What is it?
The Infiniti Q50 is a new rival for the BMW 3-series and point one in a plan that, if it happens the way Infiniti predicts, will see sales increase five fold within the next 5-10 years. Infiniti says the Q50 is an all new car, albeit one that still uses elements of the platform architecture of the outgoing G37. Make of that what you will.
What is beyond doubt is that Infiniti is serious both about this car and its prospects in Europe where you still need an electron microscope to see Infiniti sales (around 6000 units last year) relative to those of any of the vast German establishment figures it intends to tackle. To prove the point, Infiniti has bought diesel engines from Mercedes-Benz complete with their transmissions so it can at last enter the part of the playground where the big boys play.
In addition to the 2.2-litre diesel that is anticipated to take between 80-90 per cent of UK sales, there is also a petrol-powered hybrid using a Nissan 3.5-litre V6 coupled to a seven-speed auto gearbox and boosted by a 67bhp kick from its electric motor. Infiniti reckons to sell 1500 Q50s in the UK in its first year on sale – small beer for sure but still contrasting starkly with the fewer than 600 cars from all ranges sold in the last 12 months.
Infiniti has a long list of potential claims to fame for the Q50, but the most headline grabbing is the provision of the world’s first drive-by-wire steering system to be fitted to a car. Optional to the tune of £800 on the lower and medium grade models but standard on the Sport model, there is no mechanical connection at all between the wheel you hold and those that actually steer the car.
The manufacturer says it has enabled them to eliminate friction and kickback while allowing the driver to configure both the weight and response of the helm. Feel is digitally synthesised and should the system fail, a fully mechanical failsafe will automatically engage.
Prices start at £27,950 for the SE diesel, just undercutting the £28,410 asked for its key rival, the BMW 320d SE and rise past a Premium grade to £32,750 for the Sport. Options on all include navigation and various packages to enhance entertainment, safety, comfort and so on.
What's it like?
The Infiniti Q50 represents a solid step in the right direction – not a seven league leap – but a welcome, sizeable and significant step. The car is attractive inside and out and while the minor controls are not as intuitive of those of its best German rivals, after only an hour or two’s acclimatisation, the car is easy to instruct and operate.The 2.2-litre engine isn’t that quiet in a C-class but I’d not say it’s any noisier in the Infiniti. The Mercedes-Benz is around 40kg lighter than the Infiniti, which may explain the latter’s slightly inferior performance, fuel consumption and emissions, but if you like the idea of the Infiniti, you’d be making a mistake to allow such small differences break the deal.However the Mercedes auto gearbox that was all that was available for us to try might: it’s smooth enough when you leave it in Drive but if you want to shift yourself you’ll find the pattern is the wrong way around (you have to push forward to change up) and the response times very sluggish. We’d choose the manual and save £1550.Infiniti makes much of the car’s appeal to the driver and to an extent it's right. The suspension is firm enough to provide poise without wrecking the ride, and on the 19in tyres of the Sport version we sampled, grip levels were commendably high. What it lacks is the composure of its best rivals when near its grip limits – it’s a bit too keen to push its nose wide both on braking into the corner and when powering away for it.As for the unique ‘Direct Adaptive Steering’ I was able to drive a car so equipped – and a standard analogue example – up exactly the same stretch of mountain road, one after the other. And while Infiniti later let me do all sorts of tests in artificial environments aimed at proving the drive-by-wire system is better, out there on real roads it wasn’t a patch on the everyday, common-or-garden conventional steering.
Digital feel is no substitute for the real thing and despite Infiniti’s best efforts, I felt curiously removed from the car. The standard set up, by contrast, is quite excellent. True DAS doesn’t wreck the car, and its ability to tailor its ratio, weighing and response according to conditions will have advantages in certain situations – probably mainly in town – but if it helps you to understand where I am with it, I’d pay £800 to have it taken off my Q50.
Should I buy one?
I’ve liked most Infinitis because while none has come close to topping the class, they’ve always had a certain iconoclastic appeal. And for better or worse, the Infiniti Q50 carries on this work.
Commendably, Infiniti has resisted the urge to make a me-too 3-series copy that would always suffer by comparison and created a car with a character of its own and a certain charm, too. The problem is you could have said the same about its G37 predecessor and that did sales no good at all.
What will ensure the Q50 does not suffer the same fate is not the witchcraft in the steering system, but the fully competitive diesel engine under the bonnet. Even so, it has not made the Infiniti a logical or even natural choice for prospects shopping in this class, for that territory still belongs to the Germans.
But if that’s too predictable a route for you, the Q50 has at least now shone a light on a path less well travelled for sure, but still satisfying, attractive and interesting to follow.
Infiniti Q50 2.2d Sport
Price £34,270; 0-62mph 8.5sec; Top Speed 143mph; Economy 57.7mpg; CO2 128g/km; Kerb weight 1669kg; Engine 2179cc, 4 cyls, turbodiesel; Power 168bhp at 3200rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 1600rpm; Gearbox 7-spd automatic