Infiniti Q50S Hybrid
Infiniti's 2008 entry into the European market was, it now seems, something of a soft launch. The product wasn't without merit, but the limited range of large-capacity petrol engines was out of touch with the environmental and economic
challenges of the day and the cabin quality across the range fell short of the German market leaders. As a result, sales were woefully slow; to date in 2013, Infiniti has shifted 305 units in the UK.
With the Q50 saloon Infiniti will, it hopes, finally arrive in Europe. The BMW 3 Series and Audi A4-rivalling model is the first of a new line-up that intends to trade on technology, driver appeal and interior luxury. Crucially, the Q50 is available with a Mercedes-sourced four-cylinder diesel engine.
Infiniti hopes to grow to around 25 per cent of the size of BMW within the next five to 10 years, targeting some 500,000 annual sales, up significantly from the 172,000 units it managed last year. With that in mind, it's instructive to consider just how Infiniti should pitch its new models for there is a very fine balance to be struck. Simply mimicking the German manufacturers in every detail would give the car buying public no reason whatsoever to switch to Infiniti. In order to achieve its ambitious sales targets, however, the marque will have to pinch sales from the German three and therefore its product does have to imitate to some degree. That might be a very narrow sweet spot.
Infiniti has identified the styling as one area in which the Q50 needs to distinguish itself from its German rivals. The aesthetic therefore remains determinedly Japanese both inside and out, which will be refreshing and authentic to some, cluttered and fussy to others.
The Q50 also embraces the latest technologies in its pursuit of sales. The sportiest model in the current range is the V6 hybrid, as tested here, which combines an electric motor with the familiar 3.5-litre petrol engine, the result being 364hp. Infiniti describes the motor as much as an electric supercharger as a device for improving fuel efficiency; it boosts total output across the rev range so there's a strong bottom end with a zesty, naturally-aspirated top end.
The Q50S 3.5h Direct Response Hybrid, to give it its full name, comes as standard with a conventional seven-speed automatic gearbox and is available with rear- or four-wheel drive. 0-62mph in 5.1 seconds isn't far off super saloon territory.
The most eye-catching item of technology is one that will no doubt provoke an impassioned response on these pages; steer-by-wire. It's a world first. In contrast to a conventional rack and pinion setup, Direct Adaptive Steering - standard on the Hybrid model, optional on the diesel - works digitally by measuring the applied steering angle before transferring that data through an ECU to a pair of motors that turn the front wheels accordingly. In normal operation there is no mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the tyres. The benefits are faster responses and the ability to filter out unwanted kickback, but there's no weight saving as yet; a clutch-actuated mechanical rack and pinion failsafe is still fitted.
On the road, the digital steering immediately feels odd. More of which later. The electric motor makes urban driving incredibly relaxing as you surf a silent electric surge. The engine engages at anything more than running pace, but the car remains civilised and refined. It also rides well at all speeds, even on 19-inch rims, but from there the dynamic picture is a little less rosy.
To be clear, the Q50 is never unduly wallowy or unsettled on twisting roads, but there's no sparkle to the chassis or any real urgency when you up the pace. This doesn't feel like a saloon car with sports car responses, despite the double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension; the rather corpulent 1,825kg kerbweight certainly doesn't help. In truth the chassis is fairly competent, but the Q50's sporting pretensions are dealt a fatal blow by two factors; the brake pedal, which is oddly rubbery and entirely lifeless, and - as you undoubtedly predicted - the steer-by-wire.
The system tries to replicate steering feel by altering its assistance, but it simply feels as artificial as it undoubtedly is. What's more the weighting changes mid-corner, so you never trust that the messages coming through the wheel rim are representative of what's going on at the contact patches. Sport mode is simply all of the above, but heavier. On the plus side, unwanted road noise is filtered out which adds to refinement levels and steering effort is much reduced in normal driving. The sensation isn't unlike that of a rear-wheel steering system.
The interior quality is greatly improved over the previous generation of Infiniti and there's no doubting the Q50's long-distance refinement, although the hybrid system really does impinge on boot space. There is much to enjoy about the drivetrain and the straight line pace is more than adequate for a car of this type, but the gearbox is dim-witted in comparison to the best units out there.
The 2.2-litre diesel, good for 170hp and 295lb ft of torque, will overwhelmingly be the most popular engine. Although it's very subdued at a cruise, it makes such a fuss of getting up to speed that overall refinement is significantly compromised. There is a manual option on the diesel, which saves £1,500.
The Q50 isn't an exciting sports saloon, but it is an interesting car. It's also a much more complete package than anything Infiniti has offered in this market before now, if not quite a match for the establishment. It does hold a certain appeal for being just a little bit different to the usual suspects though. That's an entirely predictable conclusion, isn't it? Progress, then, but no giant leap to the class lead.