The big question is this: would you buy 10,000 left-handed widgets from a man driving an Infiniti Q50? Because among the thick-knot-tied hordes who sweep up and down our motorways all week shouting into Blueteeth, perception and reception from clients are all – and BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi have mastered the art of transporting them with sophistication and status in 3-series, C-classes and A4s.
What the heck is an Infiniti Q50?
Infiniti’s new Q50 is a car aimed to break into that wonderful sweet spot where volume and profit margin are at their most sugary. To achieve this, it will have to tick some pretty hard-to-tick boxes, among them being brand, pricing, emissions, quality and driving enjoyment.
Of the first, which those thick-knot types would call brand equity, the Q50 is at a standing start on the line, while everyone else is rocket-powered. Bunging a few stickers on a successful F1 car gets you a lot of airtime (if anyone is still bothering to watch) but just doesn’t translate into a world where smart people are very much aware of the value of salesmanship and bluster. You can’t kid a kidder.
Ouch. So it's killed stone-dead, then?
Not so fast. Pricing and emissions is an area were the Q50 is a much stronger proposition. There’s a 167bhp diesel variant, part of the deal with Mercedes-Benz to supply powertrains, with six-speed manual and seven-speed auto options, and emissions are competitive, going as low as 114g/km for the manual. In the corporate market, this is vitally important.
There’s also a 357bhp hybrid version, which is less efficient on paper and probably even less so on the road. Of the 1500 hoped-for annual UK sales, even Infiniti reckon this one will make up only 10-15%.
The far more relevant diesel starts at just under £28,000, which is about £1500 less than an entry level BMW 320d, and it has a decent level of kit as standard, although making sat-nav and DAB part of the sticker price rather than optional extras might sweeten the deal further. Quality though, can be a bit more subjective.
What's the Q50 like on the move?
The Q50 looks classy enough, in the wrought way of Japanese design, but this diesel has never been the quietest and most refined engine in the C-class. But the installation in the Q50 is on a whole new level, and makes a right old racket under what is fairly pokey acceleration. At least at a decent cruise it mellows.
Part of the issue is that the engine vibrates on its mountings so alarmingly that its plastic cover wags manically like a badly fitting toupe in a gale. On top of that, the fuel filler cap kept popping open on our car when we went round bends, and the boot and roof are made of a metal of a thickness that makes a Kit-Kat appear robust – which is not great for perceived quality.
Is there better news in the cockpit?
The cabin is much better. Lots of space in the back, and some typically swoopy Japanese plastics make it a pleasant spot to be, if not the apotheosis of corporate chic. The touchscreen system is excellent: it looks and operates like an iPad, with pin-sharp clarity and effortless functionality. It’s as good as anything on the market at almost any price.
But it is in the driving dynamics where this car fails, and it’s a problem of Infiniti’s own making. On Sport models the car comes with drive-by-wire steering, which it claims is the future. The point at which I decided that I’ll live in the fusty old past thanks very much was when the Q50 decided that the course of the curve I had given it wasn’t really the one it wanted, and that it would choose a new one for itself, with the added bonus of a whole new weight of steering.
Artificial steering? I don't like the sound of that...
Inputs from the steering wheel are processed and then motors replicate them at the wheels, which is said to be quicker than a conventional system, cut out vibration and kickback to make driving more relaxing, and to allow the engineers wider scope for tuning.
Sometimes you can feel the car adjust its attitude mid-corner, and the steering wheel doesn’t actually shift. There are more electronic systems at play than in a Maplins catalogue, and personally I find it very disconcerting indeed, because you have no idea which one is influencing this odd behaviour.
It’s taken 15 years for Infiniti engineers to bring it to market, and the apparent input of performance director Sebastian Vettel to finesse it. I’d suggest the German ace sticks to his day job. In the meantime, I’d like some big lumps of metal connecting the steering wheel to the front wheels, if you don’t mind.
Amazingly, despite back-up systems, there’s also a redundant conventional steering column being lugged about in the car, disconnected by a clutch and ready to cut in should everything else go wrong.
All of that being said, the steering can do some clever things. We drove over a rough piece of road in a car without fancy steering, and then one with, and the huge levels of deflection in the former was non-existent in the latter. And the steering will choose to adjust for slippage on cambers too, and stop you being sucked into the turbulence caused by lorries (always happening to me, that).
You can also choose to have steering so sharp it is almost as pointy as a Ferrari F12. This flummoxes a chassis which, on the non-Sport model with every electronic aid switched off for a spot of peace and quiet, is intrinsically decent – with well-sorted double-wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear. Good though it is, it can’t keep up with the turn of a wheel that keen, so on the drive-by-wire car you keep the steering set to standard.
In this moment, everything that’s wrong with the Q50 is summed up. Infiniti is trying to be far too clever by half, thinking that an arsenal of gizmos somehow imbue it with ‘premium-ness’.
Ironically, the more basic the Q50 is, the better it is. But, as every widget or German car salesman knows, real success comes when you create desire for your product and a willingness for customers to lavish cash on widgety extras. For that, it’s got to work properly in the first place.