Usually when a car gets as many mid-life updates as the Infiniti Q50 is getting for 2016, it happens when said car is a complete and total failure, in desperate need of revamping to revive its fortunes. That isn’t the case with the Q50; it was always a decent car, just not a great one, and up against some of the fiercest competition around.
Now it gets an array of improvements, most notably an all-new 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 with 400 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, plus massive tweaks to its drive-by-wire Direct Adaptive Steering system. After driving it, I can say the Q50 is closer to the car it should have been from the beginning. But is that enough?
(Full disclosure: The Infiniti folks needed me to drive the updated Q50 so badly they put me up in the fancy Hotel Emma in my hometown of San Antonio, Texas and paid for all my food and booze.)
Launched in 2013, the Q50 was both the successor to Infiniti’s ultra-popular G series of sedans and an attempt to find carve out real brand identity after decades spent fumbling around in the darkness with hit-or-miss luxury’d-up JDM Nissans.
It worked and it didn’t. On one hand the Q50 is Infiniti’s best-selling car. On the other hand the Q50 never garnered the enthusiasm or reputation for BMW-fighting (or tuning) that the G35 and G37 did.
An M-slaying Eau Rouge performance version with the Nissan GT-R’s engine never materialized in production form despite much hype, nor did the manual gearbox alluded to at launch. It was fine on paper, just not that much fun to drive on real roads.
And the car’s killer app, the steer-by-wire Direct Adaptive Steering, has stayed on the Q50 and the Q50 alone. Usually that kind of vaunted tech proliferates across the entire lineup. The fact that it didn’t is very telling and indicates it probably wasn’t ready for prime time.
Infiniti says it is now, as is the rest of the Q50, which gets a much wider lineup for a lower entry price and more expensive top end. The venerable 3.7-liter VQ V6 engine, found in many a Nissan and Infiniti but now old enough to buy its own cigarettes, is gone.
Its successor, the VR V6 is smaller, turbo-ier, lighter, more efficient and more powerful in top trim. It comes in 300 and 400 HP flavors on this car. There’s also an entry-level 2.0-liter turbo four now, a Mercedes-derived engines with 208 HP. The 3.5-liter, 360 HP hybrid V6 sticks around.
Infiniti knows it needs to try and re-establish the Q50’s performance car creds, which is probably why the only car available to test was the top-shelf, 400 HP Q50S Red Sport. (They wanted me to mention that despite the name, it comes in more colors than just red. So, yeah: It comes in more colors than just red.)
The Q50’s new motor is proof that two turbos can fix damn near anything. Make no mistake: this is a very, very good engine. The VQ wasn’t perfect but it got the job done; this is vastly better, more modern, more powerful, and it pulls hard to redline with gobs of midrange torque. The top Q50 is a legitimately fast car now. The zero to 60 mph dash is estimated (by my ass) to be in the mid-4 second range, about a second quicker than it was in 3.7-liter form.
More than that, it feels like it has 400 HP. Turn off the nannies and you can spin the tires hard and get the car nice and sideways whenever the urge should strike you and the cops aren’t around. The engine lacks the VQ’s honking drone, thank god, but while the new grunt is nicer it’s pretty indistinctive. Whatever. It injects some badly-needed fun into the model.
And yes, I’ll say what everyone’s thinking: I do want that 3.0 twin-turbo V6 in a smaller, lighter, rear-drive sports car with a manual and the last letter of the alphabet in its name. Get on it, Nissan. The current Camaro and Mustang deserve a real competitor from the East.
The Q50S comes in both rear- and all-wheel drive forms. Unfortunately the engine remains mated to a middling seven-speed automatic. Infiniti says this one’s been re-tuned, but I still find it sluggish and lazy, particularly on upshifts. It’s not even in the same universe as the ZF 8-speed auto or the dual clutch options on other luxury sedans out there.
You don’t have to get the Direct Adaptive Steering, but you’ll want to.
Evidently Infiniti’s plan to upsell buyers on that was to make the base electric rack so shitty that anyone who cares about driving at all will opt for the more expensive system. The base steering is loose, flimsy, devoid of feel, like a bad Lexus from 10 years ago.
Out on an impromptu slalom and autocross course, the DAS proved its worth when driven back-to-back with the other car. (More detail on how it works here.)
It’s tighter, much more direct, and with a greater degree of customization. It’s an interesting animal, this drive-by-wire rack. It’s almost entirely devoid of the road vibrations you don’t want, yet it still translates the amount of steering feel you do want.
Infiniti says the benefits of this system are less complexity, less weight, supposedly less maintenance, more responsiveness, and less fatigue on the driver because of the reduced vibrations. I’m not yet convinced it’s anything more than a gimmick, especially since electric racks seem to be getting better and better.
The DAS still has a kind of weird artifice to it that’s hard to describe in words, but it’s highly effective and definitely the better option here. (I heard the opposite opinion from a few other reporters on this trip. Your mileage may vary.)
The car remains a decent handler, more agile than before with a tweaked suspension, adaptive now for the first time ever, but that and the overall chassis just aren’t on the same level as a BMW 3 Series or a Cadillac ATS. The car’s standard Dunlop summer run-flats didn’t do it any favors.
The Q50’s interior is simple but tasteful, pleasant but not extravagant. Materials are mostly high-quality, even if it lacks the design flair you get from a competing German machine. Perhaps my biggest beef with the car remains how slapdash its user interface feels.
There’s all sorts of settings for drive modes, steering functions, ride settings, driver alerts and semi-autonomous features, but they’re splayed across dash buttons, the gauge cluster menus, buttons on the center console and the infotainment system.
You know how some people have, like, 14 remotes for their TV, BluRay player and stereo, and can never figure out which one does what? It’s that, in car form. And just as fun to operate.
As it has since day one, the Q50 includes a wide array of almost-self-driving tech features and options like lane-keeping, auto steering on the highway (though it beeps at you if you don’t keep your hands on the wheel), emergency auto braking with pedestrian detection, collision alerts and more. Infiniti was first to market with a lot of that, but three years later it feels dated compared to what Tesla, Mercedes and Volvo are doing.
It’s also interesting that Infiniti plays up all of those features, as well as the idea that the Q50 is a performance-oriented driver’s car. Can such a vehicle do both, or is it trying to serve two masters? I suppose that’s the way everything’s going now. You can bet the next 3 Series will practically drive itself the way a 7 Series can.
So the updated Q50 is a better car than it was. The new twin-turbo motor is a legitimate win and should make it more competitive in the marketplace. Adding the turbo four was a smart move, too. And the DAS is finally where it should be, which is why it’s going to the Q60 coupe next; time will tell if it catches on.
But I walked away from this test wondering why I’d recommend the Q50 to someone over, say, a 3 Series, an ATS, a C-Class or even an Audi A4 or S4.
Pricing, I suppose. Infiniti wasn’t ready to discuss that on the drive, but the new engines will stretch the price range quite a bit. The pre-update Q50 started at $37,150 and went to about $50,000. If the twin-turbo V6 can be had with lots of options for about the same, it will have value going for it.
That doesn’t make it the best sport sedan out there but it does show improvement on Infiniti’s part. Even if the brand’s not where it needs to be yet, 400 HP can make everything at least feel better.
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