Mountain Wheels: Infiniti’s QX50, QX80 offer elevated levels of SUV sophistication.
It’s not difficult to run into premium-level pricing on practically any build of automobile, especially if you’re shopping for big trucks or SUVs.
Infiniti, Nissan’s premium brand, has entered 2021 with a variety of options for its SUV family that allow you to either get a lot of bang for the buck or blow the bank and choose a model that conforms to car-like norms or is like a shiny Frankenstein’s monster with wheels.
While there have been considerable updates to the very impressive and striking full-size QX80, it’s the smaller QX50 that probably deserves the most attention — unless you are going for maximum impact value.
The QX50 recently won Consumer Guide’s Automotive Best Buy award for the third year in a row, recognized as the top value in the premium compact crossover segment. That’s a category I used to think applied to that tiny Buick SUV, but these groupings are somewhat fluid.
Nonetheless, the QX50, entirely redesigned in 2019, was again substantially updated for 2021, with five grade levels and pricing that starts at $39,950 for the all-wheel drive version. Every model gets acoustic laminated side glass, rear-seat-mounted side-impact airbags, an onboard WiFi hotspot and a safety system that calls emergency services in case of a crash.
On every model except for the base edition, heated front seats and the full range of driver electronics are included: intelligent cruise control with ProPilot Assist, plus lane departure, blind spot and distance control intervention.
I drove the second-from-the-top Sensory model with front-wheel drive, priced at $54,920, which new includes a head-up display as a standard feature. It was a huge counterpoint to the QX80’s excesses, with sporty, more car-like comfort, despite running on 20-inch wheels.
Comparing the two family members, it almost seems like the hood and unbelievably huge flares over the wheel arches were simply grafted from the QX80 and placed on the QX50 to build the illusion of bigness.
Overall it provided a pleasant ride, especially when I scraped a layer of hand sanitizer (yay COVID-19) off the second of two display screens and was able to switch up the power, the steering response, the transmission and more, and voila, the 268 horsepower somewhat hidden in that 2.0-liter variable compression turbo suddenly made the QX50 a lot more fun.
Very, very little is said in Infiniti’s sales materials about the presence of a continuously variable transmission, which does indeed become less tiresome if you amp up the performance modes.
I managed about 23.7 mpg overall. The front-wheel drive version of the QX50 is rated for up to 28 mpg on pure highway travel.
Having driven the QX80 more frequently over the years than almost any other premium full-size SUV, I note that this very grand machine’s subtleties are never that subtle. Recently, when I had the gargantuan Premium Select 4WD version of what is really the monster truck of import SUVs, that meant ultra-massive 22-inch wheels and low-profile tires, gigantic roof rails with cross bars and a $79,490 final price.
How big? The door panels themselves look like they might have come off a patio door, and even with running boards, getting up and into the QX80 is always a chore. Once planted in the glowing Sierra Stone-hued seats, what seems to be about 7 feet off the ground, it is still absolutely impossible to see anything beyond the very tall corners of the hood while parking. Audio and 360-degree video aids (delivered through the new double-stacked navigation and info screen setup) are crucial. Similarly, undersized, squarish side mirrors seem inadequate to cope with all of the QX80’s real estate. Out back, the bumper is well, just massive.
All of that said, if you like big, boisterous, 400-horsepower V-8 cruising with super-classy interior details (wraparound crescents of hardwood and leather everywhere) and sharp exterior looks, it’s a striking ride. Here, however, I fear the move to 22s took the QX80 into a slightly too-big-for-its-own-good direction. Lane control, simple parking moves and really any movement on pavement required two-handed wheel input, and rutted highway lanes felt like the big beast was on a slot car track.
Get it off pavement, though, and its chrome-heavy, sheik- and sultan-styled mission comes alive. This is a vehicle, like that massive Land Cruiser, that seems more suited for exotic off-roading than ski trips, even without a bank of likely-to-be-neglected off-road controls. Drive it bigly (I guess we can stop saying that now) and boldly, and you’ll appreciate its presence.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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