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1997 Nissan Q45

TOFINO, B.C. — When Nissan introduced the Q45 performance luxury sedan in 1989 (a year later in Canada), they figured the Japanese camera and home electronics industries didn't borrow design cues from the British, Germans or Americans, so why should their car industry?

So the Q had all the pace and handling that Japanese technological might could muster, with exterior and interior styling that reflected Japanese, rather than western, influences.

In two words or less, consumers said, "No, thanks."

On the road, the Q was brilliant. But the grille-less front end with its Sumo Wrestling Championship belt buckle emblem, obsidian-shaped door handles, and an interior that was austere even by German standards, with nary a twig of wood nor a shard of chrome, just didn't fire the acquisition synapses of the market's collective brain.

Nissan backed the screws off a couple of turns in 1994, with a midlife refresh that gave Q45 a chrome waterfall grille, which surely earned royalties for Jaguar, chrome 'n' wood inside, softer suspension and slower steering.

The Q was now neither sushi nor Cornish game hen, and still did not land on the must-have lists of the deep-of-pocket.

For 1997, Nissan is trying again with an all-new Q45. A list price of $65,000 puts the new Q about seven grand under the old, no mean feat in today's economy. Price-wise, it lines up nicely versus six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5Series. Most

important, it's $15,000 cheaper than the Lexus LS400, the Q's most direct competitor.

But wait. The Q's four-cam 32valve V8 loses nearly half a litre of displacement 4.1 versus 4.5. Horsepower is 266 at 5,600 r.p.m., down from 278 at 6,000, due at least in part to the lower r.p.m. rating point. Peak torque drops from 292 lb.ft. to 278, both at 4,000 r.p.m.

Nissan says refinements to the engine's electronics result in a flatter torque curve. A 93 kg diet means performance is about the same as before, while fuel efficiency is slightly better.

Inside are ominously named "wood-tone" accents. Call it wood-tone; call it simulated wood-grain — unless you're getting paid by the syllable, call it "fake."

Other beyond-state-of-the-art items the new Q is missing but which are available among the competition include five-speed automatic transmission, dual-zone climate control, seamless dashboard cover for the passenger air bag, side air bags (scheduled for 1998), satellite navigation system, factory-installed voice-activated cellular phone, computerized

stability control (a la Mercedes-Benz) and in-car (versus in-trunk) CD changer.

But rather than concentrate on what the Q45 does not have, perhaps I should look at what it does have.

First, the styling. No coyness this time; Mr. Sukisawa, the project manager for the new Q, said one of the car's designers was inspired by a Rolls Royce limousine parked outside a nightclub in the Roppongi district of downtown Tokyo.

With its high waistline, the Q looks bigger than it is. Yet it's neither pudgy nor overtly aerodynamic, its crisp edges and character lines a welcome relief from the unreserved ovality of some modern cars.

The body is even more rigid than its already stout predecessor, leading to quieter ride, better handling, and increased resistance to rattles.

Inside, there's not much that's revolutionary — proper design and execution are expected in any luxury car these days. Clear, legible instrumentation; sound ergonomics; big, comfortable, multiply-adjustable seats; good room in all dimensions; quality materials and finish, fake wood trim notwithstanding.

The base Q45 comes standard with most of the expected toys, including power remote locks, windows and sunroof, 200 watt Bose sound system with CD changer, micro-filtration air conditioning with rear seat vents, and the Homelink system which allows you to operate your home security system and garage door opener from one integrated unit in the car.

Apart from exterior and interior trim color, there's only one box you may check on your Q45 order form. That specifies the Touring model, which adds a sporttuned suspension, unique cast alloy wheels, rear deck lid spoiler, a blacked-out grille, a different steering wheel, and about $2,500 to the price tag.

I think the car is attractive; certainly, it's different, and I'm all for that. It is well equipped. On a feature-for-feature basis, it's good value a V8 for the price of a German six, a whacking boatload cheaper than the other Japanese V8.

As for Infiniti's dynamic objectives, the new Q45 has the isolation part of it worked out. It is quiet. It is comfortable. It rides well.

Its handling is capable, benign, safe. If you can have fun driving a car like that, then yes, I guess it is fun to drive.

If I am less than knocked out by the car, I'm only lamenting the failure of a brave experiment. With the original Q45, Infiniti took a shot at building a car with true performance and genuine character, even if it was a little goofy in spots.

If some of us mourn the passing of the old Q, Infiniti can justifiably ask, "Where were your chequebooks when we needed them?"

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