Mind Your Ps and Qs
"Whoever dies with the most toys wins," uttered some poor schlub before winding up as petunia mulch, just like all the poor schlubs before him.
If all super luxury sedans retired into that big well-lit garage in the sky within, oh, we don't know, the next month or so, the 2002 Infiniti Q45 would certainly sport the victorious laurel of the horsepower race (save for specially massaged or supercharged engines such as those found in Mercedes' AMG, BMW's M or Jaguar's R versions), with 340 ponies and 333 foot-pounds of torque readily available for your flogging pleasure. This represents a 74 horsepower and 55 ft.-lb. improvement over the powerplant of the previous Q.
When the Q45 was first introduced in 1989 (along with the Infiniti nameplate), it was hailed as an alternative to Bavaria's finest; indeed, it was a luxury car geared toward the driver, with a promise of performance and driving pleasure over opulence. As sales numbers dwindled, Infiniti fattened up its flagship sedan in 1994 and 1997, emphasizing comfort over sporting capability. But did America need another wallowy luxury vehicle? Infiniti has once again revamped its flagship sedan's image and now extols the Q45 as an example of the company's commitment to return to its athletic roots, proclaiming, "The 2002 Q is to Infiniti what the Z is to Nissan."
Its closest competitor is the 2001 Lexus LS 430, equipped with a new engine producing 290 horses. Other rivals include the Mercedes-Benz E430 with 295 horses and the BMW 540i with 282 ponies. Of course, horsepower doesn't mean much if it has a big, fat, heavy load to carry around. However, the Q, weighing in at a relatively svelte 3,801 pounds, has the competition pinned in this respect, as well. Each pony hauls 11.2 pounds of metal, whereas the horses of the Benz engine carry 12.7 pounds, the Bimmer 13.3 and the Lexus 13.6.
We had a chance to preview the new Q in the parched topography that is Arizona. While the sheer number of horsepower is mighty impressive on paper, and likewise scoots you along with alacrity, the 4.5-liter, 32-valve V8 doesn't feel like a 340-horsepower engine. A vehicle powered by 300 or more horses ought to possess a sense of heart-pounding action, but the Infiniti lacks the fervent pull that characterizes a high-output engine. While published numbers state that 0 to 60 acceleration times can be achieved in 5.9 seconds, we're looking forward to testing it ourselves. A possible explanation for the Q's lack of "pin you to the seat" demeanor is its final gear ratio of 2.764, compared to the peppier-feeling Lexus' 3.266. Furthermore, transmission kickdown was sludgy when left in automatic mode (an automanual mode is available). We attributed this to a preproduction glitch and were assured by company representatives that the fuzzy logic, software-programmed system would be tweaked in the production models.
But don't take this to mean that the car feels slow or underpowered. The Q's engine still provides for a heckuva lot of fun, especially with its sonorous, mellifluous exhaust burble, which makes its presence known in the upper rpm ranges. Quarter-mile numbers should be impressive, and even though the automanual shifter is the kind that shifts for you if you forget to switch gears, it emphasizes Infiniti's desire to view the Q as not only a luxury vehicle, but also as a sport sedan, a car that caters to the needs of the driver as well as the passengers.
To quantify its position, Infiniti took us out to Phoenix International Raceway for a demonstration of its flagship sedan's sporting capabilities. Fun for us hotlap-lovin' yahoos, but the front-strut, rear multilink setup of the Q45 didn't quite feel at home on a racetrack, lacking true sport athleticism and tossability. Go ahead and ante up $1,500 for the Sport package (which includes 18-inch wheels and special trim pieces), and Infiniti will be thoughtful enough to provide an active damping suspension, allowing the driver to switch between sport mode and auto mode. The differences between the two are obvious, with the auto mode allowing for a supple, fluid, albeit slightly wallowy ride. The sport mode is still compliant, but a bit harsher on bumps. The trade-off is that it keeps the car level in the twisties; we enjoyed the Q's performance over that of its Lexus counterpart (also equipped with the sport suspension), especially on curvy asphalt, where we suspect the Q's lighter weight paid dividends.
We asked Infiniti engineers why they decided to go with struts rather than a more sophisticated (and expensive) double wishbone configuration; they replied that MacPhersons save space and weight, and, besides, "BMWs use struts." Well, the Q is no BMW, but we found its road manners on public roads perfectly lovable nonetheless, remaining surefooted and balanced on the curvaceous Highway 87, a roundabout route between the arid valley of Phoenix and the violent, scarlet landscape of Sedona.
We drove a Q with the 18-inch wheels, shod in low-profile V-rated all-season tires. A full-sized spare is a $180 option, and run-flats will soon be available as an option, as well. When queried as to why such a powerful car wasn't equipped with more befitting Z-rated rubbers, Infiniti reps hemmed and hawed, stating that it was a last-minute decision and that American consumers don't usually maintain triple-digit speeds. Hope this doesn't mean the next Z (remember, Nissan's spiritual brother to the Q45) will also be equipped with second-tier rubber.
On the lonely highways of Arizona's high desert where road signs suggested that we slow down to 70 mph for the curves ahead, we did manage enough speed to confirm the Q45's stability and composed demeanor. The car was firmly planted to the road, and nary a rattle or vibration disturbed its occupants. Initial impressions were that the cabin was even quieter than that of the Lexus, if that's possible.
Flying along under the relentless Arizona sun is where the relationship between the Q and this driver slowly but inexorably shifted from mere acquaintanceship to something more akin to genuine affection. The automatic climate control cooled the cabin to a comfortable 68 degrees, Sonny and Cher were crooning about holding hands, and the navigation system showed exactly where we were going. Life was just a bowl of cherries.
Even during a sudden downpour during the mountainous portion of our route, navigating the Q45 was done with confidence and security. Between the Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC); a stability control system; the Electric Brake Distribution system, which, after taking into account load condition, evenly doles out stopping force; and the Brake Assist that reduces brake effort in emergency situations, the car almost felt invincible on the slippery road. And even if one were to get into trouble, a phalanx of passive safety systems -- amongst them dual-stage front airbags, seat-mounted side airbags and side curtains for the front and rear passengers -- stands ready to sacrifice themselves for the protection of the Q's passengers. The front seats also feature active head restraints
The Q, at 199.6 inches, is 3 inches longer than the LS 430 (although its wheelbase of 113 inches falls 2.2 inches short of the Lexus), but its turning circle is a slender 36.1 feet, compared to the still-impressive 37.4 feet of the LS. The steering rack responds immediately, but it lacks road communication and feel due to its overboosted nature. However, likely buyers will be pleased to find that it takes little to no effort to pirouette the car into a tight parking space.
Those same buyers would be hard-pressed to leave the luxurious interior of the Q. Perhaps it's in the elegant analog clock, its use of vibrantly hued, high-quality materials or the supremely comfortable 10-way power seats with lumbar controls, but the Q45 imparts an ineffable sense of harmoniousness that reeks of affluence (although some of the trim pieces, such as the overhead sunglasses bin composed of shiny hard plastic, and fit-and-finish, such as a loose center console cover, were summarily dismissed as preproduction anomalies). With copious wood, brushed aluminum accents and a simple instrument cluster, the interior of the Q is airy, light and spacious, and a welcome departure from your run-of-the-mill Japanese luxo-sedans.
Elegant and simple? Visually, yes. But in reality, this philosophy leaves something to be desired. Many of the Q's basic features are controlled by a joystick, or what we fancy to be a spooky eyeball (like that of Christopher Walken) lolling around in its socket. We feel this control system is imprecise and somewhat awkward to use. When we asked Infiniti product developers why they didn't go with a touchscreen, they replied that such screens are not only more expensive to produce, they require a level of hand-eye coordination that is more distracting to the driver. They admitted that the toggle switch isn't the best design, but said that a newfangled rotating ball, akin to that of a computer mouse, mounted near the center console or the steering wheel is in development; until then they've sworn off touchscreens.
Don't feel like bothering to reach over and fiddle with the joystick? Infiniti has imbued the new Q with a voice-activated control system. Simply press the steering wheel-mounted button with the picture of a nice talking face and an ear-splitting squawk will tell you that the system is listening. You can give it commands to alter the temperature setting, the stereo system and some of the navigation functions. Voice Recognition is a standard item in the Q45, as is a 300-watt eight-speaker Bose sound system with a six-disc CD changer (which is rather unceremoniously stuffed into the glovebox). Also, a 5.8-inch screen displays the trip computer, which includes fuel economy and such, and even reports on tire pressure. Get the Premium package, and the screen expands to 7 inches.
It's a good thing that the interior is so handsome; it makes up for what is by all accounts a tepid silhouette. Nearly every civilian queried stated that while the Q does look upscale, it doesn't necessarily exude premium-brand-ness. Its horizontally slatted grille is somewhat overwrought, and the character lines flowing throughout the body are too subtle to leave any lasting impression. Although Infiniti claims that it sought to evoke the image of a crouching animal ready to leap into motion, we found that it lacks the sexy, assertive lines of some German luxury sedans. Its trunk space of 13.7 cubic feet is also lacking, which is strange given its length and somewhat excessive rear overhang. Comparatively, the LS 430 offers 20.2 cubic feet. Finally, the car suffers the indignity of gooseneck trunk hinges; a strut-type hinge would be more beneficial and appropriate for a vehicle meant to compete on the world's Super Luxury stage.
"Its headlights are real purty, though," was the resounding opinion. They certainly are noticeable, with gargantuan lenses, several light distributors and a seven-bulb xenon setup that composes the most powerful headlamps on a production vehicle. No foglamps are necessary on these babies; they light up the night like Shea Stadium. The level of the beam is manually height-adjustable so that the driver in front of you won't curse your progeny as she's blinded by the reflection in her rearview mirror.
Opt for the $8,000 Premium package (quite a bargain) and your rear passengers will be treated to heated seats and manual side and power rear sunshades, plus their own set of air-conditioning and stereo controls, as well as seat bottoms and seatbacks that move fore and aft. It lacks the ventilated seats (which are, by the way, quite a marvelous treat for sweat-prone drivers) and the Dynamic Cruise Control of the Lexus (the latter will be available on the Q in late August/early September of 2001), but contains other standbys such as the active damping suspension, the 18-inch wheels of the sport package and DVD navigation system.
Plus, you'll get the cool rearview monitor. At first it seemed like more of a piddling trifle, a vanity with which to lure geeks who hang around The Sharper Image. After she spent some time in the car, however, it grew on this driver, who escaped a ding on the rear bumper from a short trashcan while navigating a Chevron station. The color image on the navigation screen is supplied via a camera mounted on the top left corner of the rear license plate frame; also on the screen are two trapezoidal lines, which take into account the convex nature of the picture and allow drivers to gauge the distance between their bumper and a stationary object. Furthermore, both rearview mirrors tilt down when reverse gear is selected, though you can opt to disable this feature.
All this and the MSRP for the base model is $50,500, which bests the Lexus' price by $3,505. Load the Q up with all its goodies, and it will still come in under 60 grand. Preee-ty slick.
Infiniti is going for the brass ring of consumers: educated professionals in their 30s and 40s with an income of $200,000-plus (hey, Infiniti, when you find out where they hang out, could you relay that information?). With a humble production number of 9,000 to 10,000 units for this model year, the company is hoping to create enough buzz and demand to whet consumers' appetites and have them clamoring for more. Infiniti has forged an excellent alternative to the Lexus-Mercedes juggernaut and deserves your consideration before your next luxury car purchase.