On paper, the 2018 Infiniti Q50 Red Sport AWD is a 400 horsepower premium sedan positioned to take on the higher trim competition from BMW, Mercedes and Audi. But in practice, it’s a 400 hp car with a jarringly dated interior and upsettingly numb steering, leaving it just short of being legitimately fun.
(Full disclosure: Infiniti wanted me to drive the 2018 Q50 Red Sport so bad it filled up the tank and dropped it off at the office right as I was returning a Range Rover Velar. Life is good.)
The 2018 Infiniti Q50 Red Sport is the most powerful trim of Infiniti’s compact upmarket sedan. In theory, Infiniti is targeting Nissan buyers trying to work their way into a more premium brand, while also offering something that gets mentioned alongside the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi S4.
Except I’ve driven a Nissan Maxima with nicer interior features than the Q50, and all of the German offerings were already better overall, or were quickly replaced with better, with a new Mercedes C-Class in 2015, a new Audi A4 in 2016, and the new BMW 3 Series is just around the corner.
That leaves the Infiniti feeling like a great used car deal that’s old enough to have lost a lot of its value, except it’s still the brand new show floor model asking north of $50,000.
This 2018 Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400 AWD included everything in the name: 400 hp from a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 with 350 lb-ft of torque, which is a tuned version of the same engine found in other Q50 trims, paired with an unremarkable seven-speed auto gearbox linked to column-mounted shift paddles behind the steering wheel, and Intelligent All-Wheel Drive, though rear-wheel drive is also an option.
My test car rolled on 19-inch wheels with run-flat all season tires stretched over them, and came equipped with the infamous Direct Adaptive Steering setup and a safety package including lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control.
If you peel back the layers of the confused nature of the Q50 Red Sport and focus on the fundamental driving characteristics of the car, what’s there is genuinely surprising, in the way that finding 400 hp in a car trying to hide it would be.
Tootling around in the normal drive mode, the engine, all-wheel drive system and general impact of the Q50 is aggressively unassuming, which may be a selling point for whoever is shopping beyond the German offerings. It feels the same as the other halfhearted, dress-it-up-different approach to luxury that the Japanese automakers ship with Acura, Lexus and Infiniti.
But what makes the Q50 Red Sport slightly different, and much more interesting, is that you can force out some power, performance and even a little fun if you try hard enough, but nothing else about the car communicates that it wants you to.
In Sport+ mode, the sportiest of modes, the electronic steering gets stiffer along with the suspension, and the engine note and exhaust get only slightly more noticeable. But if you kick your foot into it, power comes in a nice progression with a satisfying pull.
It felt more like the passive nature of sitting in a plane taking off than, say, piloting an F1 car. But this isn’t a sports car, it’s supposed to be more of a relaxed power, and if that’s the intention here, it’s most apparent in the car’s sportiest mode, oddly enough.
The Q50 doesn’t make a great noise, nor is it unpleasant. The engine note from the V6 sounds like audio foley from a early-century racing game, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time it isn’t exactly exciting. I don’t remember what the exhaust sounded like, I just remember it getting slightly louder. Infiniti probably could have found a way to add a little more attitude in the car’s soundtrack and it would have gone a long way.
The seven-speed shifts its best when you’re doing it yourself on the handy little paddles, otherwise the transmission leans on the sluggish side when it’s working on its own.
Driving like somebody trying to discover the Q50’s 400 hp in on-and-off rainy conditions was no issue as the car always felt planted, and I never had an issue with, nor the joy of, the tires losing grip. That was even when trying to, under full power, so the AWD and traction control seem to work well, in a very disciplined way.
Beyond the driving mechanics, I actually like the look of the Q50, along with most of the translations of Infiniti’s current design language, like on the QX30 and QX50 I’ve driven. The Q50 introduced the look back in 2014, and I think it’s held up well enough, though this trim doesn’t exactly look like it’s trying to come across as sporty. A design closer to the now-dead GTR-powered Q50 would be welcome.
Is it as ornate as a Mercedes, as sporty as a BMW or as clean as an Audi? Well, no, but it’s something else which is probably to its benefit—muscular and slightly aggressive, but ultimately reserved—and the shapes have come a long way from the awkward conspicuous design elements of Infinitis in the past, even if the look is now a little less distinctive. (I’m not a fan of different for the sake of it and don’t trust cars that take that approach, like a Lexus.)
Upon first impression, the Q50 Red Sport’s unique interior outfitting is a pretty good place to be. The quilted black leather touches with red stitching are soft and nice, there are physical buttons for infotainment control as well as on the steering wheel, a driver display screen, and the layout of everything is fairly straightforward.
But after about five minutes, the impression begins to wash off and you realize that it doesn’t seem like the Q50 has come very far from the materials and systems it started off with back in 2013, despite a refresh just a couple of years ago.
The button layout and button materials feel utilitarian, as if very little thought went into make the interior seem pretty or special or, you know, luxurious. The piano black panels are as frustratingly magnetic to fingerprints as they are on every car that has them, and the metallic carbony patterned panels also feel super plasticky. It’s a far cry from what you’d find in, say, a current Mercedes.
The dual-screen infotainment setup isn’t horrible in theory, but the touch inputs are enraging in their delay, with common mishaps like pressing an option on a menu that randomly pops up while typing out an address, and having to cancel the wrong navigation and begin again.
There are also too many menus for an extensive list of settings, and it’s not intuitive to interpret which menu option will guide you to which setting when digging for the more specific performance options. The screen in the middle of the driver display is surprisingly low-res and essentially pointless in its capabilities.
The map graphics are incredibly dated, and plans to update the whole infotainment system, including the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, won’t kick in until the Q50 is replaced in the next couple of years, which leaves the car lagging even further behind the competition for some time to come.
The leather on the steering wheel feels too tight, extremely hard and brittle, where the seat treatment material is soft and much more appealing, and the logo shell in the middle of the wheel is rock hard and seems like it would bruise your palm if you honked the horn.
The seats are comfortable and adequately bolstered, which can be adjusted in the front. But even then, if you feel around the edge of the seat just out of sight, the leather quickly ends and is sloppily rapped around the cushioning, leading on to hard plastic. In the back seat, the leather cushioning almost feels like an aftermarket insert pad of some sort.
The weakest point in the driving experience is the steering. The Direct Adaptive Steering is accurate in that it goes where you want it to, but the way it hardens up in the Sport+ mode doesn’t seem natural, and it makes driving the car feel like a trip through the uncanny valley. It’s not something I ever got used to in my week of driving it, with a hint of distrust lingering in the back of my mind, downgrading a performance setup with a lot of potential into something just shy of effortless fun.
The way you have to work the 400 hp out of this thing, coupled with the numb, unresponsive steering reminds me of the sensation you get when you start drinking around your parents. It doesn’t want you to do it, and there’s an awkward energy looming in the background, but it reluctantly goes along with it because it’s what you want.
This is technology getting in the way of performance, not assisting it. That, coupled with the relatively lazy approach of the interior design, leaves the impression that the team behind this car is conflicted on what it’s meant to be. The luxury seems compromised by cost-saving materials, the technology seems dated, and the performance is compromised by the technology.
The car I drove was priced at $61,710, inflating the $53,000 base trim price with a $2,650 package for memory seats, BOSE speakers, powered steering adjustment, dimming mirrors and advanced climate control (which didn’t feel very advanced), a $2,700 package for Direct Adaptive Steering, intelligent cruise control, distance control, lane departure prevention (which didn’t work great on wet highways with clear painted lines), and auto-leveling headlights, $465 for illuminated kick plates (pass), $400 for the glowing light-up grille emblem (pass!), and $1,500 for a carbon fiber lip spoiler and carbon-trimmed mirrors (PASS!).
Over $60,000 for a powerful all-wheel drive car with a dated interior that ultimately feels like an Audi from a few years back is not great value. As I said earlier, this will be a great used deal once the price comes down a little (a lot), but I can’t imagine dishing that much cash out for this new. If you’re desperate to avoid everything else and go for it anyway, at the very least cut off some of the unnecessary options.
The 2018 Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400 AWD and its ridiculously long name is a desperately confused, conflicted car. When my mind came to a grinding halt during the process of writing this review, I thought about trying to reach out to Infiniti insiders to see if there’s a full-on identity crisis behind closed doors, as the automaker seems split on what kind of cars it wants to make.
It’s almost as if an executive from a German automaker came in at the last moment and pressured everyone into slapping on a sport badge and making a performance-oriented trim of the new compact luxury sedan with all-wheel drive, before abruptly leaving to go disrupt Cadillac for a few years.
And if that was the case here, then Infiniti came frustratingly close to accomplishing something special. But this trim of the Q50 Red Sport, introduced in 2016, is too little too late to join the German sedans. Instead, its oddly under-developed and quickly-aging interior and this specific car’s AWD configuration leave it feeling like an old Audi.
If you’re dead-set on being contrarian, have cash to burn, want an Infiniti but not the more modern, stylish and all-around better Q60 coupe, and like a car that leaves the impression of reluctant parents, take a spin in the Q50 Red Sport. If you try hard enough, you may even have a little fun. For everyone else, shop elsewhere and check back in when the Q50 gets a major revisit in a couple of years.
This one will be one hell of a used market deal, though, when the price is right.