Infiniti Q50S Hybrid: Japanese Jack of all trades, master of none?

Infiniti hasn’t built very many cars, but with the new Q50S Hybrid it has tried its hand at a frugal yet tremendously quick driver’s car boasting refinement and desirable aesthetics, all propelled along by a highly complex hybrid powertrain. Regardless of the end result, you can’t fault Nissan’s luxury division for unbridled ambition.

Infiniti will sell you the Q50 with a number of different engines and trim levels, but it’s the hybrid model that sits at the apex of the range. The ‘performance hybrid’ niche that perfectly describes the car may seem oxymoronic, but there’s no shortage of competition. Not only do BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer hybrid versions of the 3 Series and C-Class respectively, but there’s also a glut of similarly powerful gasoline and clean diesel (an oxymoron if ever there was one) sedans that are, by-and-large, less expensive.

It means that to stand of chance of parting drivers unfamiliar with the brand from their cash, Infiniti’s Q50S Hybrid needs to deliver it myriad promises. So does it?

Your personal Bullet train

As Infiniti has put a strong emphasis on performance rather than fuel economy for this particular model, that’s a good place to start.

Power is king in the Q50, and a 3.5-liter V6 mated to a compact electric motor housed inside the slick seven-speed automatic transmission develops a healthy 360hp at full chat, which is more than any rival.

Even equipped with the wider 19-inch alloys wheels that are standard on the hybrid model, this kind of power means that traction can be broken on a whim. With the electronic traction control left on, however, the Q50S Hybrid can be massaged to 60mph in 5.1 seconds – faster than a Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid can manage, even with its one seat fewer and massive torque from a more powerful electric motor. This, along with a top speed limited to 155mph, makes the Infiniti as fast as an executive sedan has any right to be.

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Headline-grabbing the numbers may be, but horsepower is only half the story. The 214lb ft of torque from the electric motor that gives the Q50S Hybrid its most desirable characteristic of seemingly instant throttle response. Accelerate hard and combustion engines usually have to reach a certain speed before they hit their stride and the power floods out of them. This is still the case with the Infiniti, but the gap in power delivery is conveniently filled by torque from the electric motor. This phenomenon is inspiringly known as ‘torque-fill’, and it means overtaking, pulling out of junctions at last minute, and anything else you probably shouldn’t be doing is ludicrously easy. It’s also a lot of fun.

The fun doesn’t last long, sadly, at least if you’re more taken by the nuances of a car’s handling than by brute force alone. Infiniti has introduced steer-by-wire to this model ­– a technology borrowed from aviation and a first on a production road car ­– and with it comes a conundrum.

Enthusiasts won’t appreciate the artificial weight of the steering and the complete lack of feedback from the road, made absent by the absence of a mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the front axle. In union with the very-springy-at-first-but-soon-amenable feel of the Q50’s regenerative brakes, any real sporting pretence flies out of the window.

If you’d rather not deal with bump-steer, adverse cambers, and anything else that could potentially jolt the steering wheel, however, then steer-by-wire is a breath of fresh air. The car simply goes where you tell it go, instantly, and in beautifully smooth fashion. Few cars are easier to drive quickly.

Have no doubt that the Infiniti Q50S is fast enough to deliver thrills, but ultimately the small things mean it’s not as fun to drive as even the slightly larger Mercedes E400 Hybrid. That said, we can’t think of many better cars for nailing 300 miles of highway driving in a single go.

An inherently sensible car?

Thirst is the other side of the coin. What hope does a 360hp sedan burdened with oodles of technology and leather – not to mention the weight of expectation – have of returning a half-decent real-world fuel economy?

Not a huge amount, but more than you might initially credit it for. The electric portion of the powertrain is well executed and effective, and during a 200-mile test route that included highway and urban driving, with occasional throttle-wide-open overtaking of slower traffic on the road, the hybrid Q50 averaged 34mpg. Yes, we were surprised by that, too.

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It’s possible then to better the Environmental Protection Agency’s 30mpg combined rating for the Infiniti by playing to its strengths. Doing this doesn’t mean arriving everywhere late and frustrated, however, because while the 67hp electric motor has enough about it to power the Q50 alone for a couple of miles, it’s best used in conjunction with the ‘decoupling’ feature. Take your foot off the throttle and unless you’re in ‘sport’ mode the transmission will quickly disengage from the engine before the prehistoric V6 is shut down altogether. Judge the road ahead carefully and it’s possible to drive for miles without using the engine yet maintaining a decent speed with short bursts of power from the electric motor.

Like almost all hybrids the Infiniti has a selectable ‘eco’ mode that blunts throttle response, improving fuel economy, we’re told, by between 5 and 10 percent. That tallies with a 44mpg return after a 40-mile stint in the setting, but the altered mapping sucks the life out of the car. Drive sensibly in ‘standard’ mode and you’ll manage only slightly worse fuel economy at the cost of retaining your sanity. When the engine is running the car recharges its 1.4kWh lithium-ion battery pack very quickly.

Pay less, get more

Where the Q50S Hybrid really convinces is on the spec-sheet. The ‘S’ model tested here is $2,400 dearer than the entry-level Q50 Hybrid Premium but comes loaded. The five-spoke alloy wheels are shod with run-flat tyres (that, mercifully, don’t impinge on ride quality) and the rest of the car is tastefully adorned with LED lights. It’s not the most cultured design, with perhaps one one two too many creases and curves for Western tastes, but the passive aggressive result is head-turning enough to justify the price tag.

Inside, two large touchscreen displays dominate a cabin boasting a herds-worth of leather and high quality plastics. Graphs and dials pertaining to historic and current fuel economy, as well as where the car is deploying power between the engine and the electric motor in real-time, are ubiquitous and slick.

Prospective owners will need to ask themselves whether they need the Deluxe Technology Package. At $5,000 it pushes the Q50S Hybrid’s price tag the wrong side of $50,000, but includes the full arsenal of safety technology, including Active Lane Control, adaptive cruise control, and emergency braking for situations when the driver doesn’t react in time. With all systems turned on barely a mile goes by without the car bleeping or an orange light blinking, which quickly becomes tiresome, yet the covert safety net they collectively give the car is perfectly in keeping with its crushing but dispassionate performance. The car like a cyborg, inteliigently doing everything you ask of it well and without hesitation, yet with no flare.

Even without the Deluxe Technology Package, the Infiniti features a lot of kit for the price and you’ll still get a 14-speaker BOSE sound system, crystal-clear satellite radio, and Active Noise Control, which identifies the engine’s rough tones and neutralises them with a cancelling frequency. By comparison, an equivalent Harman Kardon system in the BMW ActiveHybrid 3 costs $875 while active cruise control alone is $1,200.

We can’t yet speak for the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but in terms of ride quality and sound insulation the Q50S Hybrid is a match for the BMW 3 Series and any of the other junior sedans. One major drawback of the hybrid Q50, however, is its diminutive trunk. The battery eats up so much space it’s untrue, even in comparison with other hybrid sedans, and undermines its otherwise convincing appeal as a high-powered tourer.

Should I buy one?

If performance and comfort are your bag we’d recommend that at the very least you call your local Infiniti dealer and take a test drive. From the way owners talk about the hybrid version you’d think they would rather walk than put up with the comparatively lazy performance of the solely gasoline-powered Q50. The point-and-squirt nature of the Q50S Hybrid is mildly addictive, it must be said.

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If you’re after a hybrid because of the benefits in fuel economy, however, then look elsewhere.  The Lexus ES 300h is the obvious rival. Like the Infiniti it has a head-turning design and comes with heaps of kit, but sacrifices in performance (200hp, sluggish transmission) are compensated by excellent fuel economy (40mpg combined). Further down the food-chain the Ford Fusion Hybrid may seem like an odd comparison, but it’s far from slow, also exhibits a sharp design, and returns 47mpg combined, not to mention costing $14,000 less that the Q50S Hybrid even in top-spec trim.

It all leaves the Q50 in a strange place; not frugal enough by far to attract hyper-milers yet not quite involving enough to tempt those who would otherwise gravitate towards a BMW ActiveHybrid 3. Those who surrender to its curiously sophisticated blend of conscientious muscle, however, won’t have many regrets. It’s a quality product that comes up short only against the very best.

Posted by Richard Lane

Richard is a London-based automotive journalist specialising in future mobility and sustainable design. Having fallen for cars because of the virtues of a particular German flat-six, it's what we'll all be driving next that now interests Richard most. Dream garage: Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior and a Detroit Electric SP:01.

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