It’s crowded out here for an entry-level luxury sedan. The BMW 3 Series is a very good car. Same with the Mercedes Benz C-Class and the Audi A4. The Cadillac ATS and Lexus IS are solid, too. The folks at Infiniti must be aware—because their mid-cycle update for the Q50 looks less like a refresh and more like a reinvention, with three all-new engines (including a hulking 400hp, 3.0L V6, which I drove) and razor-sharp retooled Direct Adaptive Steering.
What a difference some power makes. If previous model years of this car were an ensemble playing loosely in time, the 2016 edition is like Toscanini showing up to orchestra practice. The new engine, the updated handling, the retooled dynamic chassis are all working in brilliant concert on the Q50 Red Sport, harmonizing in time over asphalt, magnifying each other’s strengths. The car is flush with power and frighteningly subtle in its leap up to triple digits. It’s a gentleman on the highway, docile and obedient, with a bevy of semi-autonomous features like lane and distance control assist. But it’s a barbarian on the autocross track, surging out to speed with its ample horsepower and 350 lb-feet of torque. But while the Q50’s power is hardly up for the debate, its steer-by-wire setup could prove to be divisive.
Engine: Twin-Turbocharged V6
Transmission: Seven-speed Automatic
Horsepower: 400 horsepower
Torque: 350 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds (est.)
MPG: 21/29 (est.), city/highway
MSRP: $48,000 (as tested)
As an auto journalist, it is my moral duty to complain about this all-electric steering, to decry its lack of feel, to declare it inauthentic and belittle it for being an algorithm of steering rather than actual steering—which, technically speaking, is true. In the Infiniti Q50 Red Sport, there is nothing connected to the steering column. Your hands on the wheel are merely giving inputs and outputs to a computerized formula that makes the wheels move. But really, I have nothing but praise. The steering is subtle, vital, and effective — an engineering hallmark in a car that certainly needed a differentiator. The retooled steer-by-wire in the 2016 model makes the car an absolute pleasure to drive. Hydraulic steering is dependable, it’s true, it’s real — but it’s not the only way.
Yuwun Chai, the engineer who dedicated the past 15 years of his life to developing and tuning Infiniti’s Direct Adaptive Steering makes it clear the lengths to which his team went to make the steer-by-wire feel legitimate. “When someone feels unconsciously what you have designed consciously,” Chai says. “You’ve done it.” Chai wanted the update steering to remove a burden from the driver, but never feel fake. “If we do too much, it will become a Playstation,” he told me as we were gazing over the Infiniti Q50 Red Sport in between laps on the track. “But if we go too conventional, it will end up like all other steering systems.”
Chai studiously drove cars from the competition — BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Cadillac, and Audi — with a special eye turned to the handling. He and his team also examined the ergonomics of drivers in typical power steering, noting the constant, subconscious flexing of their muscles in their forearms, biceps, and backs. The Q50’s steering is tuned to cut out those movements. If a driver is so inclined, and I was, they can turn on all the assistive features like lane control assist, distance assist, and forward collision warning to have a brainless, stress-free drive through metropolis traffic. The steer-by-wire means potholes or rough roads won’t jar the wheel. Is the handling prone to some understeer on the track? Sure. But its natural environment is a highway, not a speedway, and the steering sings on public roads. Overall, the company seems to view tech as their differentiator, and this car’s Direct Adaptive Steering is a harbinger of their autonomous future. (While Infiniti was first-to-market with many of these semi-autonomous features, it does bear mentioning that companies like Tesla and Volvo have made greater strides in recent years).
“When someone feels unconsciously what you have designed consciously,” Chai says. “You’ve done it.”
The Red Sport Q50’s 400 hp engine and the Direct Adaptive Steering combination are a top-of-the line pairing. Infiniti will also offer a 300 hp iteration of the 3.0L twin-turbo V6 and a 2.0L twin-turbo 4-cylinder developed in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz (the car carries over a net 369 hp hybrid option from previous years as well). All three engines are mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission that is largely the same from previous years. The new Q50’s updated chassis is a gracious host for the 400 hp engine, offering a few different digitally-adjustable flavors depending on your preferred drive mode. Though RWD was our only option during the drive, the Q50 will be available in AWD eventually. Praise for the handling notwithstanding, it is worth noting that the Red Sport feels short-sold by the standard Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tires. Simply put, it was not a challenge to get the rear of the car loose.
In the interior, the infotainment system is peppy and instantly intuitive, with dual screens for controls and display, while also providing shortcut options to adjust the audio or climate. It’s in there that a driver will control everything from chassis settings to drive assist preferences to bass boost. While not particularly boastful or chock full of features, the seats and trim are classy and serviceable. Though Infiniti has not yet released price figures, the car should line up near previous models with loaded examples slotting out near $50,000 and the bare bones base model in the high 30s.
Back at the autocross track, after a handful of laps spent getting intimate with the Direct Adaptive Steering, I goaded an Infiniti engineer into taking me for a spin. Oka-san, a chassis engineer, had spent years communing with the Q50, tuning its body carefully to handle the revamped engine. As I sat shotgun, he was fearless and aggressive through the course, piloting the car on a string, smiling as he drove in the vehicle that he knew so well. After one blissful lap, we exited to a crowd of Infiniti employees watching, offering laughter and relief in equal parts. These were men self-aware enough to know their cars once trailed far behind BMW, Mercedes, and their ilk. Now, with grins on their faces, they were self-aware enough to know they had a car that deserves attention.