Our 2019 Infiniti QX50 Underwhelms in its Complexity

Despite its advanced variable-compression turbo engine and fetching design, Infiniti's small luxury crossover struggles to stand out after 40,000 miles.

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Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

40,000 Mile Wrap-Up

Regular facelifts and redesigns are the ticks and tocks marking the passage of time in the car business. But even with continuous improvement being the cadence of the industry, there are updates and changes and then there are wholesale reinventions. Infiniti's 2019 QX50 wasn't a mid-engine-Corvette brain exploder, but it was an unusually clean-sheet undertaking. What had been an almost-wagon became a fully profiled crossover and went from a rear-driver to a front-driver (with all-wheel drive optional on either), from offering a seven-speed automatic to a CVT, and from having six naturally aspirated cylinders to four with a turbocharger.

But Nissan-Infiniti's new turbocharged inline-four isn't just another 2.0-liter in a market brimming with them. It's the single most revolutionary development in combustion since Nikolaus Otto invented his gas-fired piston engine. Infiniti's variable-compression-ratio engine, or VC-T ("T" for "turbo"), is the result of some 300 patents and two decades of development, realizing an idea that optimizes both performance and efficiency.

The brilliance is hidden deep in the engine. An actuator pivots the extra linkages between the connecting rods and the crankshaft to twerk the pistons a little higher or a little lower, resulting in a compression ratio that varies from 14.0:1 to 8.0:1. The higher ratio improves efficiency while cruising, with the engine calling up the lower ratio when the driver demands power.

Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

There's a reason the parts in an internal-combustion engine tend to be made from solid steel or aluminum: It's awfully violent in there. Modern automakers aren't in the habit of bringing new technology to market without sufficient testing and validation—and certainly not something so core to the function of a vehicle as the engine—but we had to see for ourselves if it would really hold together.

A 2019 QX50 with no options runs $37,675, but we loaded ours with almost every option available. The all-wheel-drive Essential model starts at $46,145 and includes a two-pane sunroof, blind-spot monitoring, leather, navigation, and Infiniti's 360-degree bird's-eye Around View Monitor. We added the $7500 Sensory package (highlighted by heated and cooled front seats, a power tilting and telescoping heated steering wheel, a 16-speaker Bose sound system, a motion-activated hatch, and 20-inch wheels), the $2000 Autograph package (white quilted leather seats, blue fake-suede accents), and $2550 worth of active safety/driver-assistance tech in the ProAssist and ProActive packages. The only thing the factory installs that we didn't order is the towing package. But since the QX50 can pull only 3000 pounds, it wouldn't have been much use to most of us.

The QX50’s cabin impressed us with its exquisite detailing and infuriated us with its maddening infotainment controls.
Marc UrbanoCar and Driver

The 2.0-liter never so much as hiccuped, and neither did anything else on the QX. During the vehicle's 18 months with us, it went in for five scheduled service visits at 7500-mile intervals. Encompassing nothing more than oil and filter changes, brake-fluid flushes, tire rotations, one key-fob-battery replacement, and inspections, these stops tallied $1029.

Our Infiniti hit 60 mph in 6.3 seconds from rest when new. With the CVT dropping revs periodically to mimic an eight-speed automatic, it turned 14.9 seconds at 94 mph in the quarter-mile, solidly midpack for the class. Loosened up after 40,000 miles, things worked a little better. The numbers improved to 6.1 seconds to 60 mph and 14.7 seconds at 96 mph in the quarter-mile.

But the VC-T's role in a particularly nonlinear powertrain is unclear. Neither turbos nor CVTs are known for their linearity; add in the moment-to-moment variability of a changing compression ratio—and the changing boost levels necessary to accommodate it—and the QX's accelerator sometimes felt as though it were attached to a TheraBand looped through a bungee cord tied to a rubber band. Under wide-open throttle, the "gearchanges" are such drawn-out interruptions to the power delivery that we wonder why Infiniti bothered. The VC-T is powerful enough that if you just let the transmission hold the redline for another second or two, you could be going whatever speed you want. Senior editor Rich Ceppos summed up the experience best: "Ask for moderate acceleration around town and the QX50 alternately surges and sags, lunges and lags, like an excited puppy on a leash. It's almost impossible to drive smoothly in city traffic, which is inexcusable for a $60K vehicle—or any vehicle, for that matter."

John RoeCar and Driver

Power isn't necessarily what Nissan engineers were after in designing the VC-T. The efficiency payoff for those decades of research and development and hundreds of patents? Twenty-seven miles per gallon on our 200-mile 75-mph highway loop, not notably better than its myriad competitors that don't have computer-operated links complicating the sacred process of suck, squeeze, bang, blow. The Audi Q5's turbo 2.0-liter, for instance, lags only 1 mpg behind while the BMW X3's stretches to 31 mpg. There's a distinctly Rube Goldbergian element to the VC-T that becomes even stronger given the minimal return. The whole point of a Rube Goldberg machine is to use absurd complexity to accomplish a trivial task. Then again, this is just the first generation of the technology, and the ubiquity of its pursuit suggests that Nissan-Infiniti isn't the only company to see the potential in it. Maybe future iterations will deliver a bigger payoff.

Though handsome and sized just right, the QX50 loses its appeal the more time you spend behind the wheel.

Whereas some Infiniti vehicles—including the previous generation of this one—have been overly flinty, the ride quality here is relaxed but not lazy, absorbing road imperfections while maintaining secure and stable body control. Infiniti's steer-by-wire system, called Direct Adaptive Steering, has no physical connection between the steering wheel and the front tires, and it shows in the system's synthetic indifference to road surface and driving zeal. Scorching your favorite stretch of back road? Ambling along the freeway? Cranking 90 degrees into a parking space? Doesn't matter; there's no feel to any of it. But buyers in this segment likely aren't looking for much steering feel, and the rack is at least quick.

Jeff XuCar and Driver

The reorientation of the interior space in this generation of QX into a more upright, traditional-SUV silhouette pays dividends in both passenger and cargo volume. The second-row seats slide fore and aft to offer anywhere from sufficient to indulgent rear-seat legroom. The QX50's driver-assistance suite is among the best we've encountered, allowing for hours-long slogs with just an occasional tug of the wheel to acknowledge that we're still paying attention. Many lane-centering systems' late and abrupt reactions betray their nearsightedness, but the Infiniti's smoothness suggests it is looking far down the road, anticipating and reacting to curves and traffic without jarring inputs.

We found some things to dislike in Infiniti's application of more familiar technology, though. The dual-screen infotainment setup makes little sense. If just about every other vehicle on the market makes do with one, then Infiniti better have some awfully impressive additional function to need a second. But it doesn't. What it does have are twice as many screen brightnesses and lusters. And then there's the means by which these screens are controlled. There's a knob to manage one of the center screens, which can also be controlled from the steering wheel via the driver's left thumb. The driver's right thumb handles the information screen to the left of that, in the middle of the instrument cluster, while the lower center unit is a touchscreen. Confused? So were we—every time we drove the car. "Right hand controls thing on right, left hand controls thing on left" seems like pretty fundamental user-experience doctrine.

Jeff XuCar and Driver

This sort of thing is particularly frustrating because the parts of the QX that aren't trying so hard are lovely. Infiniti designs can be overwrought, but the QX50 dials the brand's look back. The color and material selections look rich, and the attention to detail is remarkable. The double stitching on the seats and windowsills, for example, is done with one row in silver and one in brown. The band of silver wood trim has its own band of satin-chrome trim and was our favorite touch, although the natural color variations in the open-pore wood meant that we had bluish-silver trim on the doors but a yellowish piece on the dash.

Toward the end of the QX50's tenure, the vehicle began to imagine threats during parking maneuvers, its sensors sounding alarms when there was nothing around the car. It even yanked the steering wheel out of one staffer's hands and wrenched it the other way. Thankfully, she was merely parallel parking, but the thought of the car doing it on the highway is terrifying. Luckily for us, the Infiniti returned to its maker before a repeat performance.

We walk away from the QX50 impressed by the engine's inconspicuousness but underwhelmed by its efficiency and the vehicle surrounding it. By our count, there are about 20 vehicles that could be considered competitors to the QX50. The VC-T is a true one-of-a-kind thing, but even it can't distinguish the Infiniti from the amorphous brawlers in this crowded segment.

Rants and Raves

Looks luxurious, feels luxurious, but the powertrain's jerky behavior totally breaks the luxury spell. —Rich Ceppos

Large enough to haul people and stuff but not too big for city parking and maneuvering about town. I did not enjoy the nonlinear acceleration at all—and neither did my passengers. —Juli Burke

The seats are comfortable. The rest is meh. —Mike Fazioli

A rather attractive and luxurious little ute—comfy, quick enough, and mostly inoffensive. —Mike Sutton

Many aspects of this car are fine, but I would be perfectly happy to never drive it again. —Annie White

I love the design inside and out. It's distinctive and rich, and the cabin materials are well worth the asking price. —Joey Capparella

I appreciate the communication of the ProPilot system. It will say, '"steering unavailable, bad weather,'" or '"can't find lane lines,'" or '"radar sensor blocked,'" whereas many such systems just stop working with no explanation. —Dave VanderWerp

Is the powertrain nonlinear because of the CVT or the VC-T? Or a combination of both? —Eddie Alterman


30,000-Mile Update

Chris Doane AutomotiveCar and Driver

There's something exciting about complicated machines working so flawlessly that they mask their complexities. And there's something equally disappointing about complicated machines so mediocre that nobody cares how they work.

Such is the case of the Infiniti QX50, an attractive but otherwise unassuming mid-size luxury crossover that happens to harbor the most innovative engine to make its way into a production vehicle in about half a century. (Read more in-depth detail on the engine here and here.) As our QX trudges toward its 40,000-mile discharge, logbook notes have stopped marveling at the machine under the hood and begun to coalesce around diffuse nitpicking of its basic daily functions.

Chris Doane AutomotiveCar and Driver

On an intellectual level, we appreciate the VC-T engine—that's Infiniti's shorthand for Variable Compression Turbo—but we're less enthused about it in the real world. The logbook is bloated with complaints about nonlinear power delivery. But is that because of the variable compression ratio, the turbo, or the CVT? And for such a revolutionary—no pun intended—device, the VC-T engine delivers disappointing fuel economy. Its EPA combined estimate of 26 mpg just barely betters the conventionally equipped Audi Q5 and BMW X3, and on our 200-mile, 75-mph highway loop, the X3 bettered the QX's 25 mpg by 6.

Overqualified

Our daily nitpickings are often accompanied with admissions of the package's overall attractiveness and inoffensiveness, but our praise for the QX is inevitably followed by criticism. "The interior is beautiful and luxurious. But the actual driving experience is ungainly."

"Many aspects of this car are fine, but I would be perfectly happy to never drive it again."

"I can see how people could tolerate owning the car. I am just not one of those people."

"The seats are comfortable. The rest is meh."

Chris Doane AutomotiveCar and Driver

After a nearly 1000-mile trip to deposit a kid at college, managing editor Mike Fazioli wrote: "A long road trip in the QX50 is like a bad relationship. You only remember the bad things." The bad things he remembered: lazy power delivery, wind noise, poor fuel economy, and an obtuse infotainment system. Other staffers have had trouble with the parking sensors imagining obstacles that aren't there—even when the car is stationary with nothing moving around it—and one had the steering wheel yank itself out of her hands while she was parallel parking. That last one is especially surprising given the self-driving function's otherwise exemplary behavior. It is one of the rare such systems that seems to be looking far enough down the road to drive with an anticipatory human smoothness.

Maintenance, Man

The issue isn't frequent enough to have the dealer check it out just yet. Our only visits so far have been for regular maintenance: four oil changes/tire rotations with assorted filter and fluid changes totaling $857. It's a little steep, but within reason for a luxury vehicle.

As the home stretch approaches, that's the conundrum of the QX50. The modern marvel that is the VC-T capably mimics just another engine; but the vehicle it's in feels like it's mimicking any old crossover, too.

Months in Fleet: 19 months Current Mileage: 35,169 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 22 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 16.0 gal Observed Fuel Range: 350 miles
Service: $857 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0


20,000-Mile Update

Chris Doane AutomotiveCar and Driver

Infiniti didn't just refresh or redesign its QX50 crossover for 2019, it completely reimagined the vehicle. The QX50 went from a rear-wheel-drive architecture powered by a V-6 to a front-driver powered by an inline-four. The previous seven-speed automatic disappeared, replaced by a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). And that four-cylinder itself is a whole lot of new, a turbocharged 2.0-liter boasting the industry's first variable compression ratio, enabled by a link between the crankshaft and connecting rod that effectively changes the length of the engine's stroke on the fly.

We were curious how such a device could last inside the box full of explosions that is an internal-combustion engine. Reliability, it turns out, may not be as much of an issue as refinement. Our Infiniti's only visits to the dealer have been for scheduled services and oil changes, three of which have now tallied $581. And the lack of refinement might not be the fault of the complicated new engine design. Modern turbochargers are vastly improved, but the devices don't have the best reputation for smoothness in terms of power delivery. Ditto CVTs, which can stumble over their own fussiness and undermine the very linearity that ought to be their greatest strength. Add to this complex equation the variability of an engine trying to match its compression ratio to the needs of the engine at any given moment, and you have a powertrain that always feels rubber bandy.

Chris Doane AutomotiveCar and Driver

Senior features editor Rich Ceppos wrote in the Infiniti's logbook, "Ask for moderate acceleration around town and the QX50 alternately surges and sags, lunges and lags, like an excited puppy on a leash. It's almost impossible to drive smoothly in city traffic, which is inexcusable for a $60K vehicle—or any vehicle, actually." Senior editor Eric Tingwall was more succinct, calling the power delivery "abominable." The sponginess of the Infiniti's mechanics are reflected in its soft brake pedal and light steering. Dynamically, the QX50 is pure soft-core.

Outside of its complicated powertrain, the QX's technologies are far better integrated. Infiniti's self-driving suite as deployed here is one of the best in the business. It won't change lanes with the tap of a blinker like a Tesla will, but it follows the road and keeps itself centered in the lane far more smoothly than most. Whereas many such systems give the effect of being operated by a student driver—or a drunk one—Infiniti's is one of the rare systems that steer as capably as a competent human. The QX50 likely has had more highway miles put on it than any other car in our long-term fleet.

Chris Doane AutomotiveCar and Driver

We're also still fawning over its styling. The upright stance of this generation not only gives it more natural proportions than the odd, lifted-wagon look of its predecessor, it also makes for vastly greater interior space, particularly in the rear seat. And while the look of that interior is understated compared with some past Infiniti designs, we think it's toned down to a pleasant degree. The attention to detail is on par with vehicles costing many times as much. The lovely silver-finish wood on the dash and doors is trimmed with a satin-chrome trim strip with a nicely muted sheen. Seams between leather panels of different colors on the door panels and seats are set off by two rows of contrast stitching. And, in a world where black is increasingly the only interior shade, a brown headliner imparts a seriously premium feel.

Some drivers have complained that our blue-suede trim seems to attract dust and crumbs and always looks dirty, but if beauty is pain, that's an awfully minor injury. Besides, the powertrain's behavior is a far bigger problem.

Months in Fleet: 13 months Current Mileage: 25,182 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 22 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 16.0 gal Observed Fuel Range: 350 miles
Service: $581 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0


10,000-Mile Update

Chris Doane AutomotiveCar and Driver

The Infiniti QX50 is a lovely thing from inside or out, but particularly the former. As the miles add up, we're only appreciating the compact crossover's design more and more. The amount of interior space, too, is proving to be excellent for front and rear passengers alike, as well as for cargo. The quiet cabin and smooth highway ride make the QX50 a popular road-trip shuttle, having been enlisted for a half dozen pilgrimages to northern Michigan, a pair of jaunts into the deeper reaches of Ohio, and a journey to Washington, D.C. It's also popular among staffers with inhumane daily commutes.

On the highway is where the QX50 is easiest to like. In addition to the usual struggles with response that a turbocharged engine paired with a CVT face, the QX's computers also have to account for the new variable-compression-ratio inline-four. The result is a surging power delivery at partial throttle that can have drivers feeling like they're playing leapfrog. And for all the technical wizardry of the engine, our observed fuel economy of 21 mpg is disappointingly average (and well below the vehicle's 26-mpg EPA combined estimate). Then again, this is the first generation of this tech, and we're confident that future developments will net greater gains.

Chris Doane AutomotiveCar and Driver

Our other major complaint centers on Infiniti's dual-screen infotainment system, which draws enough criticism to offset many of the positive vibes the rest of the QX50's interior generates. In addition to the screens' different resolutions, fonts, and sheens, there's the fact that the driver's left thumb rests on the steering-wheel controls for the center screen, and the right thumb controls the instrument cluster. It's a confusing control crossover (right hand in charge of left thing, left hand in charge of right thing), while a central console-mounted knob controls the other center screen. Sigh.

But we've experienced no real problems or headaches with the car or its advanced powertrain. A pair of services at intervals of roughly 7500 miles have each included an oil change and tire rotation and totaled $431, with a new cabin air filter and a brake-fluid flush jacking up the cost of the more recent visit.

Months in Fleet: 8 months Current Mileage: 15,164 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 21 mpg
Fuel-Tank Size: 16.0 gal Observed Fuel Range: 330 miles
Service: $431 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0


Introduction

Jeff XuCar and Driver

The addition of a computer-controlled linkage between the crankshaft and the connecting rods makes the Infiniti QX50's VC-T 2.0-liter inline-four the first mass-production engine capable of varying its compression ratio. Not since the dawn of the automobile has anyone messed with anything so fundamental to the suck, squeeze, bang, and blow cycle of the internal-combustion engine. We needed to see if this hugely complex device can deliver its promised fuel-economy boost and also if its electronically controlled linkage can survive our leaden hooves.

In its base Pure trim, the QX50 starts at $37,545. The major additions to the $40,395 mid-level Luxe trim are a massive sunroof that spans two rows of seats and a blind-spot warning system. Our QX50 is the top-of-the-line Essential model, which comes with leather seats, navigation, and the bird's-eye Around View Monitor. All-wheel drive is $1800 on all trim levels, bringing our base price to $46,145. The $7500 Sensory package includes heating and cooling for the front seats, 20-inch wheels, a motion-activated hatch, a power-tilting and -telescoping steering wheel, and a 16-speaker Bose audio system. White leather with Blue Ultrasuede accents adds $2000, and a pair of packages totaling $2550 outfits our QX50 with nearly every active-safety technology shy of photon torpedoes. Add welcome lighting and illuminated sill plates and the total rises to $59,085.

Ultrasuede Blues

Opinions are divided on the color combination—we've previously driven a QX50 with brown where our long-termer has blue—but everyone agrees that the QX50's interior is beautiful. Interior design often has been one of Infiniti's strengths, and some of us consider this to be the brand's best yet. It's more restrained than some past efforts, dialed back to perfection, and the material pairings and attention to detail are outstanding. A band of silver wood divides the dashboard horizontally and is complemented by a satin-chrome lip, and the double stitching along the windowsills and seats sports one row of silver stitching and one of brown. Even the brown headliner and pillar trim looks rich, a welcome change from the default black in pretty much every vehicle on the road.

Jeff XuCar and Driver

Infiniti's two-tier infotainment system has already galvanized the critics, however. In theory, maybe you want to look at a navigation screen and something else from time to time, but how often does that really happen? And the mismatched fonts, resolutions, and even screen sheens between the two displays are jarring.

At the track for its first visit, the QX50 hit 60 mph in 6.4 seconds on its way to a 15.0-second quarter-mile, clearing the traps at 94 mph. That's par for the compact-luxury-SUV class. Same goes for its 0.84 g of skidpad grip and the 173 feet it needed to stop from 70 mph. That's fine, because from a performance perspective, this is one of the most homogenous classes in the market. But there's nothing at all commonplace about the engine that motivates the QX50. We're excited to see how this goes.

Months in Fleet: 3 months Current Mileage: 5113 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 21 mpg
Fuel Tank Size 16.0 gal Observed Fuel Range: 330 miles
Service: $0 Normal Wear: $0 Repair: $0

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