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Infiniti On the
Upswing, Finally (12/29/2003)
Asian automaker finally finding a niche after a decade of wandering.
I survived the Hana Highway; so says the T-shirt I bought at the end of the 40-mile ribbon of asphalt that zigs and zags its way along the northeast coast of Maui.
2004 Infiniti QX56Enlarge Photo
Highway is a generous term. The road to Hana offers a series of breathtaking vistas, but you may be more tempted to hold your breath most of the way. The Hana Highway is narrow, at best, with blind turns, sheer cliffs, and 77 one-lane bridges to test both your courage and driving skills — especially when a local blows by at speed just short of suicidal.
Among the many highways we auto writers experience over the course of a career, this is definitely the road less traveled. But it was the one chosen by Infiniti when it came time to roll out the all-new QX56 sport-utility vehicle.
The ’04 SUV replaces the old QX4 which, to be charitable, was not the strongest entry in the full-size luxury ute segment. It was slow, ponderous and boasted styling that was quite forgettable.
You aren’t likely to forget the QX56. Love it or hate it, it’s definitely distinctive. And bigger. A lot bigger. The new ute measures 206.9 inches nose-to-tail, with a 123.2-inch wheelbase. It’s about 80 inches wide at the molding, and almost as tall. There’s plenty of room for either seven or eight, depending on the seating package you order. And with a rated towing capacity of 8900 pounds, the QX sits at the top of the charts.
Not surprisingly, the corporate mantra is “massive precision.” There are several ways to measure whether Infiniti lived up to that target.
On the road, the new QX56 is certainly a better driving machine than the old QX4. The new 5.6-liter V-8 churns out a solid 315 horsepower. It also makes 390 pound-feet of torque, the real number of note when you’re talking about towing and lugging. With its five-speed automatic, the ute is reasonably quick, with a reassuring roar when you tip down on the throttle.
Steering is reasonably precise, especially when you consider the sheer size and weight of this cruiser. The four-wheel independent suspension sucked up most of the bumps on the Hana Highway and the even rougher and largely unpaved southern coastal road. Yet on the main roads of central Maui, where we could build up some speed, the QX56 was surprisingly fleet on its feet, almost nimble, if you can use such as word for a 5631-pound truck (5360 pounds in two-wheel-drive trim).
Perhaps that’s not so surprising. The new SUV is, to be blunt, a well-dressed version of the Nissan division’s new Pathfinder Armada SUV. And both share much of their DNA with Nissan’s first-ever full-size pickup, the Titan. Most notably, that includes a fully boxed ladder frame.
Despite the rear IRS, the QX provides a generous 11 inches of ground clearance. We didn’t have the chance to see how it would handle true off-road trails, though it never came close to losing its grip on the unpaved southern route around Maui. Give credit to the 4WD package our test vehicle came with, its center differential permitting torque to be shifted wherever and whenever needed.
A controversial design
The huge, waterfall grille is designed to reinforce that sense of massive precision, as are the QX’s broad shoulders and large headlamps. Intimidating is another way to put it. The overall design theme is a bit controversial, though. The upper cut line of the doors gives the QX56 an almost coupe-like curve. But where that flows into the sharp-angled third-row window, it almost looks like the ute has developed a bit of a sag.
“This vehicle is polarizing,” is how chief product specialist Larry Dominique prefers to put things.
The interior certainly lives up to the word, massive. Mammoth may be more like it, especially when you fold down the rear two rows, creating a flat load floor. (But unlike some new minivans, the seats do not actually fold away into a stowage well.) The ute has an interior volume of 188.4 cubic feet and 61.2 cf of cargo space.
The look is a good bit more refined than the Armada, though as with many recent entries from Infiniti, the automaker needs to upgrade its choice of materials a bit more. Kudos for the “Sojourner” leather, aluminum accents and real wood trim, but there’s still a bit too much plastic staring you in the face. Gauges are well-placed and easy to read, controls readily accessible and simple to operate.
As noted earlier, there are two seating packages available. The standard configuration includes twin second-row captain’s chairs. But if you need room for eight, you can opt for a second-row bench. The third row sits theater-style, three inches higher for extra legroom and great visibility.
What price comfort?
With a price tag running around $50,000, you have a right to expect a lot from the QX56, especially when it comes to creature comforts.
2004 Infiniti QX56Enlarge Photo
In terms of wind and road noise, the QX56 is surprisingly quiet — though not quite the silent cruiser of the big Lexus LX470. Infiniti put plenty of extra acoustic insulation in its new SUV, one of the more noteworthy differences from the mainstream Armada.
You won’t have to spend a lot of time debating which options to order for the QX56. There aren’t many to choose from. Standard features start with the signature Infiniti analog clock and include dual-zone digital climate control, a DVD-based navigation system with a huge seven-inch screen, and a ten-speaker Bose auto system with six-CD changer.
One of the few options is the rear DVD entertainment system. You also can add satellite radio, intelligent cruise control, and a rearview video monitor — not a bad idea when you’re struggling to parallel park this big bomber on a crowded street.
Driving along Maui’s narrow roads, the QX56 dwarfed mid-size utes like the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder — and left us wondering just how much of a market there is for something this big. Actually, it’s the same question we’ve been asking since Lincoln rolled out its first-generation Navigator and quickly exceeded all sales forecasts. The full-size luxury SUV market seems to defy all the naysayers, especially whenever new product hits market.
Infiniti’s betting it can attract 15,000 “accomplished” customers, the type of folks that marketing manager Ed Baldwin says “want everything.” They’ll certainly get a lot with the QX56: an intimidating road presence with plenty of power, space, and creature comforts. The other appeal for Infiniti is impeccable customer service. The automaker recently placed first in the oft-quoted J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction Index.
For those who want it all, the QX56 deserves a place on the shopping list.
Base price:$50,000 (preliminary est.)
Engine: 5.6-liter 32-valve V-8, 310 hp/390 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic; two- or four-wheel-drive
Length by width by height: 206.9 x 78.8 x 77.8 (4x2) or 78.7 (4x4) inches (width to molding is 79.5 in)
Wheelbase: 123.2 in
Curb weight: 5360 (4x2) 5,631 (4x4) lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 13/19 (4x2) 13/18 (4x4)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags for front seat, three-row head curtain, auto-dim rear mirror, seat belt pretensioners, anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist and Electronic Brake Force Distribution
Major standard equipment: DVD-navigation system with seven-inch screen, 10-speaker Bose audio with six-CD changer, dual-zone digital climate control with rear AC power doors and windows, cruise control, keyless entry, security system with vehicle immobilizer, tire-pressure warning system, 18-inch wheels
Warranty: Four years/60,000 miles (basic), six years/70,000 miles (powertrain); lifetime (anti-corrosion)