Johannesburg - You know the drill. Japanese carmaker launches luxury sedan. Motoring press immediately compares to German standards. Japanese luxury sedan falls short.
Harsh maybe, but all too often true. Not that the Japanese don’t excel in certain areas, and in the case of Infiniti’s new Q50 we have an incredibly well-crafted car that can take the fight to BMW’s 3 Series in terms of fit and finish, and then some.
By now you should know that this brand is an arm of Nissan but with a more premium approach, and where earlier models such as the M30 (Infiniti’s first foray into our market) were recognisable as Nissan products by switchgear and displays stolen from Qashqais and 370Zs, this all-new sedan does a much better job of differentiating itself from the family tree.
I’d like to say the Q50 is completely unique in flavour, and in some ways it is, but I can’t help but notice subtle similarities between this and rival Lexus models. The idiosyncrasies are evident in trace amounts only, but they’re there. There’s a recognisable likeness in seat padding and bolster shape for instance; rubber door seals produce similar-sounding thuds, and automatic gearlever actions slide over each selection with much the same feel.
The cabins even smell similar. All traits inherent to an Asian motherland which has mastered and added its own character to the way quality is done. If you’re wondering how Infiniti and Lexus differ in feel to BMW, think Casio keyboards versus Steinway pianos.
Both good. Just different.
Infiniti has gone absolutely crazy with glitzy tech, and first encounters with the Q50’s cabin can be a daunting affair. There are two full-colour touchscreens stacked on top of each other (the top one’s completely redundant until navigation becomes an option in December) and enough buttons and switches to confuse Neil Armstrong.
It may be a techno-geek’s paradise in there, but average Joe might be frustrated with simple tasks such as tuning the radio or connecting phones via Bluetooth. He can forget about searching Google, having emails read aloud or checking his Facebook. The car’s capable (apparently), but my reasonably tech-savvy brain couldn’t figure out these features after numerous fumbles through menu screens.
SHORT CUT MENUS
There are about seven fuel-consumption displays, four ways to select audio source, three ways to make phone calls and, despite a selection of hard buttons, touchscreens and an iDrive-like knob controller linked to all sorts of shortcut menus, none of them are easy. Then, there are three settings for steering assistance levels, three more for feedback, two throttle pedal sensitivity adjustments, and five preset drive control settings – one of which is programmable to user preference.
I’ve haven’t piloted something with this many distractions since Neil and I blasted off in Apollo 11. Okay, that never actually happened, but I bet it’s easier to land on the moon than to drive the Q50 for 10km without taking your eyes off the road.
NO SHORTAGE OF GUSTO
On test here is the Q50S Hybrid, which at R559 000 is more than 150 grand cheaper than its market nemesis, the BMW ActiveHybrid 3. With 261kW and 536Nm available from its 3.5-litre V6 and electric motor pairing, the Infiniti’s more powerful than the 250kW/450Nm Beemer, although the BMW’s quicker according to our test equipment. A best 0-100km/h time of 6.3 seconds and a quarter-mile of 14.6 are just out of reach of the turbo-hybrid 3 Series’ 5.7 and 13.8 respectively.
Still there’s no shortage of gusto here, and when in Sport mode there’s an immediate response to throttle input. Infiniti’s done a great job of melding petrol and battery power, as the transition between the two is almost imperceptible. If it weren’t for the smallish boot, which is hogged in part by the system’s batteries, some drivers might not even realise this is a hybrid at all. That V6 up front offers up some delicious old-school ear-candy too, when the car’s not running in silent EV mode.
At 9.5 litres per 100km we’re impressed with the average consumption versus performance ratio, even it’s not quite up to Infiniti’s ambitious 6.8 claims.
But, as per my intro, there are a couple of issues.
For a car whose dynamics were reportedly developed with help from four-time F1 champ Sebastian Vettel, it falls short in this field. The brakes are hair-trigger sharp, which can be embarrassing when in highway fast lanes, and the electrically-assisted steering wanders lifelessly regardless of which of six available settings it’s in. A driving enthusiast’s car, the Q50 is not.
I was, however, impressed with its ride quality. Hybrids are relatively heavy and sometimes ride harshly because of stiff springs used to support (and disguise) the extra mass, but the 1.8-ton Q50 cruises with a nice balance of supple sportiness. I also like the seating position, which with a wide variety and range of adjustments, can be angled to individual preference perfection.
The new Q50 S Hybrid is very comfortable and awesomely hi-tech - perhaps a bit too hi-tech. Some of its functionality would be better if kept more simple. It also falls way short of its German competition in terms of driving dynamics, but with such a huge savings over its most direct rival the ActiveHybrid3, much of this is easy to overlook. - Star Motoring
Infiniti Q50 S Hybrid
Engine: V6, 3.5-litre petrol + electric motor
Gearbox: Seven-speed automatic
Power: 219kW @ 6800rpm + 50kW (electric motor), 261kW combined
Torque: 338Nm @ 5000rpm + 270Nm (electric motor), 536Nm combined
0-100km/h (tested): 6.3 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 250km/h
Consumption (claimed): 6.8 l/100km
Price: R559 000
Warranty: 3-year/100 000km
Service plan: 5-year/100 000km
BMW ActiveHybrid 3 (250kW/450Nm) - R712 449
Lexus ES300h EX (151kW/213Nm)- R546 000