2004 Infiniti QX56 Road Test

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2004 Infiniti QX56 SUV

(5.6L V8 5-speed Automatic)

Infiniti's Quirky QX56

Perhaps the most impressive quality of the leading Japanese automakers (and no doubt the one that allows them to move vehicles off the lots without resorting to massive rebates) is that they know and provide what the customer wants. It's not rocket science — solid build quality, smooth and vigorous powertrains, comfortable cabins, useful features and unwavering dependability are the core requirements for most consumers. Of course, there are different priorities for a given segment; someone shopping for a sports car may not place as much emphasis on a smooth, quiet ride as someone looking at family sedans. But the basic requirements are pretty much the same; everyone wants a trouble-free, well-built vehicle that performs its intended duties without fuss.

Infiniti evidently knows that Americans (for better or worse) like their SUVs supersized, in terms of outright dimensions, as well as where power and work capacity are concerned. So when the company decided to field a full-size luxury SUV, it didn't hold back and brought out this beast, the QX56, to carry the Infiniti flag onto the battlefield populated by red-white-and-blue opponents such as Cadillac's Escalade and Lincoln's Navigator.

Looking at the QX56's profile, it's obvious that it's based on the Nissan Armada. But then again, a Lexus LX 470 is based on the Toyota Land Cruiser and a Cadillac Escalade is basically an upscale twin of the Chevrolet Tahoe, so this family resemblance isn't necessarily a bad thing. Well, it wouldn't be except for the fact that the Armada's styling, particularly the roof and side window design, is a little bizarre. As with the Nissan, the rearmost section of the QX56 looks as if it were taken from another vehicle, as the straight lines don't match the curving forms that immediately precede them. To separate the high-society QX56 from the common man's Armada, designers gave the front end a heavy chrome grille with Infiniti's strong horizontal theme; added splashes of chrome to the body moldings, side mirrors and license plate area; and fitted seven-spoke chrome wheels under those bulging fenders.

Thanks to a generous supply of large and well-placed grab handles, hoisting ourselves up into the QX's cabin was easy, even for our shorter staffers. Once inside, it was obvious that Infiniti attempted to turn a sow's ear (a.k.a. the Armada's interior) into a silk purse. The results are a mixed "bag"; the leather upholstery, beautiful wood trim and handsomely stitched and well-padded armrests boost the luxury quotient considerably over the bland Armada's. And all four front seats are heated. But some low-grade components, notably the hard plastic used on the doors and dash, top bring it down when compared to the top dog in this respect, the impeccably furnished Lexus LX 470.

And there are a couple of ergonomic flaws as well. The signature clock is basically useless as it's located down low, at the bottom of the center stack. And the non-illuminated memory buttons (for the seat, mirrors and pedals) are a far reach, as they're situated too low and forward on the driver-side door. Another annoyance is that some of the instrumentation displays are too dim, particularly the odometer and trip meter readouts.

The plush leather seats were enjoyed by all; the legroom for those in the second-row captain's chairs left nothing to be desired, even by our tallest (over six-foot) staffers. For those who may need eight-passenger capacity, a bench seat is a no-cost option for the second row. A DVD-based navigation system is standard and is fairly easy to use, once you remember which buttons control what, as they are similarly shaped and sized.

Our vehicle also had the optional RearView Monitor (RVM), which uses the seven-inch navigation system screen to show (via a tiny camera mounted near the rear license plate) what's behind the QX56. The first time we used the RVM, we were amazed at the clarity of the color picture (which shows a wide area behind the truck) and also appreciated the feature that shows green, yellow and red dashes to indicate how close you're getting to any object(s) as you back up. There is also an audible alarm whose beeps increase in frequency as you draw closer and closer to that other parked car or garage wall. To say that the RVM greatly reduced the stress of parallel parking this bruiser would be a big understatement. Of all the gizmos this rig had, this editor (who can't understand why people in heavily populated cities buy big trucks) thought this was the best, hands down.

With a weight of 5,600 pounds, the QX56 needs some serious motor to move it out, and it's got it. The 5.6-liter, 32-valve V8 pumps out a beefy 315 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to make this heavyweight feel light on its 18-inch tires (265/70 Continental ContiTracs). Around town, the luxury SUV moved briskly away from traffic and effortlessly stormed up freeway on-ramps to blend into fast-moving traffic. The five-speed automatic was nigh perfect; seamlessly changing gears with nary a pause and stepping down promptly when a burst of power was needed for quick passing.

Raw numbers at the test track confirmed our gut feelings; the 0-to-60 sprint took just 7.3 seconds and the quarter-mile was unreeled in only 15.7 seconds. Although there's plenty of power on tap right off idle, our test driver noted that there was a subtle increase in thrust once the tach's needle eclipsed 4,000 rpm. If you want to have the quickest big luxury 'ute in town, you've found your ride. And if you want one of the hardest-working 'utes in town then, yep, this is still the one to pick. With a towing capacity of nearly 9,000 pounds (8,900 to be exact), the QX56 probably has more capacity than 90 percent of its owners will ever need. At least that would be the case here in L.A., where the typical payload consists of a cell phone and a Starbuck's grande latte. For those who care, we averaged 13.6 miles per gallon in mixed driving, against EPA estimates of 13 city and 18 highway.

When it came to hauling this big boy down from speed, we found the brakes were up to the task. At the track, our first attempt was the best, with an impressive 132-foot stopping distance from 60 mph. The second and third stops were both 140 feet, indicating that some fade took place after the initial test but got no worse on the third instance. Although our test pilot felt the pedal get a bit mushy under maximum effort braking (enough to call the antilock system into play), on the street the binders inspired confidence with a firm pedal feel and lack of excess body movement.

Far from being a one-trick pony, the QX56 has a chassis to match its potent power plant. An independent suspension all around provides the well-damped ride quality that luxury-class buyers expect along with adroit handling that they may not. Blessed by precise steering with an ideal heft in the wheel, the big Infiniti feels considerably smaller and lighter than it really is. As one would expect of a tall, nearly three-ton vehicle, there was noticeable body lean in the corners, but nothing excessive or unsettling, just a reminder to the driver that in spite of the QX56's sure handling, there is still a lot of mass here.

As one would expect, the QX56 features the latest in safety features, including side curtain airbags (for all three rows), stability control and a front occupant seating sensor that will shut off the right front airbag if it detects a small passenger in the co-pilot's seat.

On most fronts, the QX56 succeeds in its mission as a full-size luxury SUV. It's got plenty of room and comfort, great performance, respectable handling and usable gadgets. On some others, it doesn't. In a few areas (including the hard interior door panels and slap-dash location of the analog clock), it's obvious that there's room for improvement, and then there's the issue of styling. Of course, the latter is subjective, so we'll discount that.

With class-leading performance, massive towing capacity (nearly double that of the Lexus LX 470) and a roomy and comfortable cabin, the QX56 certainly makes a strong case for itself in the practical sense. Its success will depend on how many buyers in this prestige-oriented segment are willing to prioritize those attributes over less substantial ones such as flashy style and status-quo nameplates.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 9.0

Components: The QX56 comes standard with a 265-watt Bose Premium audio system that consists of an AM/FM receiver (satellite radio is optional) and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. Ten speakers distribute the sound and the collection includes a pair of tweeters on the dash top; seven full-range speakers located in the dash, doors and rear-most seating area; and a subwoofer located in the cargo hold. Steering wheel-mounted controls are provided for volume, mode and station (or track) selection.

Performance: Bose has a strong reputation and this system supports it. Sound delivery is crisp and powerful, with clean highs, full midrange and tight, yet thumping bass. The sound engineers made the most of the huge cabin space and the result is a soundstage that, when listening to live recordings, makes you feel like you're right there at the concert. Whether listening to a classical radio station to soothe the gridlock-ridden commute home or rocking out to The Doors on a short road trip, this system left little to be desired.

Best Feature: Intuitive steering wheel-mounted controls.

Worst Feature: Similarly sized and shaped controls on upper faceplate.

Conclusion: Considering the high quality of this system, there's no wonder that there's no optional audio upgrade for this vehicle. — John DiPietro

Second Opinions

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Like the Titan with whom it shares a platform, the Infiniti QX56 offers a bevy of desirable characteristics. The 5.6-liter V8 is simply one of the best engines currently on the market. It provides a tidal wave of torque while remaining smooth and refined from idle to redline. The five-speed automatic shifts crisply and never misses a beat. Ride quality is also up to luxury SUV standards, but what really impressed me was the un-SUV-like steering response that was well weighted and inspired confidence on twisty roads (impressive for a 5,600-pound people mover).

Look beyond the QX56's driving dynamics and you'll find a luxurious and roomy SUV with logical controls and all the latest features consumers have come to expect (DVD entertainment, DVD-based navigation, etc.). I continue to be disappointed with Nissan/Infiniti interiors, and the QX56 sustains this unfortunate trend. It's not just the amount of plastic inside this vehicle, but the quality of the plastic that belies its $50,000-plus price tag. If Infiniti wants to beat Cadillac and Lincoln in the luxury SUV race, it had better at least meet them in terms of interior materials.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I didn't really want to like this car. I really don't like the front-end styling. It seems to be essentially a badge-engineered Nissan Armada, but with a funky grille. Still, the interior looks nice and offers so much rear-seat legroom that it almost feels like a tall limo. The interior wood is nice and I like the luxury accommodations. The front seats are soft and comfortable at first, but a longer trip reveals that the seat bottoms are too short and there is no adjustment to lengthen the seat bottoms like in some other luxury vehicles.

I like the vehicle overall, but I have my annoyances with the truck. The roof-mounted information display is set too far back to be helpful while driving. I had to divert my eyes too far from the road just to see the compass and outside temperature indicator. I also noticed a few squeaks as I was driving over rough pavement. Even though the 5.6-liter engine is powerful enough to make the big truck feel quick, the overall driving experience is taxed with the constant reminder that this thing feels heavy.

Overall it's a nice truck — quiet, smooth and with plenty of power. But the thing does feel heavy and fuel economy is nothing to brag about. Somehow I just can't get past the fact that the QX lacks that certain something that makes Lexus SUVs that much nicer.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Although current gas prices may be disquieting for the typical American driver, the average luxury SUV buyer probably won't lose any sleep over paying $2.50 a gallon for 87 octane — there's just no reason to when you're spending $50,000 to $60,000 right off the bat. Relatively speaking, Infiniti's QX56 represents a good value in its segment. It's priced in line with domestic offerings like the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator and comes in thousands less than the Lexus LX 470. It's lined with rich bird's-eye maple and supple leather upholstery as in the Q45 sedan, and offers a bit more power than its workaday Nissan Armada sibling. And it offers as much interior room as the Navigator, which is to say, a lot. Unfortunately, much like the retired QX4 midsize SUV, the QX56 ultimately doesn't give buyers enough reasons to choose it over the cheaper Nissan version.

The biggest problems are in the cabin where the aforementioned wood and leather meet up with downmarket pebble-grain vinyl on the dash and door tops. This is the same stuff you'll find in the Armada and the Titan pickup and it doesn't belong in a luxury SUV. Equally offensive is the cluttered gauge cluster, which has the same hard-to-read yellow-orange backlighting that you'll find in various Nissan models. Look to the center stack and chunky climate and stereo knobs reinforce the QX56's Nissan identity, while Infiniti's signature analog clock is buried at the bottom of the stack. Settle into the driver seat and you'll find a steering wheel that tilts but does not telescope, along with armrests that do not ratchet. The driving experience is more encouraging, as the 5.6-liter V8 is never at a loss for passing power while the suspension provides a smooth, composed ride. Nevertheless, the 5.6-liter fails to duplicate the exhilarating soundtrack of the Escalade's 6.0-liter or the utter refinement of the LX 470's 4.7-liter. And the QX is less nimble than either vehicle in the corners. Of course, the Infiniti can outdo them both when it's time to hitch up a trailer or load up the kids, but then, so can the Nissan Armada.

Consumer Commentary

"I really love my QX…! Exterior and interior are very nice and also comfortable. Both functional and easy on the eyes. As with any large vehicle, mileage isn't so great, but my last car only got about 17 miles per gallon so 14 from the truck isn't so bad. Only issue I have is a little ear pressure when driving with windows all closed. I also like the towing capability, as I own a large boat. And there's plenty of storage up front for glasses and CDs. As far as what I don't like? The front end is a bit squashed-looking but not really an issue. A rubber mat in back should be standard for hauling things (so you don't risk) ruining the standard carpet." — JR69, April 21, 2004

"I just got one a couple of days ago. Previously owned BMW X5 but was looking for something bigger and still fun to drive. Test-drove both Escalade and QX56 and chose QX56 because of superior handling, fresher interior and newer exterior image. This puppy handles very close to a BMW X5. Really love the Smart Vision package for backing up. It's got the muscular wheels which accentuate the truck's image tremendously! It could use rain-sensitive wipers and the sideview mirrors need to be powered for retraction (major hustle for parking in garage). It also needs auto-leveling headlights." — QX56_Owner, April 3, 2004

"This is a great value, fun to drive, excellent turning radius. Power? A lot of it. Family loves it, (I get) compliments from my neighbors. Took it for a short trip to Santa Barbara (and was) very impressed with freeway handling and quiet ride. The kids enjoyed the 'on board' movie. Overall better value than our 2001 Escalade. I love the Smart Vision package, the size and the powerful engine. I'd like to see an iPod connection, a small cooler, power rear seats and power folding mirrors." — AlexAk, Feb. 16, 2004

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