As pictures of the new Infiniti Q50 hit the web late last week, most discussion centred on its styling – whether it apes Lexus ‘predator’ front-grille (Infiniti got there first), is it a brother-from-another-mother to the Mazda 5? And what’s with that semi-Hofmeister kink at the rear C-pillar?
Infiniti say the Q50’s styling cues are inspired by the gorgeous Infiniti Essence Concept, unveiled at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show. Claiming that the Q50’s tight, athletic appearance with low, wide proportions introduces character to a class marked by unexciting design.
Overall most observers were calling Infiniti out for styling a new model that was at best derivative, but also accusing the car maker of literally copying its competitors. Shame on you Infiniti. Is that all you’ve got?
Well, actually there’s a whole lot more to the Q50 than its exterior design and focusing on this is completely missing the point.
Key Features: Steer-by-wire
Direct Adaptive Steering and Active Lane Control.
Styling aside, which to these eyes presents a BMW-esque stance very much in keeping with the sporting/luxury credentials the brand seeks to reinforce, the Q50 represents the first model from Nissan’s new generation of vehicles to adopt steer-by-wire technology – in fact the Q50 is the first production car in the world with such a system and will not be the last.
No doubt many other car makers will be watching the market’s reaction to such a controversial technology with keen interest.
Steer-by-wire is not really new – we’ve probably all experienced it travelling in a modern aeroplane – but while the engineers consider it proven, most car owners will likely take some convincing.
The system works by taking signals from a potentiometer mounted to the steering column, sending these to electric motors which then actuate the steering rack and turn the wheels. There are several stages of redundancy built-in to the system including a physical connection between steering wheel and rack (as used in conventional cars) which operates via an emergency clutch. If the electrics fail, the clutch is released in a fraction of a second re-uniting the tangible connection between driver and the steered wheels.
It’s a development that could eventually lead to the driverless car (not good), but there are some benefits which Nissan say will make their cars more desirable although they’re taking a huge risk introducing it on the Q50, which replaces their best-selling G Series.
What are those benefits I hear you ask?
Well, firstly by decoupling the steering wheel from the road, drivers will be insulated from disturbances caused by unnecessary feedback. So the Q50 should, in theory, be able to glide down pockmarked and bumpy roads with the same aplomb previously reserved for the likes of Rolls Royce or Bentley.
A similar virtue was claimed for the first-generation of electric power assisted steering systems as fitted to the Mk1 BMW Z4, but in practice the calibration often resulted in an overly-artificial and hyper-sensitive steering that made driving on cambered roads tiring.
Nissan say “..on a road surface with minor ridges or furrows, the driver no longer has to grip the steering wheel tightly and make detailed adjustments, so travelling on the intended path becomes easier.” We’ll see. It will all come down to how well the engineers have been able to simulate a direct connection and how this varies at speed.
The other advantage, more so for future cars, is in freeing up designers from the convention of where the driver must sit, enabling a car’s steering to be mounted wherever is most convenient given the packaging and other priorities of the vehicle.
One further benefit, if you’re a fan of Volvo’s Sartre programme, is being able to implement vehicle platooning on the public roads. Such ‘road trains’ would (in theory) completely eliminate road traffic accidents on motorways – except if the system itself failed and the road-train crashes (as their rail brethren do on rare occasions).
BMW has almost coined the phrase – Connected Drive, which is perhaps why Infiniti chose to call theirs the InTouch Telematics System, but in essence they’re referring to the integration of the car with data sources outside the vehicle to enhance safety, driving effectiveness (getting to your destination on time) and enjoyment.
The industry buzz term at the moment is ‘Big Data’, which refers to the mass of data contained in previously unconnected systems which will increasingly be made available to consumers while on the move. Cars are an obvious recipient of these solutions, enabling occupants to receive real-time traffic feeds, access to business and personal data held in the cloud (emails, social networking, diary management) and on-demand content such as films, TV programmes and games.
Systems such as these will make expensive OEM SatNav systems redundant, modelling themselves on the iPhone culture where the car’s in-built devices can be infinitely upgraded with new functionality as it’s made available. The systems will most likely remain proprietary (in the same way that Angry Birds from the iTunes store won’t play on an Android or Blackberry device), and in recognition of this Infiniti’s Q50 comes with a secondary iPad-like screen featuring intuitive hand gesture screen operation – so no more taking your eyes off the road to ‘touch’ the correct part of the screen.
“We have new technologies that embrace the way people live today – seamless connectivity and personalization everywhere they go, including while in their cars, with an optimized human-machine interface for ease of use,” said Infiniti President Johan de Nysschen.
The system is designed to be future-proofed, and will offer Infiniti’s 24-hour Personal Assistant program and two touch screens, the first showing the most frequently used applications, such as navigation map, while information such as points-of-interest can be handed off to the second screen for more detailed exploration.
Conventional functions, such as heater controls remain operated by hard switches. Well if it ain’t broke..
Customers will be able to download, update and synch personal apps through their smart phones, USB drives or the system’s telematics control unit, opening up the possibility of some true ‘Knight Rider’ features to be offered in future.
One of the world’s fastest hybrids
Infiniti’s M35h holds a current Guinness World Record for its performance in a straight line (as recorded by CAR magazine at Santa Pod raceway), so you’ll not be surprised to hear the Q50 is even quicker. Apart from being smaller and lighter than the M35, the Q50 also comes equipped with a 355bhp powerplant featuring a 298bhp 3.5-litre V6 engine and a 66bhp electric motor. A compact laminated lithium-ion battery powers the motor, while a dual clutch control mechanism blends the two into an efficient and drivable whole.
No performance figures are available at this time, and there’s even some doubt about whether we’ll receive the performance hybrid here in Europe. There’s also an updated version of the 3.7-litre 24-valve V6 engine with 323bhp and 269 lb-ft of torque. What we will receive is a batch of newly developed 4-cylinder engines, designed together with Mercedes-Benz and shared with the new A-Class and CLA – these will most likely come in both diesel and petrol formats and reflect the trend adopted by BMW (among others) for smaller, turbocharged engines in lieu of the thirsty and less efficient six-cylinder powerplants of old .
The powertrains are matched to an advanced 7-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with steering wheel mounted controls, featuring downshift rev matching and a manual shift mode. Both of the V6 Q50 models will be available in rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive formats.
The Q50’s handling has been developed with the input of Red Bull Racing F1 test driver Sebastien Buemi and three-time F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel, driving at Infiniti’s Tochigi facility in Japan and at the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife in Germany.
Infiniti’s aim was to produce the most dynamic and exciting sports saloon on the market, so forget the FX Vettel Edition, the Q50 represents the ‘real’ product of Infiniti’s partnership with Red Bull Racing.
“Having the opportunity to receive feedback on platform development from the two world-class drivers is priceless,” said de Nysschen. “Infiniti’s relationship with Red Bull Racing is an extensive one. We are working together in areas such as advanced materials, simulation tools and battery technology, as well as energy recovery technology.”
With the quality of interior materials on a par with the M35 (which in itself is on a par with Audi), the Q50 is Infiniti’s most serious contender in the luxury sector since the company began making cars in 1989.
On paper it’s hard to fault the company’s newest model, they say the Q50 is “a true game changer in the sports saloon segment”, but the true measure of its achievement will depend on what we all think of its world-first adaptive steering system.
Game changer or game over? We look forward to finding out.