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This part of Highway 395 is a pain in the ass. Our 2011 Infiniti QX56 is trapped behind a long line of cars that are stuck behind a semi, which is especially awesome because this section of arrow-straight two-lane is a strict no-passing zone for the next 11 miles.
Eventually we come to an oasis of asphalt in the form of an extra overtaking lane that lasts less than a mile. As we roll onto the throttle, the big Infiniti's new direct-injected 5.6-liter V8 makes easy work of the first couple of cars on the way to the big rig, a crucial target because this lane ends at another merciless no-passing zone.
"Do you know you're going 100 miles an hour?" asks my co-pilot.
"What? Hey!" I stammer. "I wasn't even trying and...there's not enough wind noise," I add, as if rehearsing a speech for the officer that, luckily, isn't there.
"Kids, you just went 100 miles per hour," she adds amusedly to the disinterested second row, deep in thought as they watch Napoleon Dynamite on the dual headrest monitors for the umpteenth time.
This, then, is the 2011 Infiniti QX56 in a nutshell: powerful, quiet, unflappable, well-appointed, family-friendly.
Muscle, Hustle and Thrift
Direct fuel injection (DI) is one ingredient in the not-so-secret sauce that transforms last year's adequate port-injected 5.6-liter V8 into this year's powerhouse. The other is the VVEL (Variable Valve Event and Lift) system we see on other Infiniti engines. Resulting output jumps from 320 to a nice round 400 horsepower and torque also rises from 393 to 413 pound-feet.
At our test track, the 3-ton, four-wheel-drive QX56 explains our Highway 395 experience by scampering to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds (6.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like at a drag strip). It completes the quarter-mile in 15.1 seconds at 92.8 mph. The last 6.2-liter Cadillac Escalade we tested required an additional 0.7 second to hit both milestones.
And then there's the transmission. One would expect that last year's five-speed automatic would be replaced with a six-speed, the current must-have number of ratios in a large truck or SUV. But Infiniti went one better, literally, by giving the 2011 Infiniti QX56 a seven-speed autobox.
In top gear at 65 mph, it cruises along serenely at slightly more than 1,500 rpm. Last year's QX revved 350 rpm higher at the same speed. On the other end of the spectrum, the low-range crawl ratio in 1st gear improves mightily, from 33.7:1 to 38.8:1. By comparison, Toyota's flagship off-roader, the Land Cruiser, manages just 34.1:1 in low-low.
More available gears means there are more opportunities for the engine to run in its sweet spot, and that simultaneously helps towing performance and fuel economy. The greater inherent efficiency of direct injection plays a part, too.
Year-over-year city mpg rises from 12 to 14 mpg, while highway economy climbs from 17 to 20 mpg. In fact, the 2011 QX's EPA combined fuel economy of 16 mpg bests all its competitors. The Escalade and Land Cruiser check in at 15 mpg, while the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class twins hold signs that read 14 mpg.
But the 2011 Infiniti QX56 is more than just a well-engineered powertrain upgrade. The entire truck has been shifted from the U.S.-built Nissan Armada/Titan platform to that of the Japan-built Nissan Patrol, the worldwide flagship of the company's SUV lineup.
Since the Patrol (and, by association, the 2011 Infiniti QX56) is intended to compete worldwide with the Toyota Land Cruiser, it has to appeal to everyone from sheiks in Saudi Arabia to outback explorers in Australia. Consequently, tech and off-road considerations rank higher in the engineering process.
Our 2011 QX56's suspension is a good example. It's got dual wishbones front and rear, and the rear end has both coil springs and supplemental air springs to level the truck when towing. The real trick is the optional Hydraulic Body Motion Control system, which is essentially a set of four shock absorbers that are cross-linked by a complex series of tubes. With this system, no antiroll bars are necessary.
The operational details differ from the Toyota Land Cruiser's KDSS system, but the effect is the same, and more. In normal to aggressive cornering, the force that tries to extend the inner shock as the body attempts to heel over is hydraulically transferred to the bottom of the outboard shock to quell that very motion. It works the same way front to rear to combat brake dive and acceleration squat.
But when you're off-roading, the pressure difference that results when the front and rear axles are not trying to lean the same way negates the effect of the system, and the wheels are free to dangle as needed.
On the dips of Highway 395, the 2011 Infiniti QX56 feels stable and completely devoid of any vomit-inducing wallow, heave or pitch. In the tight twisty bits farther up the road, it corners flat and responds crisply to steering inputs in a way that makes it seem a couple-thousand pounds lighter. These results were echoed in our handling tests where the big Infiniti produced a 56.3-mph slalom speed and 0.70g on the skid pad.
But Infiniti USA doesn't expect anyone here to do any real off-roading, so it's de-emphasizing the off-road heart and soul of the Patrol-based QX in favor of bling.
And so the wonderful Hydraulic Body Motion Control System can only be had with ridonkulous 22-inch chrome wheels and sidewall-deficient P275/50R22 tires, a move that utterly spoils any off-road pretense and, to a lesser extent, screws up ride comfort on roads that have flaws. This option strategy also makes the HBMC system part of the $5,800 Deluxe Touring package.
We want to explore a few trails near Mammoth, but we ultimately pass because we're afraid of damaging a wheel or suffering a pinch-flat far from help. In town, the frost-damaged roads make us think the 22s are overinflated. The in-dash tire pressure display says otherwise — they're spot-on.
A standard QX56 has simple shocks, real stabilizer bars and 20-inch rubber. They must have even more sense overseas, though, because the lonely brakes look like they'll accommodate more off-road-friendly 18-inch wheels and tires.
In actuality, the brakes and the optional dubby-two Bridgestones have no problem slowing this beast. Our track stops from 60 mph require only 123 feet — respectable for a car and downright impressive for a full-size SUV of this heft. On the road, there's no fade and the hydraulically boosted pedal feels firm and sure.
Despite these gripes, we'd have a hard time convincing our wife not to opt for the Deluxe Touring package. It's the only way to get the nifty heated and cooled front seats she wants, the heated rear seats the kids want, the front seat controls that release the second row so passengers can enter the commodious third row, and three-zone climate control.
Less desirable — to be honest, they're a pain in the neck — are the Lane-Departure Warning and Lane-Departure Prevention systems contained in the $2,850 Technology package. Technically, you can turn the active intervention part off, but there's an annoying beep warning that has to be shut off each time you start the 2011 Infiniti QX56. And the Adaptive Cruise Control could chill out a bit, because it overcompensates and has a noticeable dither. At least we could access a "normal" cruise control mode.
But this package also contains some of the best adaptive headlights we've ever seen. It's almost enough to make us want to tolerate the rest of it. Almost.
Meanwhile, our Napoleon Dynamite die-hards spare a moment to give the dual-screen rear monitors and wireless headphones a big thumbs-up. I guess we'll have to check the box for the $2,450 Theater package.
In the end, Infiniti is probably right about QX56 buyers staying off rocky trails. The carmaker figures that neighborhood driving and towing are the more likely premium SUV end uses, and the QX56 certainly has the chassis, engine and refinement for that. The four-wheel-drive decision will largely be snow-driven, and that's why there's a rear-drive version available starting at $57,650.
Our four-wheel-drive test example starts at $60,750. The three packages above and a couple of minor dress-up pieces bring our as-tested total to $72,560.
Turns out, that's not as expensive as it sounds. The base price is similar to last year's model and the options that bring the price up were largely unavailable in 2010. The closest Land Cruiser costs $73,900, but it's missing a few of the QX's more significant features. You can get into an Escalade for $66,000, but you need to buy the $74,500 Premium grade to get close on equipment. Same goes for the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class.
So the 2011 Infiniti QX56 is actually priced competitively. It packs a strong engine, excellent manners and a well-equipped cabin, and it's the most fuel-efficient of its peers. The QX is a very good example of what conventional wisdom might call a "dying breed."
That may well be true for the masses who used exotic mortgages to overbuy cars they didn't need in the past. But for the truly well-off, those who rent their million-dollar Mammoth Mountain ski homes to shlubs like us in the summer, the 2011 Infiniti QX56 is an excellent way to take the sting out of the long drive up Highway 395.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2011 Infiniti QX56 in WA is: