First Drive: 2019 Infiniti QX50

A watershed moment for internal combustion

LOS ANGELES, California — Despite countless obituaries predicting its gasping, sputtering demise at the sleek hands of the electric revolution, the 132-year-old automotive internal combustion engine has a watershed moment. The culmination of 20 years of R&D, the all-new 2019 Infiniti QX50’s VC-Turbo is the world’s first variable compression engine, making it quite possibly the most important leap forward for the technology since the proliferation of forced induction.

Additionally, along with the first-gen Q45 and the third-gen G35, this is one of the most significant cars to wear the Infiniti crest, leading the brand into a future with an increased focused on design and technology. The decision to launch the VC-Turbo in a compact crossover speaks volumes about Infiniti’s confidence surrounding the revolutionary powertrain. Even removed from the powertrain hype, the new QX50 is an exceptionally important car for the brand, and no one would have batted an eye if they played it safe and launched the engine in a lower-volume model like the Q60 or QX30 as a market test.

Then again, there’s nothing unsure or prototype about the new engine. Two decades of work have created a fully realized product, one that will surely find its way into nearly every nook and cranny of Infiniti’s lineup. I’m not going to go super in-depth on the VC-Turbo here, as it would surely pale in comparison to Senior Editor Nelson Ireson’s excellent deep drive, but I’ll give a few key points.

Essentially, this turbocharged four-cylinder engine infinitely adjusts between the min/max compression ratio of 8:1 and 14:1, continually switching on the fly depending on throttle input. This is achieved through a motorized lever that adjusts the length of the piston’s stroke, increasing or decreasing compression to either maximize performance or efficiency.

The result is 268 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque routed through a CVT. Compared to the ubiquitous 3.7-liter V-6 that the VC-Turbo (VCT) seeks to replace, power seems a little down from the sixer’s 325 hp. To compensate for the power dip, the VCT packs noticeably more torque than the six-cylinder, available from lower rpm to boot. On the flipside, thanks to the temporary high-compression cycle, efficiency is better than ever before, seeing a 35 percent boost in combined MPG when compared to the outgoing QX50, and ostensibly the most efficient non-hybridized CUV in the segment with 27 combined mpg for the front-wheel-drive model.

In practice, the engine is deceptively pedestrian. In a blind experiment, I would be hard pressed to pick the VCT out from a lineup of turbo-fours. From the commuter crawl to on-ramp blasts, the engine feels like a regular–if not noticeably punchy–turbocharged four-pot. It’s not buzzy, clunky, or unfinished in any way. All the changes occur behind the aluminum block curtain, and its only better for it. The regular, nine-to-five driver will be none the wiser.

Don’t think the QX50’s new threads are just a shiny wrapper for the VCT. From front to back, this is one of the most cohesive and well-designed Infiniti’s I’ve ever driven. Dimensionally, it fits right in line with the compact crossover segment, vastly differentiating itself from the outgoing QX50, a car which suffered from dated hatchback proportions and ancient platform architecture. The new QX50 is 2.1-inches shorter, 3.9-inches wider, and a whopping 4.2- inches taller, resulting in a proportional design that’s often lost in this segment.

It certainly looks the part as well. The 2019 QX50 is a mass of taut, flowing lines that incorporates the best from the Q50, Q60, and QX30. The familiar gaping Infiniti grille is there, as are the raised hood lines and the kinked rear window. It’s a handsome, on-brand design that will do well in a hyper-competitive segment.

Inside, it’s a revelation. Gone are the acres of upscale Nissan trim and switchgear, replaced with a portfolio of new buttons and panels exclusive to Infiniti. It feels more upscale than any previous model, incorporating small changes that add up to an impressive package, including a solid metal engine start/stop button mounted flush in the center console next to an electronic metal shifter. Infiniti’s familiar dual-screen center stack still provides separate displays for infotainment and navigation, controlled by buttons piled below and on either side of the bottom screen. It’s one of the few carry-over designs from an existing Infiniti model, but it’s well incorporated enough that it doesn’t detract from the otherwise excellent cockpit.

I spent most of my time in a QX50 Essential wearing the $2,000 Autograph package that added excellent white quilted leather seating contrasted with brown leather accents and excellent deep blue trim. From the material finishing to the design, the top-spec QX50 is one of the most well-executed interiors the automaker has ever offered.

While you’re distracted by the posh new threads, the QX50 is doing its best to keep you safe with the brand’s first use of Nissan-developed ProPilot Assist. This is a package of driver assist systems that add up to a Level 1 self-driving system, incorporating standard tech like rear backup collision mitigation, emergency braking, and lane departure/blind spot warning and prevention. ProPilot also includes semi-automated cruise control with steering assist, a system that manages speed, braking, and minor steering inputs to conceivably remove stress from the driver while in stop-and-go traffic.

In practice, it works as well as you would expect, especially on the eternally clogged highways just north of Malibu. Steering assist and distance control for stop-and-go was a welcome relaxant, but the system’s intrusive alert chime that directs the driver to take over dings more than I would like. It’s far from a dealbreaker, but it slightly lessened the stress-relieving effect.

Once I was sick of letting the QX50 do most of the work, I turned onto tight California canyon roads en route to lunch. Like other Infinitis, the QX50 uses a steer-by-wire system, adapting the ratio and steering weight to both the driving mode and the steering inputs. The steering is light and artificial, as is the brake feel, but these are hardly the most relevant factors to a potential QX50 buyer.

In regular day-to-day driving, the 2019 QX50 is as amenable and easy-to-drive as any other crossover, so any complaints I or anyone else has regarding the driving experience (or lack thereof) are close to irrelevant. Regardless, the V-CT provides more than enough passing speed and the vehicle handles twisty roads better than expected. If you’re looking for a more engaging experience in an SUV, you’ll have to wait for the next-gen QX70.

Prices for the base QX50 Pure FWD begin at $37,545, putting it a smidge above the Lexus NX and Acura RDX, and within $5,000 of the more expensive Mercedes-Benz GLC and Audi Q5. Hopping up to the Pure AWD adds an additional $1,800 to a $39,345 sticker. From there, two additional trims are available that add additional equipment and trim – Luxe FWD ($40,395), Luxe AWD ($42,195), Essential FWD ($44,345) and Essential AWD ($46,145).

For the internal combustion engine, the 2019 QX50 is a milestone car. For Infiniti, it’s a long, large stride toward a very bright future, one hopefully filled with the same level of technology, quality, and design as the QX50.

2019 Infiniti QX50 Specifications

ON SALE Spring 2018
PRICE $37,545 (base)
ENGINE 2.0L 16-valve Variable Compression Turbocharged Inline-4/268 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,600 – 4,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously Variable
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 24/31(FWD), 24/30 (AWD) city/hwy
L x W x H 184.7 x 74.9 x 66.0 in
WHEELBASE 110.2 in
WEIGHT 3,810 lb (base FWD)
0-60 MPH 7.0 sec (est)
TOP SPEED N/A