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1997 Infiniti QX4

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

With the QX4, Infiniti enters the battle for a share of the prestigious luxury sport-utility market. But the question is begged whether plastic cladding on the outside and leather on the inside will transform a utilitarian 4×4 wagon, in this case a Nissan Pathfinder, into a luxury vehicle.

We asked the same question of the recently introduced Lexus LX450 and found it somewhat lacking. (LX450 Is Land Cruiser With Trappings Of Wealth, Wheels, Aug. 3, 1996).

Where the Lexus and Infiniti part company is at the bottom line. At over $70,000, the Land Cruiserbased Lexus plays in the same sandbox as the Range Rovers. The Infiniti is a relative bargain at $44,500. That's complete, no further available options — only the decision whether or not to have a sunroof at the same price.

A 40-plus price point puts the QX4 in competitive company. According to Infiniti's research, a comparable Ford Explorer comes in at $44,317, a Jeep Grand Cherokee at $43,470, and the Toyota 4Runner at $45,298. All plastic-clad, all leather-lined.

We might also wonder about the buyers for such vehicles. The sportute originally garnered its appeal from a rough and ready image. The term "luxury sport-utility" should probably be an oxymoron. At the very least it makes a dog's breakfast of the language.

Nevertheless, Michael Ney, Infiniti's general manager, suggests that it is the "practical benefits" of a sport-ute combined with the "comfort and prestige" of a luxury sedan that will bring customers through his dealer's doors.

Ney further claims that the current "luxury consumer mindset" requires value for the dollar. Apparently, blatant conspicuous consumption is undergoing a period of disfavor. (It'll be back.)

So we return to asking how luxurious a gussied-up Pathfinder can be. Fortunately, the base vehicle is a solid, good handling machine in its own right. Nissan's rigid MonoFrame unibody system results in what is likely the most squeak-and-creak-free of all the sportute bodies. Luxury does not include squeaks.

There has also been no need for Infiniti to mess with the Pathfinder's chassis and suspension calibrations. As they are, the unique strut front suspension and well located multilink rear axle deliver up class-leading ride and handling enhanced by Infiniti's luscious 16inch alloy wheels wrapped in P245/70R16 Bridgestone Duellers.

However, the decision to leave the powertrain alone is questionable. The 3.3 litre V6 and four-speed automatic are a smooth package. But, at 168 h.p. and 196 poundfeet of torque, the engine is acceptable in the Pathfinder, but no more than that. Even a relatively small increase to 180 h.p. and 210 poundfeet would be a practical benefit for both machines. And, it would give the QX4 the extra snap it needs to satisfy those used to the performance of luxury sedans.

But, this is all about image isn't it? If we read Ney right, QX4 folks want the most panache for the least cash.

To that end Infiniti's stylists have done a fine job of cladding up the normally starkly-detailed Pathfinder. Fit and finish on the individual plastic components is impeccable. But, except for the total absence of chrome, the elements along the sides and around the wheel lips are pretty much standard fare. The nose is something else again.

Here, Infiniti has put considerable effort into disguising the QX4's origins. The hood lines flow down through the grille without a hint of the threehole Pathfinder styling cue, then down into the monochrome bumper, which is punctuated by a bold pair of integrated fog lamps, and back up into the wheel lips and side mouldings.

Adding an extensive mask like that is not without risks. The front end achieves Infiniti's image goal of "authentic rugged luxury" from every angle except headon where it suffers from a bit of a horsefaced look.

Moreover, similarities in outline notwithstanding, it is unlikely that anyone will mistake the QX4 for a Pathfinder. Exclusivity, you know.

Infiniti has also succeeded with the leather-plated insides. The upholstery itself is soft and supple, without that over-dyed quality that makes some cowhide look like imitation vinyl.

The seats are Pathfinder seats: good seats, therefore. And, in keeping with the luxo theme, the power buckets up front are heated. And so are the outside mirrors.

The woodgrain accents are phony, of course, and I buttonholed Infiniti marketing guy Ian Forsyth about that. His semi-serious response was that, "Our fake wood is better than their fake wood." Almost, Ian. The stuff on the dash is really good. But the chunks on the armrests are moulded in such a way that they wouldn't tempt a starving nearsighted beaver.

To bring the interior into the realm of convenient luxury, the Pathfinder's manual ventilation controls have been replaced with an automatic climate system and the sound system upgraded to a richsounding Bose AM/FM/CD/cassette with six speakers.

In an overhead console the QX4 gives us sunglass storage, a digital compass and outside temperature display, plus an integrated Homelink transmitter. For the luxury-challenged among us, let me explain that a Homelink can be programmed to control the garage door, turn on the house lights, open the gates to the estate, release the dogs…

I do have quibbles about the console between the front seats. The top of the storage box should extend forward about 3 centimetres to properly fulfil its role as an armrest. And the lower area around the shifter and transfer case lever is a busy mishmash of dirt-catching crannies and surfaces too small to be useful. The presence of a mechanical transfer case shifter is a waste of space in a compact luxo cabin.

"Is that all there is?" did I hear someone ask? (It's a common refrain among the wealthy.) Well, no. One of the prime requisites for contemporary luxo ute status is a full time no-brainer all-wheel drive system; preferably a system that is not available on other vehicles in the manufactuer's product

line. Exclusivity, you know.

The QX4 fulfils this requirement with its AllMode 4WD based on an electronically controlled clutch located at the transfer case. Under full-traction dry road conditions all torque is delivered to the rear axle. When the road gets slick, a computer monitors wheel slip via the antilock brake system's rotation sensors and varies the front/rear power delivery ratio from 0:100 to 50:50.

In effect, the clutch works much like a viscous coupling. But electronic actuation gives the engineers full control over response times, smoothness of action and so on. They've even programmed a momentary bit of torque to go to the front wheels, giving the QX4 a positive launch each time it leaves from rest. To help out, the rear axle features limited slip.

In a variety of test situations the clutch outperformed my expectations, which were based on experience with viscous couplings. Nice piece of work.

Unfortunately, the driver has been confronted with a dash switch and the choice of "2WD", "auto" or "lock". The 2WD/auto choice is redundant. The engineers couldn't detect any fuel efficiency differences and neither could I. Infiniti should have provided a simple two-switch option: one to lock the centre differential, one to select 4Low. No brainer luxury.

Can we say that Infiniti has pulled it off? Put it this way. A fully optioned Pathfinder maxes out at $39,998. The QX4 is only $4,502 away. Plenty of panache, not that much cash.

Cam McRae, who writes in light trucks and vans trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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