As always, we begin with a history lesson:
Infiniti started selling luxury cars in North America in late 1989, and has worked hard to establish an identity since then. It launched with the extremely high-tech Q45 full-sized luxury sedan, which featured a 278hp 4.5 Litre V-8, four-wheel-steering, an active suspension, and a design that made its rivals from Germany look like wooden carriages. It was a bit ahead of it’s time, and Infiniti's early marketing was, um, a bit high-concept, with some ads not even picturing the car. This was a big problem, of course, since nobody knew what Infiniti was.
The original Q45 should have remained the thesis for the brand: thoroughly modern, high-tech, unconventional luxury motoring. Given a little more time and the right marketing, it could have enshrined Infiniti as the sole arbiter of new-wave, high tech luxury. But panic set in as the first few years of sales were disappointing as a result of a small dealer network, poor brand recognition, and a general hesitation among buyers to embrace a Japanese premium brand. By the time the model was discontinued in 1996, the styling had been chromed-up, the interior had been softened and lined with wood, and the highest tech features had been axed. It was a shell of it’s former self and still sold poorly.
As corporate anxiety continued, Nissan flooded the Infiniti pipeline with some easier-to-digest badge-engineered models. The G20 sedan was a European-market Nissan Primera yawnfest, the I30 was a tastefully upgraded Nissan Maxima, and the QX4 was a Nissan Pathfinder wearing an opera mask and high heeled boots. They were decent cars, and actually found reasonable sales success, keeping the brand afloat.
That’s not to say that Infiniti hasn’t had more interesting and offbeat offerings over the years. The 1992 J30, with it’s fashion-forward four door coupé body and smooth inline six/rear wheel drive drivetrain should have been a killer, but it wasn’t. The 2003 M45 was designed to mimic old school muscle cars, with rear-drive and a 4.5L V8 producing 340hp. Buyers just simply didn’t get it. The 2006 Model had less controversial styling but was a dynamically excellent car. It even included all wheel drive.
Infiniti did ultimately strike gold with its 2003 G35 Sedan and Coupé. It had a powerful 260-horsepower engine, excellent handling dynamics with rear or all wheel drive, and sporting styling, the G-cars have accounted for up to 60% of Infiniti sales over the years. It was considered to be a worthy competitor to the BMW 3-series and Audi A4 that ruled the luxury sports sedan category. Nearly fifteen years into its life, Infiniti finally had an identity it could sink its teeth into. An enthusiast community grew around the model, and the rest is history.
As the oughts wound down, consumers began to embrace car-based crossovers in an unexpected way. Always ready to test the waters with something offbeat, the brand launched the 2003 FX35 and FX45 as niche models. It was the first coupe-like crossover, and proved to be a sales success with its powerful engines and “bionic cheetah” styling (their words, not mine). The second-generation went on sale in 2009 and is still being sold as the QX70. BMW even followed suit with its obese, slow-selling X6 “Sports Activity Coupé.”
Now, in 2017, the sedan segment continues to weaken despite excellent models from nearly every manufacturer. Buyers want crossovers of all sizes and styles, and manufacturers are heeding the call, to say the least. The demand has created some strange bedfellows, and this new QX30 is the product of such a union.
The QX30 you see before you is based on Mercedes-Benz’s GLA250 Crossover. The engine, transmission, and most other major components are shared with the GLA (and, by association, the A-Class and CLA-Class). Built by Nissan in Sunderland, England, it’s a front-or all-wheel-drive modular compact platform that allows for a wide range of variants to be deployed with the same basic bones. This is a smart move for Infiniti, as there’s nothing currently in the Nissan lineup that would have been suitable as a basis for a premium compact.
Infiniti’s aim is for the QX30 to be a “disruptive force” in the premium crossover segment. The target demographic is young, stylish, and well-to-do. The problem with targeting baller millennials is that many of them favor city living and forego car ownership altogether. I spent my 2 days with the QX30 rather enjoying myself, but wondering who’s going to buy it.
Then: eureka! The most likely buyer for the QX30 is not the up-and-comer that Infiniti thinks it is. It’s their parents. It’s folks who spent the last 25 years carting their young, stylish, well-to-do offspring to Lacrosse practice and ski vacations in QX4’s, M-Classes, and other big-bucks luxury SUV’s. It’s folks that still want the style, luxury, and dealer service experience of an luxury marque, but in a package more suited to their newly streamlined lifestyles. They’re not retirees, though, and they were aghast when the AARP (CARP in Canada) vultures started circling their mailboxes just a few years ago. They dress well, listen to current music, and stay up to date with technology, albeit with reading glasses at times.
Taken as an exercise in substance without scale, the QX30 starts to make a lot more sense. Infiniti’s done their own bodywork for the QX30, and it’s gorgeous. Where the GLA looks a bit squished and stunted, the QX30 looks muscular and sculpted. It’s low and wide; a more expressive face in a segment populated by more upright trucklets.
It’s got a lot of very pretty angles. As small cars go, they don’t come much more sculpted or stylized than the QX30. Infiniti says their design language is inspired by nature, with forms to evoke an ocean swell, a windswept wave, and flexed human muscle. Take a walk around one, and it starts to make sense. The biggest problem that I had with driving the car was that I wasn’t looking at the outside of it.
The interior begins with the basic layout and switchgear from the GLA250, but Infiniti designed their own instrument panel, console, doors and seats. Infiniti also uses their InTouch infotainment system in lieu of Daimler’s COMAND system. The QX30 feels a bit more buttoned down and businesslike inside, and the controls are fairly intuitive. The balance of physical buttons and virtual controls is sensible, and the rotary control in the console is easy to use.
On the road, the QX30’s motions are well controlled, and the ride verges on feeling pretty sporty. On my test loop in Hamilton, Ontario, which features highways, dirt farm roads, twisting backroads, and some downtown driving, the smallest Infiniti did an admirable job of adapting to varied conditions. The wide hood and low roof made visibility a bit challenging at times, but I was able to adjust the seat to minimize any awkward neck-craning. The standard reverse camera came in handy, and the around-view monitor that’s included in the $2,500 Technology package would really do the trick.
The right foot summons power from a Mercedes-Benz-sourced 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, channeled through a quick-shifting seven-speed dual clutch gearbox. With 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque on tap, the QX30 AWD reaches 100km/h from a standstill in about 6 and a half seconds. When merging into highway traffic, the QX30 fires off beautiful, effortless shifts and gets the job done without complaint. The brakes are linear and fade-free.
My QX30 AWD test vehicle started at CAD $38,490, and featured the $5,000 Premium Package, which includes a rich-sounding 10-speaker Bose audio system, panoramic fixed-glass moonroof, 7” touchscreen navigation system, parking sensors, and a few other goodies. Premium Asgard Gray paint, Freight and PDI brought the total sticker price to $46,262. The Technology package adds Blind Spot Warning, Forward Emergency Braking, Auto High/Low Headlamps, Around-View Monitor, Active Front Lighting, Lane Departure Warning, Intelligent Cruise Control, Intelligent Park Assist, LED Headlamps, and LED interior ambient lighting for an extra $2,500.
If you haven’t shopped for a new car in a few years, here’s a word of advice: the features in the Technology Package, especially Intelligent Cruise Control and Lane Departure Warning, are some of the most noteworthy and necessary automotive technologies to be introduced in decades. Check the box for these options; you will not be disappointed.
Crossovers, by their nature, are a study in compromises. In the case of the QX30, it’s small and stylish, which means you don’t get the functional perks of big and boxy. Its ride height is increased to give a higher seating position, which makes for less precise handling. If your last car was a Volkswagen GTI, you may find these tradeoffs less than palatable. However, if your last car was, say, a Mercedes-Benz ML350 or Jeep Grand Cherokee, the QX30 AWD may be precisely the right blend of style, substance, and performance.
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