I spent my impressionable childhood being toted around in the way back of my family's 1992 Toyota Land Cruiser and in many large sport-utilities owned by my friends' families, so I feel that I have a pretty good idea of how buyers actually use them. Our Land Cruiser took us from our home in suburban New York City to the Outer Banks, to the Berkshires in the dead of winter, and of course to the Stop n Shop about ten thousand times. I've arrived at school plays, ceramics classes, Japanese-language classes, violin lessons, and Broadway shows in the third-row seats of Cadillac Escalades and Mitsubishi Monteros and Lexus LX470s and Chevy Suburbans. By the time I got my driver's license, my family had downsized to a series of Lexus RX's, but when I was with my friends in their big family SUVs, I usually managed to take the driver's seat. So, yeah, I know SUVs. And, yeah, I know they aren't the most efficient vehicles on the road, but even with impending $4-per-gallon gasoline, there are still people who have boats to tow, big families and luggage to haul on summer vacations, and household goods to be ferried home from Costco and the Home Depot, and there are plenty of families who want to do it in the lap of luxury and style.
Plenty of vehicles meet those needs, and we have one of them, a 2011 Infiniti QX56, in the Automobile Magazine Four Seasons fleet right now. So far, we quite like the big beast, because it's a master at tackling all of the tasks we've mentioned above. However, many editors have complained that the QX is too expensive and too thirsty. But is it really any pricier and thirstier than its most obvious competitor, the 2011 Lexus LX570? Only a comparison test could tell us which Japanese luxo-SUV would come out on top.
Styling: Not a Sight for Sore Eyes
When it was unveiled at the 2010 New York auto show, the Infiniti QX56 was criticized by many members of the media for its bulbous sheetmetal; its huge grille; and especially for its oversized front-fender portholes, only one of which is even functional. The QX also is incongruous with the rest of Infiniti's lineup, especially the handsome FX crossover. From the grille, which is twice as tall as the low-set headlights, making the QX look like a beluga whale; to the side profile, with rear quarter-panel sheetmetal that undulates excessively and inexplicably and doesn't relate to the front quarter-panel; to the rear hatch, with its characterless, amorphous-blob taillights and oversized license plate surround and bumper, the QX56 lacks proportion and is far from pretty.
The LX570 does a better job of hewing to its family design theme, the Lexus "L-Finesse" design language. Too bad it doesn't translate well on this scale. The body, inherited from its Toyota Land Cruiser cousin, does not translate well into flowing curves, and the overall mass of the LX means that design cues have been stretched to their max. The trapezoidal headlights and grille from the Lexus LS460 sedan have ballooned to give the full-size sport-utility the face of a very large guppy and are trimmed in copious amounts of blinding chrome. The remainder of the LX is a box -- upright and square, with little visual interest. Even the wheel wells are squared off. Whereas there is a lot going on with the Infiniti QX56's design, there is very little going on with the Lexus LX570. Sadly, this is not a case of "less is more."
Ride and Handling: Shopping Mall Chicane
The Infiniti QX56 is better to drive, with handling characteristics that are akin to those of a very large luxury sedan. Until you glance in the rearview mirror and see all that SUV riding along behind you, it's easy to forget that you're driving such an elephantine vehicle. While it may not be a canyon carver, the QX56 holds its own once the roads start twisting, staying planted and only feeling top-heavy when you come into a turn too quickly. The brakes are linear and strong, and the steering is appropriately boosted for a vehicle this size. Lower speeds, however, reveal the Infiniti's size, and you might have to troll the parking lot at Neiman Marcus for a while before you find a space that's easy to slide into.
The Lexus LX570 drives like a truck. Uneven surfaces as small as grooved pavement will upset its ride, and the vehicle wallows even when the suspension is at its firmest setting. The steering feels numb and provides little feedback, and the brake pedal is hard to modulate. In short, there's too much isolation between the driver's hands and feet and what's happening on the road surface. The good news is that the LX's off-roading heritage pays dividends during around-town, low-speed maneuvering -- a best-in-class turning radius of 38.7 feet and short overhangs mean that rock scrambling and parking lot maneuvers alike are a breeze.
Advantage: Infiniti QX56
Interior Dimensions: Sitting in the Lap of Luxury
The interior of our Four Seasons Infiniti QX56 is a feast for the eyes, with a sweeping dashboard bisected by a tastefully designed center stack, subtle white LED lighting, and chrome accents setting off the mocha burl wood trim and wheat-colored leather. We especially like the gathered leather on the door panels and the calming, blue-lit gauges. The audio and climate systems are handled by two sets of buttons and rotary knobs, all logically laid out and easy to reach. More complex tasks are handled by the eight-inch touch screen; for those who prefer a more tactile experience, the Infiniti also has a rotary knob just beneath the screen that duplicates the functions. While well executed, the Infiniti still leaves a little something to be desired -- it doesn't feel special enough.
On the other hand, the Lexus LX570's sumptuous cabin is a 100 percent cashmere sweater to the Infiniti QX56's cashmere-poly blend. All eight seating positions, the doors, and the dashboard are trimmed in creamy, semi-aniline leather and accented with African bubinga wood, the same type of timber used to make those gorgeous Gibson guitars. The remainder of the cabin is trimmed in the highest quality plastics and every button you press is dampened for silent, silky operation. The LX is crypt-like in its silence, which is quite an achievement given its upright shape and twenty-inch wheels wrapped in beefy tires.
Advantage: Lexus LX570
Powertrain and Performance: We head to the track
If you were to look only at the basics of these two SUVs, you would conclude that they are pretty evenly matched. The Infiniti is powered by a 5.6-liter V-8 engine mated to a seven-speed automatic, the Lexus has a 5.7-liter V-8 with a six-speed auto, and both have standard four-wheel drive with a low-range transfer case. Look past the surface, though, and you'll discover that these two are very different beasts.
The Infiniti QX56 is the athlete of the two. Though it is slightly longer, wider, and taller than the Lexus, it's 145 pounds lighter, and its V-8 pumps out 400 horsepower versus the LX570's 383 horsepower; the Infiniti tops the Lexus in torque, too, with 413 pound-feet, 10 more than the Lexus.
When we headed to our test track, the Infiniti QX56's extra power and lower weight became more apparent. We measured the run from 0 to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, which was 1.7 seconds quicker than the Lexus LX. Not many QX56s and LX570s will see drag strips, but our Infiniti polished off the quarter-mile run in a respectable 14.9 seconds at 94 mph, topping the Lexus LX570's best run of 15.3 seconds at 91 mph. In our braking tests, the QX56 stopped in 166 feet, 14 feet sooner than the LX570.
Equipped with such large engines, both SUVs suck fuel. The Infiniti manages to wring a few extra miles out of each gallon of premium gasoline with a best-in-class EPA rating of 14/20 mpg city/highway; the Lexus is rated at 12/18 mpg. In a combination of stop-and-go suburbia and freeways, our mileage from both of the sport-utilities averaged 15 mpg, according to the trip computers.
Advantage: Infiniti QX56
How much is it?
The Infiniti QX56's $72,560 sticker price might seem high, but it's a fully loaded model, and that price still undercuts the LX570's base price by $5980. At $87,274 fully loaded, our LX570 tester is more expensive than every other competitor in its class. That $14,714 price difference is hard to justify, as the options lists for the Infiniti and the Lexus are almost identical. Both include rear-seat entertainment systems (though the LX570 has two screens, where the QX56 has only one), trick cameras that show all around the car, premium sound systems (Bose in the Infiniti, Mark Levinson in the Lexus), and keyless entry with push-button start.
What the Lexus LX570 has over the Infiniti QX56 is a number of different off-roading features, such as a variable-rate crawl mode and an adaptable air suspension. It also has another important feature for many people: a Lexus badge. Infiniti is making big strides, but the Lexus brand reputation and prestige paired with sumptuous interiors and a top-notch dealer experience keep Toyota's luxury buyers coming back car after car. Is the value of Lexus ownership equal to the value of one Hermes Birkin bag? These are the questions that try men's' souls....
Advantage: Infiniti QX56
After a Battery of Bourgeoisie Testing, the Winner Is
Our first thought was to take the 2011 Infiniti QX56 and 2011 Lexus LX570 off-roading, but as capable as these vehicles are, few of them will actually see anything worse than a gravel driveway on the Cape. Really, their natural habitat is the suburban jungle. While they might be overkill for Starbucks, shopping, and soccer runs, that's often what they are used for. Lattes in hand, we hit the mall.
As we wheeled our mountain sage green Infiniti QX56 into the parking structure adjacent to the Nordstrom store at the Somerset Collection, we saw no fewer than six other current-generation QX56s. This comes as no surprise, as the QX handily outsold both of Infiniti's smaller EX and FX crossovers in 2010 and over 3000 QXs have already been sold in the first quarter of 2011. The LX570's sales have not been quite as impressive; Lexus found homes for only 897 of them in the first three months of 2011.
With its athleticism, powertrain, and value, the 2011 Infiniti QX56 handily beats the 2011 Lexus LX570. Though its interior might not be quite as sumptuous and the Infiniti brand lacks the cachet of Lexus, the Infiniti QX56 is the one I'd most like to take to Costco...and home to Mom.
2011 Infiniti QX56 4WD
Base price: $60,750
Engine: 5.6-liter V-8
Power: 400 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 413 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: All-Mode 4WD
L x W x H: 208.3 x 79.9 x 75.8 in
Wheelbase: 121.1 in
Curb weight: 5850 lbs
Cargo capacity: 16.6 cu ft (3rd row up), 49.6 cu ft (3rd row down), 95.1 cu ft (2nd & 3rd rows down)
Tires, F,R: 275/50R22 H-rated all season tires
Wheels, F,R: 22.0 x 8.0 in
0-60 mph: 6.6 sec
EPA city/hwy fuel econ: 14/20 mpg
2011 Lexus LX570
Base price: $78,630
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8
Power: 383 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 403 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Full-Time 4-Wheel Drive with 2-Speed Transfer Case
L x W x H: 196.5 x 77.6 x 75.6 in
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Curb weight: 5995 lbs
Cargo capacity: 83.1 cu ft (2nd & 3rd rows down)
Tires, F,R: 285/50R20 mud- and snow-rated tires
Wheels, F,R: 20.0 x 8.5 in
0-60 mph: 7.3 sec
EPA city/hwy fuel econ: 12/18 mpg