Silvio Calabi: Infiniti Q50 offers business-class driving
Back in July, somewhere north of Denver, I lost my autonomous-car virginity and then enthusiastically reported on the experience here.
Instead of wailing about the rise of the machines, giving up control and losing driving skills, I found out that being able to turn the wheel — and the brakes and accelerator — over to an autopilot is a good thing.
Or at least it can be, in certain places, and while the weather is clear. I love driving a fine car, but there are times when I appreciate a little help, and on a long dash across the prairie this was the next best thing to a co-driver.
Into its Q50 Premium sedan, a new model for 2014, Infiniti quietly packaged a unique degree of self-driving capability. Compared to similar technology from Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and others, Infiniti’s Active Lane Control seems to be more finely calibrated, and it doesn’t automatically shut itself off every few seconds.
This is important. On last summer’s drive across Wyoming, so long as the road was well-marked and mostly straight, the Q50 kept itself between the lines for miles and miles, and at very high speeds too. When it needed help — if the road curved too tightly, or the white lines faded — a chime called me back to the helm.
At the same time, Intelligent Cruise Control minded the throttle and brakes and kept us away from other traffic. Lane changes were manual; if I didn’t signal intent with the blinker, the car resisted crossing the white line.
Much of the time, my hands were in my lap, one thumb on the steering wheel, while I enjoyed the scenery. As we got near the town of Rock Springs, the satnav informed me that soon I’d have to manage the transition from I-80 onto Route 191 to Jackson Hole. Really, all I lacked was a flight attendant to bring me a latte.
Last week, a similarly equipped Q50 let us crawl along in holiday congestion on Route 128 around Boston without ever touching the brake and nudging the throttle only occasionally, to restart from a dead stop. (The gap with the vehicle ahead is adjustable, but it won’t keep lane-jumpers out.)
As we got farther north, traffic cleared, but I couldn’t switch to full-auto because the weather was closing in. This is the biggest drawback to self-driving cars: Just when we might need them the most — that is, when things are at their worst — the autopilot and safety nannies shut down. Their sensors can’t cope with heavy snow, rain or fog, or lane markings that are faded or missing.
Still, operating an all-wheel drive Q50 the old-fashioned way, by hand, is no chore at all, even in dicey conditions. The 3.7-liter Six sends 328 horsepower and 269 lb.-ft. of torque to a seven-speed automatic transmission and then to the rear wheels — or, when needed, all four.
The suspension is fixed but tuned well, and the Q50’s center of gravity must be pretty close to the ground; the ride is both comfortable and sporting, with flat cornering. Everything else on our Premium Q50 seemed to be adaptable or adjustable, including all sorts of driver preferences plus the throttle, transmission and (on this model) the steering.
Infiniti’s optional Direct Adaptive Steering is 100-percent electronic steer-by-wire, with sensors to measure speed and steering input, and servomotors to aim the front wheels accordingly. With no mechanical connection between the wheel and the wheels, it provides little feedback, but it can be varied from stiff to virtually spasmodic to almost normal.
This range of choices extends to the car itself. For 2015, Infiniti offers 10 different flavors of Q50, including four gas-electric hybrid variations, at starting prices from $38,000 to $49,000 — and 10 trim packages, at $1,000 to $5,000, plus 10 more dealer-installed options. Our highly optioned AWD Premium example listed at $51,955, all in.
To make best use of what Infiniti has created, be sure to tick the box for the Technology Package, which includes the self-driving features. BTW, gas being so cheap right now you may not care as much, but our RWD Q50 averaged 27 MPG on July’s long trip; this AWD version returned 25 MPG.
Likes Quick, quiet, smooth Genuinely useful self-driving capability Looks like a coupe but has sedan space
Dislikes Bewildering computer menus How many adjustments and options are too many? Digital-fidgetal steering
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at email@example.com.