2011 Infiniti QX56 First Drive

2011 Infiniti QX56 First Drive

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2011 Infiniti QX56 SUV

(5.6L V8 4x4 7-speed Automatic)

Kyushu Slugger

Our 2011 Infiniti QX56 takes us to the Louisville Slugger factory. We order up 34 inches of Northern White Ash with a blacksmith finish and our name burned into the wood, just like Jeter's. It's the same size as the bat Babe Ruth used to hit his 714 home runs, but this isn't some modern reproduction of a historical artifact. Big-leaguers still swing wooden bats and the Hillerich & Bradsby Company still carves them from blanks in Louisville, Kentucky.

People still drive full-size SUVs, too. Of course, we talk about them like they're woolly mammoths — oversize, inefficient vehicles on the fast track to extinction. But tell that to your neighbor with three kids and the horse trailer.

He's one reason Infiniti is keeping the QX56 around for another generation. The fact that the QX has consistently pulled in 10 percent of Infiniti's sales since its 2004 introduction is another.

However, unlike our new Slugger or the QX56 Infiniti has been selling for six years, the 2011 Infiniti QX56 won't be built in the United States, but in Kyushu, Japan. It's based on the latest Nissan Patrol, a body-on-frame SUV the Kyushu plant has been building in one form or another since 1951.

You might think the change of venue would result in a vastly different vehicle. Yet, the 2011 Infiniti QX56 ends up remarkably similar in size, personality and even appearance. The automaker has even managed to price it within $650 of the 2010 model.

Still Has a V8
Under the hood is a 400-horsepower direct-injected version of Nissan's 5.6-liter V8 with variable valve timing and lift, which provides this old-fashioned stuff known as torque — 413 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm. It's enough to easily get our nearly 3-ton QX up to pace with the interstate herd.

Infiniti officials tell us the 2011 QX56 will be "slightly quicker" to get to 60 mph than last year's QX56, which had the non-D.I. 5.6-liter rated at 320 hp and 393 lb-ft. That translates to about 7 seconds flat, which is a few tenths quicker than the Cadillac Escalade (the QX's chief rival, according to Infiniti) but a few tenths slower than the Toyota Sequoia (its No. 2 rival).

The QX56's V8 has the most character of the three, though. You can feel the power build as engine speed climbs (peak horsepower occurs at 5,800 rpm), and the soundtrack grows in intensity without getting too loud. It's a lot like driving the 420-hp M56 sedan, in spite of the QX's lower horsepower rating and 1,800 extra pounds.

Infiniti's seven-speed automatic transmission replaces the old five-speed automatic this year. It's a major contributor to the 2011 Infiniti QX56's improved fuel economy. Infiniti expects both two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive QX56s to earn a 14 city/20 highway mpg rating from the EPA, versus 12/18 and 12/17 for last year's trucks.

The transmission has a manual-shift mode and the familiar downshift rev-matching feature (barely detectable in the QX), and picks up a tow-haul mode. The claimed 8,500-pound tow rating dips slightly from last year's 8,900-pound limit, which probably won't faze your neighbor. He'll be fixated on the newly standard Around View Monitor perimeter camera system, which makes it easy to hook up his trailer and evade begonias through tight turns.

Off-roading is not popular among the 60 percent of Infiniti QX56 owners who choose 4WD, but the new truck still has low-range gearing in case you need it. However, don't look for the rear locking differential and deluxe multi-terrain system found on the Patrol.

Handles Like a Very Nice Truck
The proliferation of crossovers has suckered us into thinking that every 3-ton vehicle can handle like a Camry if only the chassis engineers are clever enough. But the 2011 Infiniti QX56 is very much a truck and doesn't try to hide it.

It's more refined than the original QX56, though. The steering is light and precise, with no fidgeting required to keep the 2011 QX straight and stable on the highway. It's also quiet in the cabin, thanks to all sorts of sound-deadening measures, including thicker windshield glass. This is quite a feat given the 22-inch wheels and tires that come with the Deluxe Touring package ($5,800) on our QX.

Ride quality, though, is only fair by luxury-SUV standards. Some blame has to go to those 22s, and even the standard 20-inch wheel-tire package doesn't offer much payoff in compliance. But we're also feeling the inevitable symptoms of truck-based construction every time the frame flexes and vibrates over expansion joints and potholes. A driver-adjustable adaptive damping system like the one on the Sequoia might help.

That's not to say the QX56's chassis is without sophistication, as it has an independent double-wishbone rear, load-leveling Nivomat shocks to keep it from dragging its butt under load and an optional system called Hydraulic Body Motion Control.

This passive system replaces the standard front and rear stabilizer bars with an arrangement of special hydraulic dampers and fluid accumulators. When you turn into a corner and weight transfers to the outside wheels, fluid is forced over to the outside to counteract body roll. A big antiroll bar would do the same thing, but this hydraulic system has an off-road advantage, in that it allows for extended wheel travel when you need it. If there's a sudden, sharp spike in hydraulic pressure caused by a single wheel dropping down into a rut on a 4x4 trail, the system will back off so that the wheel articulates properly over the obstacle. It's the same idea as Toyota's KDSS system, just with a different execution.

Of course, that's not on our minds as we explore Kentucky hill country in the 2011 Infiniti QX56. The big lug is pretty easy to gather up on narrow, two-lane roads, though, and the almost-firm brake pedal has a more linear response than we'd expected.

Quality Interior, but a Bit Less Room
By far, the most significant improvement in the 2011 Infiniti QX56 comes in the quality of the furnishings. The leather, vinyl and wood inlays in this SUV are as nice as anything Lexus or Mercedes-Benz is doing in this price range. Apart from a few chintzy buttons here and there, no apologies are needed on the luxury-ambience front.

However, the Infiniti QX56 has lost a couple inches in the transition to the Patrol platform architecture. Its 121.1-inch wheelbase is 2 inches shorter than before. We don't feel the difference up front, where the chairs are wide, well-shaped and supportive enough for days of driving and fast-food consumption.

But there's a bit less legroom in the second row; and the third row, once ample for adults, is now best-sized for children (though a new power-recline feature makes it bearable for 6-footers on short trips). Shoulder room has decreased, too, even though the 2011 QX56 has the same track and overall width as before.

In spite of these caveats, packing the QX56 full of kids is still a reasonable proposition in both the standard seven- and optional eight-passenger configuration. Infiniti has done its part to lure them by carving out a storage box for their Nintendo Wii in the second row. It turns out the take rate on the rear DVD package ($2,450), which has two screens in the 2011 QX, is 80 percent.

With all those kids jumping around, you won't be able to concentrate as well behind the wheel, leading you to check off the $2,850 Technology package, which has laser-based, all-speed adaptive cruise control, a blind-spot warning system and a lane-departure warning system, plus adaptive bi-xenon headlights.

Line-Drive Single
A fully equipped 4WD 2011 Infiniti QX56 will land you at $71,850, which is an awful lot of money, but a bit less than what you'd pay for an Escalade or a Mercedes-Benz GL450 (the QX's No. 3 rival).

It's also true that the 2011 QX56 doesn't do anything particularly exceptional. It's just a useful, luxurious, seven-passenger SUV that's tough enough to pull your trailer, powerful enough to get you down the freeway and refined enough to not annoy you with the body-on-frame stuff most of the time.

We don't all need this combination of utility, but Infiniti isn't swinging for the fences with 2011 Infiniti QX56 sales. A line-drive single will be enough. Even as he resists putting a number on annual volume, Ben Poore, vice president of Infiniti for North America, says, "We will have months when we sell 800 to 900."

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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