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First Drive: Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400

First Drive: Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400

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When Infiniti introduced its first car back in 1989, the Q45, it was different from other luxury sedans of the day. It was a smoothly styled Japanese four-door with a hot rod heart. The Q was adopted as a model moniker in a reference to the Q-ships of World War I, seemingly harmless merchant vessels that were actually heavily armed and used to surprise enemy subs, sinking them before they knew what hit them. That’s what the Q45 was designed to do to its German competitors in the late ’80s and early 90s. As good as it was, however, and roundly praised by the automotive press, the Q45 was only moderately successful from a sales perspective.

Now having spent a day driving through Texas hill country in the 2016 Infiniti Q50 Red Sport, one thing is for sure, while the styling is a little more aggressive than the original Infiniti, its heart is hotter than ever.

Just an aside; the Red Sport edition is not a production version of the Eau Rouge concept Infiniti showed off at Detroit a couple of years ago. That was an all-out performance car that would have done battle with the likes of BMW’s M5, Mercedes C63 AMG or Audi S6. This Infiniti is the equivalent of an M-Sport BMW – driver focused, sporty – but still designed more as a daily driver than a track monster.

Under the hood of the Q50 Red Sport is a brand new engine. It’s a 3-liter V6 with twin turbos that are fed by a water cooled air charging intake system. Dubbed VR-Series, 85% of the components in this power plant are new. To generate 400 horsepower the turbos make an impressive 14.7 pounds of boost and the engine reaches peak power at 6,400 rpm. This higher boost is made possible by a turbine speed sensor which allows a 10 percent increase in turbine speeds, enabling the turbocharger to spin up to 220,000 rpm. Unlike previous high revving turbos, it delivers its peak torque of 350 ft.-lbs. from 1600-5200 rpm meaning there’s a lot of punch whether you’re accelerating from a standing start or passing on the highway in a higher gear.

Beyond the turbos themselves, there are a number of other engine features that allow this Infiniti to unleash 400 horses. Variable valve timing aids acceleration and direct injection ensures a powerful, efficient burn. One final change is an integrated exhaust manifold that cuts weight and helps the engine breathe easier. The result is a free-revving power plant that delivers its punch through a nicely matched 7-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. Unfortunately, no manual is available and while solid, this traditional automatic doesn’t deliver best-in-class shift speeds. If this car were intended for the track, that would be a big demerit. On public roads, however, it’s not as big an issue and whether I was punching it to pass a slower car, or trying to hold the revs up through a high speed corner, everything worked as expected when I had the car set in sport mode. The car I drove was rear-wheel drive version with a final drive ratio of 3.133:1 which provides plenty of excitment off the line while not forcing the engine to spin too fast at highway speeds. The Q50 Red Sport will also be available with all-wheel drive.

The Q50 Red Sport comes with a drive mode select system that adjusts the suspension dampers, steering feel and powertrain settings depending on both road conditions and how you want to drive, as you would expect from a modern luxury performance sedan. The master settings include standard, eco, winter, sport, and sport+. In addition to the those overall adjustments, each of the systems can be set independently by selecting personal mode and tuning the systems to your liking. These adjust engine output, throttle mapping, and transmission shift points affecting vehicle performance. The suspension toggles between standard and sport, stiffening things up and reducing roll in hard cornering. And, the steering has two (standard/sport) or three (standard/sport/sport+) modes depending on which system you opt for.

In an unusual move, Infiniti actually offers a choice of steering systems to Q50 Red Sport buyers. The standard system is an electronic power assisted rack and pinion unit with both standard and sport settings, neither of which felt particularly well tuned for performance driving. The optional upgrade is called Direct Adaptive Steering and uses two electric motors to turn the front wheels based on electronic input it receives from the steering wheel. This was the only system offered on the previous generation Q50 and it was roundly criticized for its video game-like feel. For the Red Sport, it is much improved. The car has a solid on center feel. Turn in is smooth and natural and when you activate the sport or sport+ settings, the effort gets appropriately heavier. There is still significant isolation from bumps, potholes and road debris, but choosing between the two is a no brainer. Whether on the street or the the autocross course, the DAS system is the winner.

Infiniti cars have become significantly more contemporary and attractive in recent years under the direction of designer Alfonso Albaisa. The signature front end with its dual arch grill and triangular headlamp assembly is both distinctive and aggressive without feeling forced or cartoonish like the Lexus spindle grille. The side profile looks rakish and sporty with lines flowing up from front to rear. The surfaces offer an interesting combination of strong creases and smooth, contours that feel both purposeful and artistic. Oftentimes when a manufacturer creates complex designs like this, it looks trendy or gratuitous. This is pure personal opinion, but I get none of that from the Q50 and feel like this design will wear well.

Slide into the driver’s seat and the feel is sporty yet understated. The seats offer an appropriate amount of support for a sports sedan. I drove the car for over two hours across the south Texas countryside and on an aggressively set up autocross course, finding the balance between comfort and support to be just about right. For someone taller like me – I’m 6’3” – I appreciated having adjustable thigh support and a telescoping steering wheel to get the position between my hands and feet just right. It was hard to judge the fit and finish of these cars, because they were pre-production prototypes, but the materials themselves were high quality and tastefully applied.

Infiniti made a big deal about driver assist technologies when they presented the Q50 and all of them are available on the Red Sport version. These include full-range adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning and intervention, lane departure warning and prevention, active lane control, predictive forward collision warning, forward emergency braking, back collision intervention, cross-traffic alert, and a 360° around view monitor with moving object detection. These assist technologies can be activated and deactivated individually through the central touch screen or as an entire suite with the touch of a button on the steering wheel.

The main interface for both safety technologies and the car’s entertainment, information, and HVAC systems is Infiniti’s InTouch system which features dual touch-screen displays on the center stack. The 8-inch upper screen is for primary functions and a 7-inch screen below is for less frequently used applications. Infiniti claims it is designed to “effortlessly synchronize car and driver.” In practice, however, the system required a bit more effort than I like. Part of it might be my relative unfamiliarity with the system. I’m sure given more than a few hours in the car it would become more intuitive, however I often found myself hunting through menus to find the function I was looking for. In general, I’m not a fan of touch screen interfaces for most operations. They pull my eyes from the road too readily and don’t offer the same feedback as traditional switches, buttons and dials. That having been said, the graphics were clean, clear and easy to read.

A car is much more than a summary of its equipment and specifications, however, and my time behind the wheel of the Infiniti Q50 Red Sport was enlightening. First off, this car feels and behaves lighter than its 3,853 pound curb weight. All 400 horsepower are right there and lighting up the tires was a common event when accelerating quickly from a standing start. This compromises 0-60 times a bit. While Infiniti hasn’t released numbers, it felt like they will be in the mid 4-second range. Some of that has to do with the tire choice. Infiniti opted for staggered 19-inch Dunlop SP Sport MAXX summer tires which aren’t as grippy as I’m used to in a sports sedan with this kind of oomph. The car feels very balanced despite it’s 56/44 front-biased weight distribution. While some push is evident in hard, tight corners, it’s easy to induce oversteer with a slight lift and then stab of the throttle. The electronic nannies will keep things from going too far. The sound from the tailpipes is a very pleasing roar, especially with the car in sport sport mode, but it is a little quieter in the cabin than I’d like. Infiniti chooses not to pipe in or enhance the engine noise electronically, and I’m okay with that.

Pricing for the Q50 Red Sport will start at $47,950 for the rear wheel drive version and $49,950 if you want an all-wheel drive model. Add popular options like the technology package, driver assistance package, premium plus package, direct adaptive steering, and a moonroof, and the price will be about $7,500 higher.

The upshot is that this is a fun car, a car with personality, a car that is far and away the better than its competitors from Acura and Lexus. It lacks some of the refinement you typically find in a BMW, Audi or Mercedes. But when it comes to pure driving enjoyment, the Q50 Red Sport clearly shows that the gap between Nissan’s premium division and the Germans is narrowing. Maybe more quickly than the folks in Munich, Ingolstadt and Stuttgart would like to admit.