2004 Infiniti QX56 First Drive

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2004 Infiniti QX56 SUV

(5.6L V8 5-speed Automatic)

Infiniti Super-Sizes its New SUV

There's no getting around the fact that Americans like big SUVs. Do we typically take six or seven of our closest friends out on an off-road trail? Probably not, but in the spirit of Boy Scout preparedness, it's nice to know we can offer up our wheels should a demanding crowd of friends or relatives insist on exploring some local terrain.

Admittedly, we spend more time allowing our SUVs to simply guide us down the freeway or through the mall parking lot than we do on off-road pursuits. That's where luxury appointed SUVs, such as Cadillac's Escalade and Lincoln's Navigator come into play.

Both of the aforementioned large luxury SUVs are twin to a more practical, less pricey version, and following Nissan's recent foray into this territory with the 2004 Nissan Pathfinder Armada, it isn't surprising its luxury Infiniti division is also launching its own new SUV.

At the 2004 North American International Auto Show, Infiniti pulled the cover off its 2004 Infiniti QX56. "Q" has long been the letter to signify Infiniti's top models, such as the Q45 sedan, while the "X" stands for sport-utility, as in the smaller Infiniti QX4 SUV. Finally, "56" denotes the new large SUV's 5.6-liter engine.

Infiniti representatives tell us that the addition of this eight-passenger SUV provides a true full-model lineup for the luxury division, a first for Infiniti which is now celebrating its 14th anniversary, and claiming over a 100,000-unit sales record for 2003.

The new QX56 comes solely with the same engine found in the less-expensive Pathfinder Armada. The 5.6-liter V8, which produces 315 horsepower in the QX56 (10 hp more than in the Armada), is a slightly modified version of the V8 that powers the Armada, as well as Nissan's new Titan full-size pickup truck. We were pleased to find that the engine still felt powerful and smooth, even as it launched the nearly 5,500-pound QX56.

As is true in most luxury vehicles — sedans and SUVs alike — options are few. Two different drivetrains are offered on the QX56, a rear-wheel-drive version and an all-wheel-drive setup, both mated to the same five-speed automatic transmission. The gearbox is designed with a gated shifter to provide maximum control while changing gears. Given that the QX56 provides best-in-class towing with its 8,900-pound capacity (800 pounds more than the Cadillac Escalade), it's necessary to have every advantage when pulling that amount of weight.

The QX56 rides on 18-inch wheels wrapped in the largest stock tires (P245/70R18) in the full-size luxury SUV segment, and the body-on-frame construction helps to eliminate unwanted squeaks and rattles from the noticeably silent cabin. (The QX56 contains an additional 70 pounds of sound-deadening insulation over the same-size Armada.) The four-wheel independent suspension system aids in handling, especially while coaxing the QX's mass into a sharp turn. During our short test-drive, we found the suspension offered a pleasantly comfortable ride, but it lacked in communicating road feel, making the driver less confident at higher speeds.

When it comes to safety features, consider the QX money well spent, especially if you choose the all-wheel-drive version. The Infiniti all-wheel-drive system, "All-Mode," allows the drivetrain to send equal power to the front and rear wheels when the vehicle is at a complete stop. Upon starting to move, if no slippage is detected, the drivetrain reverts to sending 100 percent power to the rear wheels instead. Other active safety equipment that come standard on the QX are Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) in conjunction with the four-wheel disc brakes with ABS.

Passive safety features include standard front and side airbags, plus head-protecting curtain airbags that cover all three rows of seating. The front-passenger airbag comes with an occupation sensor to detect when the seat is in use. If the weight on the seat is below 60 pounds, and therefore could be a small adult or child, the airbag won't deploy.

If you intend to park the QX56 inside your garage, you'll need to carve out a space that's nearly 207 inches long, as opposed to the near 199 inches it would take to park an Escalade. And if your house is at the end of a small cul-de-sac, keep in mind that a vehicle this large comes with a turning radius of 41 feet, a full foot and a half more space than is needed to circle an Escalade.

Although it's longer overall, the QX56 has less maximum interior cargo space than an Escalade, with just over 97 cubic feet of space behind the first-row seats, compared to the Escalade's maximum 105 cubic feet of cargo capacity. But if you're planning to seat passengers in all three rows, the QX56 has the advantage, with 20 cubic feet behind the third row, as opposed to 16.3 cubic feet in the rear of the Escalade.

The QX56 comes with two possible seating configurations — the standard eight-passenger with a 40/20/40-split second-row bench, or two second-row captain's chairs with a removable center console instead, a no-cost option.

Either way, the second row provides 41.9 inches of legroom compared to the 38.6 inches available in an Escalade, or the 38.7 inches found in a Lincoln Navigator. The QX has less third-row rear legroom compared to the 36.2 inches in a Navigator, but considerably more than the 27.3 inches found in the Escalade. The QX56 also offers an elevated third-row seat, which sits over three inches above the second-row seating.

But no matter what its claims on power and size, the Infiniti SUV remains a luxury vehicle, which its interior features are quick to point out. The standard leather interior is complemented by either Dark Apaya or Blonde Macore wood trim, electronic analog instrumentation and Infiniti's signature oval analog clock. (Although, we must admit that the clock is poorly placed at the bottom of the center stack, and is therefore hard to read.)

Standard equipment includes a DVD-based navigation system with a seven-inch monitor, a power-operated rear tailgate, a 10-way power driver seat, an eight-way passenger seat, front and second-row heated seats, reclining rear seats and power-adjustable pedals. A standard Bose audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer and 10 speakers will add to your QX experience, but true audiophiles may want to opt for satellite radio as well, available from your local dealer through either Sirius or XM.

Other add-ons include a power sunroof, a Smart Vision Package which includes a rearview monitor to prevent backup incidents and intelligent cruise control, plus a DVD entertainment system to quell the rear-seat inhabitants.

Of course, an SUV the size of Rhode Island packed with all the amenities of your family room doesn't come cheap. Priced slightly below the Escalade, the QX56 AWD starts at $50,400, while the rear-wheel-drive version begins at $47,400. The QX56 is the first Infiniti model built in North America, with production taking place at Nissan's Canton, Miss., manufacturing plant. (The QX56 is the fourth new product to roll out of Canton during the past eight months.) It goes on sale nationwide in February 2004.

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