THERE was a simple time when your choice of compact executive sedan boiled down to which German brand you preferred.
So, sir, a BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 or Merc C Class? But then Jaguar got its mojo back, Volvo started making some tempters and there was always Lexus. We'll not mention Saab...
Anyway, Nissan's luxury arm Infiniti threw its hat into the Australian ring late in 2012, with its Q50 giving shoppers yet another model to scratch their chins over. If they knew about the brand that is, or could find a dealership. Infiniti's Aussie sales are low but increasing (up 30% last year), there are now nine Infiniti Centres nationally and model range is ever increasing.
Best seller is this, the Q50 sedan, and we're long-term testing the attractive exec in top spec guise: the Q50 S Premium, a hybrid all-wheel drive costing $73k before on-roads. That's more than BMW's 330i and Audi's A4 2.0 quattro (the latter also all-wheel drive), but less than Merc's C300 Hybrid.
But the left-field choice Infiniti goes about things a bit differently. Trumping the displacement of the above rivals, it uses a naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V6: ideal for those not keen on the current fashion for smaller turbo engines. Then there's its little sting in the tail. A 50kW/290Nm electric motor brings the total power to 268kW and peak torque to 546Nm when combined with that V6. Lots, in other words.
Throw in the model's impressively high specification, decent luxury and suite of driver aids - and it's rarity if you like that sort of thing - and it deserves to not be ignored.
So how's life with the Infiniti going? It's been on my driveway a month now, over 2000km have been logged and much has impressed. I have a few grumbles too, but that's inevitable after living with any car for an extended period. Without question the performance/fuel economy balance of this Q50 has wowed me most.
Thanks to that electric motor when you floor the throttle there's instant torque pull, and as revs climb the V6 becomes more alive and muscular-sounding. And this thing really hauls. It hits 100kmh in a rapid 5.4-seconds and does so with unfussed ease, and I've no qualms about opening it up on each drive. The hybrid Q50 really is a cheap date you see: I'm returning a real world less than 7-litres/100km even with a heavy right foot.
The majority of its use is on the motorway which clearly helps, and the times I am crawling through town it is happy to run on electric only at low speeds. It's a really nice little combo for modern motoring life. It operates in silence on electric power only (except when reversing where it beeps like a truck to warn pedestrians), only firing up the petrol engine when getting heavier with the throttle or once speeds really increase. As the car flips between electric and petrol power it's subtle but still noticeable - more so at lower speeds - but that seems a reasonable trade-off for the improved economy.
The Q50 hybrid does seem most at home as a comfy cruiser or traffic dweller, but does show some nous if you encounter twisty roads. I deliberately took the long way home to fling the sedan around a bit and it felt poised and balanced with plenty of grip, and taking control via the paddle shifters you can coax the engine into staying at high revs. There is a Sport mode to quicken throttle response and hold gears, but it has a funny effect on the steering.
Thing is, the Q50 is the world's first production car to be given a steer-by wire system, using electric signals as opposed to anything mechanical. Not one for the driving purist then. The steering settings can be customised, but I'm yet to find one that delivers anything that doesn't feel artificial or give what I'd consider pleasing feedback. Keep it in Sport and the steering is really heavy, but not in a good, sportscar kind of way. I'll battle this intriguing if a tad confusing steering system further in the next report.
While I'm having a moan, the Q50's foot brake as opposed to a hand brake (an electric one at this price would be expected) feels antiquated and unnecessary, while the downside of the hybrid system is having batteries take up boot space. A normal Q50's 500-litres is turned into 400-litres as a result, and as a family man, that means being able to get the baby buggy in or not.
Positively on the Responsible Parent front is the Q50 Hybrid's suite of safety systems. Active Lane Control has proved most impressive (if a little nannying), where if I don't respond to the beeping of the Lane Departure Warning, the system steers the car back between the lane markings. Clever stuff, and although I tend to switch it off most days due to finding it too intrusive, as a wise man once said, it only needs to save you once to be worth it.
Same with the Forward Emergency Braking. If it detects a collision is about to occur it will beep, then apply brakes and pre-tension the seats belts. I had this intervene during a drive (I was late braking deliberately, apologies to the car in front) and it worked superbly. Again, in an emergency its intelligence could be a life-saver, or at least a front bumper saver.
All things considered, this range topping Q50 Hybrid is something of a technological tour de force, which will appeal to a sector of the buying market. I would have never considered an Infiniti as a viable alternative to the established premium players, but my test so far shows such preconceptions can be naive.
It deserves its place in the segment, seems well appointed and specified for the money and still surprises with its impressive pace. I like its style too, even if half the people asking me about it still think it's a Lexus.
Model: Infiniti Q50 S Premium Hybrid AWD.
Details: Four-door all-wheel-drive premium compact sedan hybrid.
Price as tested: $73,400 before on-roads.
Kilometres this month: 2113km.
Fuel economy this month: 6.9-litres/100km.
The good: Beautiful body design, superb comfort, seriously quick car but still impressive economy, Bose sound system, driver assistance inclusions.
The not so good: Lacks the real premium cabin feel of German compact exec rivals, nor does it match them in the driving dynamics stakes, boot is small in this hybrid model, foot brake instead of auto hand brake annoys.
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