift and there’s a steady pull through the gears until you reach cruising speed, which is comfortable reached.
I drove the 2.2 diesel six-speed manual gearbox, which took some getting used to.
The gearstick was very notchy and sometimes difficult to slot in unless the clutch was absolutely depressed to the fullest. Finding reverse was far harder than you would expect.
And when changing gear, the stick also seemed to ping into a central position before you get the chance to slip into the next gear. Short gearing also means there’s a lot of changes at low speeds.
The Q50 handles decently – although there isn’t a huge amount of feedback from the steering when cornering and there’s some body roll – it’s doesn’t have too much of a negative impact and the big saloon is comfortable in most situations,
The Q50’s ride absorbs the bumps and potholes which increase by the week on the roads of the North East and it provides a comfortable ride in town and on the open road.
Although it feels manageable around town a wide turning circle gets in the way of parking, and I often found a double movement was necessary.
Pricing is important if Infiniti are going to persuade an individual or a company to switch allegiance from the traditional German saloons.
The Q50 starts at around £28,000 for the entry level diesel, which is slightly less than the 3 series.
There are three trim levels for the diesel models –SE, Premium and Sport.
Standard equipment on the entry level SE version includes 17-inch alloy wheels and run-flat tyres, LED lighting in the rear light units, front fog lights , chrome-trimmed twin exhaust pipes and daytime running lights.
All models get the dual touch screens along with a fully customisable digital environment, a six-speaker system, Bluetooth streaming, USB/iPod connectivity and voice-operated control.
Premium grade adds an upgraded interior and the top-spec sport version at £32,720 adds a more aggressive front bumper section, LED headlamps, LED daytime running lights and larger 19-inch triple-spoke lightweight alloy wheels. Sports grade also receives a world’s first on a production car with the inclusion of Direct Adaptive Steering (DAS), ‘steer by wire’ technology that has only previously seen on the latest jet planes.
But you have to pay a fair bit extra for satnav and a DAB radio in a media pack with a BOSE system. It all adds up, and my Sport test car topped £38k.
There’s a good amount of safety equipment on board as standard though, including a camera system to detect front and rear collisions, Nissan’s “overhead” parking camera which gives a 360-degree view around the car as well as an optional system that can steer you back in to your lane if you begin to drift.
The Q50’s biggest obstacle to overcome is brand loyalty – how does Infiniti persuade Audi and BMW enthusiasts to change make?
It’ll be a tough job but the Q50 has a few things on its side –it’s exclusivity will appeal to those looking for something other than the ubiquitous Germans, for a start.
It’s a smart-looking car that drives well and is roomy and comfortable, with a plush interior that’s got a load of hi-tech touches.
Only time will tell but the way that the company is improving model by model will certainly do its chances no harm.
Engine: 2.2litre diesel.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
0-62: 8.5 seconds.
Top Speed: 144mph.
Economy: Avg 64.2mpg