You have your reasons. Gas prices might be high and headed higher, and car-based crossovers handle better, but you want your full-sized, full-lux, body-on-frame conventional SUV. GM and Ford, the segment’s traditional rulers, have had nothing new to offer in five years. But Infiniti has as much faith in the segment’s continued vitality as you do—why else would they have introduced an all-new QX56 for the 2011 model year?
With voluptuously rounded fenders and tight proportions, the QX56 adopts Infiniti’s current design language and appears smaller than it actually is (six inches longer and an inch wider than a Cadillac Escalade). And yet with a huge grille leading a domed hood that rises far above the headlamp clusters the SUV also has the powerful presence expected from this sort of vehicle. I personally find the new QX56’s exterior a major improvement over the previous one, far more attractive than the Lexus LX 570 (not a high hurdle to clear), more tasteful than the excessively chromed but otherwise excessively pedestrian Lincoln Navigator, and more current than the Cadillac Escalade. Still, I can see how some people might perceive the QX56’s exterior as bulbous and prefer the crisper lines of a Cadillac Escalade or Mercedes GL. And the Range Rover’s exterior is a classic that will never go out of style.
Opinions of the QX56’s interior should be less mixed. Like the exterior, it is fully up-to-date in a way that those of its closest competitors are not. Sweeping curves continue into the SUV’s cabin, which between its sensual styling and premium wood and leather is a very nice place to be. The door panels (including the door pulls) and the center console are luxuriously upholstered. Unlike in the Lincoln or Cadillac, there’s no sense of any pickup origins. One issue: sunlight sometimes reflects annoyingly off the chrome trim around the shifter. Among other things, this makes it hard to view the position of the small seat heating-and-cooling knobs buried at the base of the center stack. Hint: if you start feeling uncomfortably warm, the seat heater is on.
Any lingering doubts that the QX56 is a conventional SUV fall away with the considerable climb into the driver seat—the step-in height is nearly two feet. Shorter adults will be thankful for the standard running boards, though even these are well off the ground (fixed, in place, they don’t power down like those on domestic competitors). Once up there, the view over the hood is commanding. Huge mirrors aid rearward visibility. The standard “Around View Monitor” provides a top-down view of the entire perimeter of the vehicle, making it much easier, even fun, to maneuver in tight spaces. Once you try it, you’ll wish your car had it.
The QX56’s large front bucket seats feel very comfortable at first. As the miles accumulate, the cushions don’t seem as cosseting, but still better than most. The second row, which reclines, is notably roomy and comfortable. The third row, despite the packaging advantages of an independent rear suspension (IRS), is not. The seat’s very low to the floor, and there’s hardly more room back there than in a live-axled LX 570 or Escalade. Consider it kids-only for all but short stints.
Cargo volume similarly fails to receive an IRS refund. With just 16.6 cubic feet behind the third row and 95.1 with both rows folded to form a flat but upward-sloping floor, the figures are very conventional SUV. You can stuff another twenty cubes above the lower floor of a Buick Enclave crossover. The third-row seat power folds, but operates so slowly—and you must keep your finger on the button the whole time—that a manual seat would be preferable.
Though a foot longer than the Lexus, the Infiniti weighs about 150 pounds less—which still leaves 5,850. No matter, the 400-horsepower 5.6-liter VVT DOHC V8 backed by a manually-shiftable seven-speed automatic is well up to the task. Infiniti’s V8 might lack the character of Cadillac’s, but is nevertheless easy on the ears. Unlike with the Lexus, all-wheel-drive with a two-speed transfer case isn’t standard, but no doubt most QX56s will be ordered with it. Fuel economy about the burbs might top 14 MPG if you go easy on the gas. Towing capacity: 8,500 lbs. There are some benefits to a conventional SUV.
Handling isn’t one of them. While the QX56 certainly handles with much more balance and composure than the Lexus or Lincoln, its chassis is not as entertaining as the Cadillac’s (though it might post better numbers) and is most definitely an outlier in the Infiniti showroom. The QX56’s steering and handling aren’t nearly as tight or precise as those of an FX50, much less Infinitis that check in well south of 4,500 pounds. Even with the Deluxe Touring Package’s hydraulically cross-linked shocks there’s a fair amount of lean in hard turns. Typical of large SUVs (though the Cadillac does better), the QX56 bobbles and shudders a bit over uneven pavement. It feels every bit as large and heavy as it is.
Equipped with AWD and the Deluxe Touring Package (which requires the dual screen entertainment system), the QX56 lists for an even $71,000. While certainly not cheap, a similarly outfitted LX 570 lists for $14,360 more. Adjusting for the Lexus’s additional features using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool and comparing invoice prices (Lexus dealers enjoy broader margins) only reduces this difference by half. Compared to the Cadillac Escalade the Infiniti’s advantage is over $14,000 even after such adjustments. The Lincoln Navigator is a little less expensive than the Infiniti, but there’s a reason for this.
Stylish curves and Infiniti brand notwithstanding, the QX56 remains very much a large conventional SUV. If you’re into cars, it’s not going to change your mind about the class even if it does perform somewhat better than others. But if you want a large conventional SUV, the Infiniti seems the one to get, offering the most up-to-date styling, an outstanding interior, a powerful V8, and competent handling at a relatively low price.
Bill French of Suburban Infiniti in Novi, MI, provided the vehicle. He can be reached at 248-427-4712.
Michael Karesh operatesTrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.