The Pathfinder goes uptown. by Tony Swan
If you're one of the many who love the coddling that goes with any visit to an Infiniti dealership, but you're in the market for a sport-utility vehicle, take heart. With the arrival of the new Infiniti QX4 you can have both.
And you can probably thank your Infiniti dealer for this addition to the lineup. In recent years the purveyors of Nissan's luxury cars have been wistfully watching the steady growth of the luxury sport-utility market, particularly the sales that were lost to the new entries from Acura and Lexus.
In particular, the incremental uptick in sales that went to Honda's Acura division, when it added a rebadged version of the Isuzu Trooper to its lineup, provoked a howl from the Infiniti dealer body.
The dealer outcry, obviously, did not go unheeded. During the development of the popular Pathfinder, Nissan also worked out a parallel plan for an upscale version to wear an Infiniti badge. And here it is.
Since the new Pathfinder represents a complete redesign, including an all-new unibody chassis -- a major investment for Nissan -- you'd expect considerable commonality between Pathfinder and QX4, and that's exactly what you get.
This is not a bad thing. The new unibody chassis is much stiffer than the traditional pickup truck body-on-frame approach still used by most sport-utility manufacturers, and should keep squeaks and rattles at bay for much longer. It also provides a solid platform for anchoring suspension components, which allows more latitude for tuning those components to deliver optimal ride and handling.
The QX4 also shares the Pathfinder's 3.3-liter V-6, and on this front we'd say the commonality is just okay. Although this engine has good torque characteristics, its 160 horsepower is modest for this class, particularly in a vehicle as heavy as the QX4. At 4275 pounds, the QX4 is about 250 pounds heavier than the heaviest version of the Pathfinder, thanks to its vast load of standard luxury features.
The V-6 engine is mated to an electronically-controlled four-speed automatic transmission, a point of difference from the Pathfinder, which comes with a five-speed manual gearbox and offers the automatic as an option.
A bigger point of difference is the QX4's standard All-Mode 4WD system, activated by a three-position switch. Similar in concept to the Explorer's four-wheel drive, the All-Mode system can be set for rear-drive only, automatic all-wheel drive that varies the front-rear torque split on a basis of available traction and a locked mode that divides torque equally between the front and rear so all the wheels churn equally. Unlike the Explorer, there's also a low range 4WD, engaged by a separate transfer case shifter, for max traction in really tough or gooey going.
The visible difference is as you see. There's a little bit of 21st century in that bluff-bowed grillework, with its multiple air intakes, and plastic cladding spiffs up the side panels.
Infiniti obviously doesn't want anyone to confuse the QX4 with the Pathfinder, and we think there's not much danger of that happening.
The Inside Story
With a base price of about $36,500, plus an Infiniti emblem you expect posh, and that's exactly what you get in the QX4. Creamy leather, power adjustability on almost everything that adjusts, plenty of woodgrain, excellent audio, automatic climate control and a big center console with enough elbow space for both front seaters to use without territorial squabbles.
The front bucket seats are as comfortable as they are attractive, and the whole interior reflects a level of quality that's appropriate for this brand name. Which is to say high indeed.
In fact, if it weren't for the high seating position, it would be easy to think you'd just climbed into a luxury sedan, an impression that's reinforced by the driving experience.
This is a sumptuous and pleasant place to be as the miles roll by -- provided you happen to be in one of the front seats. The rear seat is another story. There's just barely enough space back there for adult-size people, or at least for people with adult-size legs.
The Pathfinder's exterior dimensions expanded in its redesign, but its rear-seat leg room didn't, which is unusual considering the emphasis placed on this commodity in other designs, such as the best-selling Ford Explorer.
Something else that didn't make total sense to us was the QX4's running boards. The idea is to make it easier to deal with a sport-utility's higher step-in, but once you've stepped up you find yourself ducking and bending to climb in. But, it works nicely if you're short.
About the only redeeming virtue we can think of for these add-ons is that they make it easier to get at stuff you've loaded onto the roof rack.
Ride & Drive
Generally speaking, the more luxurious the vehicle, the less likely it is to ever venture off the pavement, a sport-utility axiom that's reflected in the QX4's ride quality and handling. While there's enough muscle in the springs and shocks to handle the possibility of off-road use, the tuning is skewed in favor of keeping all the occupants comfy on paved roads, be they smooth or be they gnarly.
We were impressed with the QX4's ability to smooth out small bumps and potholes. It's very close to the kind of ride quality you'd associate with, say, Infiniti's Q45 luxury sedan -- firm, controlled and quiet. There's hardly a trace of road noise filtering up through the suspension, and engine sounds are generally subdued, at least until you put the pedal right to the floor.
Considering its imposing mass, the QX4 is surprisingly handy in quick maneuvers, a function, perhaps, of its relatively low roofline and ride height, which helps to keep the center of gravity low, at least by sport-utility standards.
We liked the precise response of the power rack and pinion steering system -- another car-like attribute -- while braking performance is better than average for a vehicle in this size and weight class.
However, car-like acceleration isn't part of the deal here. The Pathfinder/ QX4 V-6 is willing enough, but it's hitched up to too much mass to produce zippy getaways. Yes, that's true of most sport-utility vehicles, but even in this deliberate world the QX4's straight-ahead performance stacks up as only average.
On the other hand, the sturdy V-6 has decent low-end grunt, which is what you want if you're trundling around out in the woods somewhere. And even though the QX4 isn't really cut out for really tough terrain, it has enough ground clearance -- 8.3 inches -- to handle Forest Service trails and the like. A skidplate under the rear differential -- part of the QX4's standard equipment -- helps out for this kind of work, too.
It's also capable of towing a good-sized trailer, although we think testing the 5000-pound upper limit would require patience.
There's an intangible involved with the QX4 that we haven't discussed, and that's what goes with ownership of any vehicle wearing an Infiniti emblem. Infiniti has earned exceptionally high marks for taking extra good care of its customers, a policy that's paid high loyalty dividends and a significant factor to be weighed in your purchase decision.
Beyond that, the QX4 delivers all the luxury features you'd expect of a vehicle in this price class. Aside from the optional power moonroof, there's really not much to add to the standard equipment.
It's beautifully appointed and finished, inside and out, and it's a very smooth operator on all kinds of surfaces.
There are probably better choices if you're in a hurry, or have lots of passengers on a regular basis. But in the world of classy, quiet, luxurious sport-utility vehicles, the QX4 is worthy of its brand name.
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