It looks as if crossovers are here to stay for the foreseeable future, but don’t kill off the giant SUVs that still roam America’s heartland, suburban manicured neighborhoods and strip malls just yet. Yes, gas prices are as high as the day is long, but we still have a tough time releasing our death grip from the family buses that were ubiquitous just a few short years ago. This new 2011 Infiniti QX56 is a ground up redesign, unlike the previous generation, in that it’s wholly original. The 2010 version used the Nissan Armada as the platform, essentially adding luxury features to it, upping the power and slapping on the Infiniti badge. Well, the difference between that version and the 2011 model is night and day.

We spent a few weeks behind the wheel of this roadgoing behemoth and here are our (big) impressions.

First Impressions

There are still plenty of luxo-SUVs out there, but you’ll easily pick out the new 2011 Infiniti QX56 in a crowd. It looks like nothing else on the road (or off, for that matter). The first thing you see is big. There’s no question that the QX56 is imposing. The grille, first of all, could probably accommodate a couple of dozen Porterhouse steaks if properly heated. The fascia, though somewhat disjointed, actually works for a vehicle of this size. It actually has quite a bit of character with the curvaceous hood and the contoured triple-lens xenon headlights. Though the all-too-popular front-quarter panel vents could’ve been a turnoff (since most of them are decorative rather than also being functional), the ones on the QX56 are not completely offensive and actually work, meaning they are not just slap-on adhesives. The elephant ear side mirrors are attractive and purposeful and are just the right size for this vehicle. The fact that they are power retractable should provide a bit more insurance that they won’t get nailed by an unwitting cyclist.

Though the profile isn’t what you’d call sleek, the visual size is certainly diminished by the absence of hard lines and slab-sided doors that could make the QX56 look more like a warehouse than a high-end SUV. The third window, just before the D-pillar has a nice upward slope that deviates from the norm and adds a more streamlined appearance. Finally, to the rear of the QX56, you’ll find the now common protruding taillights found on many vehicles today. The shape mirrors the headlights and the LEDs are bright, ample and appropriate for a car at this price point. The power liftgate is an expected feature here, as well, and does not disappoint.

The first thing you see is big. There’s no question that the QX56 is imposing. The grille, first of all, could probably accommodate a couple of dozen Porterhouse steaks if properly heated.

A Step Inside

Now for the interior. First of all, stepping into this land barge proved interesting. The running boards are not quite deep enough to get a proper foothold, but they are adequate. Stepping out involved a small amount of fancy footwork, as well. You forget about all of this as soon as your butt hits the butter-soft leather and you view the massive expanse that is the interior. Infiniti calls it the “Jet Executive” and it’s probably only missing actual piloting controls and attractive flight attendants. Yes, it’s that posh. Wood and leather span the entire layout, and it looks the part. Our cream leather tester was nothing short of opulent without being tacky. The burl wood trim shiny without appearing too plasticky and the quality of the leather was excellent.

Initially, the heated steering wheel seemed a bit over the top but the brutal Chicago winter showed me otherwise. The large seats are very comfortable and provide good support and very good ventilation and heating via the perforated leather. The second row seats provide ample legroom and my passengers remarked at how comfortable they were. The third row is also not a terrible place to be and was decently comfortable, even for a 6 footer. The entire interior is as comfortable and room as one could hope for in this class and at this price range. The Sultan of Brunei would not be terribly disappointed if he and his security team were outfitted with a bevy of these Infinitis.

What The Tech

The 8-inch touchscreen display made navigation screen clear, legible and easy to use. The Infiniti is also loaded to the gills with AV tech, including a Bose® 13-speaker Premium Audio system with 2 subwoofers, in dash CD/DVD player with MP3 playback capability, speed-sensitive volume control, 9.3GB Music Box® hard drive, Bluetooth audio streaming capability, USB connection port for iPod and MP3 players, XM Satellite Radio, auxiliary audio/video input jacks and steering wheel mounted audio controls. Last but not least, there’s the convenient Zagat Restaurant reviews and location finder, in case you didn’t store enough emergency rations in the cavernous interior or place a drink in every one of the 9 cupholders. DVD screens are tastefully recessed in the front headrests for the pleasure of your impatient kids in back. They can watch what you play from the front or hook up a gaming system or their own portable players so they can completely fail to listen to your every command.

The Drive

Starting up the QX56 is simple. The Infiniti Intelligent Key allows you to use the pushbutton start, as long as you have the key fairly close. Press the brake pedal, push the button and the beast roars to life with a nice blip of the tach and speedo needles across the range just to show you there was some amount of excess to this SUV, in case you hadn’t already noticed. Now for the all important question, “How does it drive?” SUVs are not exactly known for handling and steering feel. For its quite remarkable size, you’d be surprised by the QX56.

As you may have guessed, it’s a weighty ox of a car, but with a 5.6 liter DOHC with 400 horsepower V8 and 413 pound feet of torque that has a towing capacity of 8,500 pounds, it is surprisingly fast. For example, the QX56 held steady behind a compact car languishing in the left passing lane. After a healthy application of foot to accelerator pedal, the QX56 hurtled forward like a B-29 Superfortress, powerful and massive. The 400 horses were in full sprint. It hurtled around and past the microcar with astounding speed and supplied a good dose of ear-to-ear grinning, in spite of the fact that this exercise had just used four gallons of gas. The steering is also quite good. So, it’s no Lotus Exige, but that isn’t what you expect with something this large. It’s akin to Refrigerator Perry in track spikes–alarmingly fast and frighteningly large but hangs on in the turns.

In fact, you’d be surprised at how wide the QX56 is when you parallel park it (thank God for the rear and side cameras, as well as the park assist), so when you actually take the wheel and expect it to handle like a meat-locker on wheels, you’re taken aback. Turning corners on a crowded city street is no problem thanks to the Hydraulic Body Motion Control package and the speed-sensitive steering. Driving dynamics are enhanced by the Adaptive Shift Control (ASC), which employs a learning algorithm that adjusts itself based on your driving habits and even rev-matches during downshifts. No more annoying gear-hunting, and the attempt truly pays off.

With all of this luxury, power and space comes a rather large price tag of over $60K when priced with all the doo-dads. Combine that with gas mileage equivalent to a space shuttle mobile launch pad and you’ve got some expenses ahead of you. But if you need to haul people and gear in style and you have no concerns over funds or the general public for that matter (I horrified a bunch of hippies in the Whole Foods parking lot), then this is your vehicle of choice. It is living large, on more than one level.

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