Rome - We emerged from baggage claim at Fumicino airport in Rome and found our gathering point--a beautiful Italian girl named Lavinia holding a small Infiniti sign. It could just as easily have been the tall, graying man in the tan suede jacket lounging against a center pole nearby. I glanced at him, looked away, then snapped back. It was Eddie Cheever, one of my Formula 1 favorites from way back when. And then I remembered: He's now competing in the Indy Racing League series with an Infiniti V-8 engine under the hood, and he was here to play with us journalists and the new, 2002 Infiniti Q45.
"I went to Tyrrell when they were on the way down. I went to Renault when they were losing," Cheever said, summing up his Formula 1 years with a twinkling eye. "Now, in the autumn of my career, I have been chosen by a company that is about to do great things, about to leverage technology second to none. It's a great time to be with Infiniti."
And it's a great time to be had by all. For Cheever, it's a ride that's won IRL races and taken him to fifth place at Indy. (He won the 500 in 1998 with Oldsmobile.) For us, it was shooting from Rome to Florence and back in the brand-new Q45, a car being touted as a return to its roots, a luxury rocket among its cruise-missile competition, a rolling sculpture that will not be mistaken for anything German.
Frankly, the Q45 had looked a little bulbous parked on the crowded floor of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But here on the streets of Rome, parked in front of the exquisite Hotel Eden, it had huge presence. The massive, seven-lens high-intensity-discharge headlights, which Infiniti claims make up the most powerful headlight system in the world, had a lot to do with that. It's a remarkable collection of lenses and reflectors that obviates the need for separate foglamps.
More than just the Q45's distinctive lights caused Italian heads to swivel as we passed through the Chianti region. The Q is striking, a strong wedge shape with high, beveled shoulders, a low hood, and a grille that hunkers down lower than the headlamps. Chief designer Mamoru Aoki brags that the Q "looks like a driver's car, not a chauffeur-driven limousine. We wanted to show the strong message of [parent company] Nissan, a new set of values for the luxury market."
Italy loved it, and Italy didn't even see the interior, which I inducted into my personal Automotive Interior Hall of Fame, alongside the cabins of every current Volkswagen and Audi. It is a dreamboat, trimmed judiciously and beautifully in bird's-eye maple (three different colors, based on trim level), leather, and subtle bits of bright metal. The five-speed automatic transmission's wood shift knob (smoked gray on the Sport model), with its deep chrome collar, feels like a piece of sculpture. Vent louvers shut flush like perfect shutters. My one complaint is excessive reflection up against the inside of the windshield, bad enough to block your view of the leading edge of the car in the wrong light.
The Q's center console, which includes Infiniti's famed analog clock, has been carefully arranged to the driver's view, with switches that face up for easier visibility and a liquid-crystal screen that displays, among other information, audio and climate-control settings. That's just the beginning of the parade of high-tech goodies. There's an optional rear-view monitor that shows what's behind you as seen by a camera located near the license plate. There's also an optional navigation system with a 3-D "bird view" mode that covers the entire United States with a single mapping DVD.
Bose has installed an advanced, 300-watt audio system that continually evaluates and compensates for noise in the cabin to optimize sound quality. A power rear sunshade is available, as are power- adjustable rear seats and center armrest controls for rear audio and climate. (The Lexus LS430 still wins the limousine award with available heat and massage for rear guests.) There is almost every sort of safety device you can think of, including active head restraints and side curtain air bags. Base tires are 225/55R-17s with a tire-pressure monitoring system. Optional seventeen-inch run-flat tires are on the way.
The Q45's engineers, led by chief product specialist Teruo Miyauchi, managed to deliver a much more spacious package. The new car is nearly an inch wider, with an inch and a half more wheelbase than the last Q, providing a goodly five cubic feet of additional cabin space.
The team also managed to deliver a much livelier car, with the strongest engine in its class--a 32-valve, 4.5-liter DOHC V-8 that pumps out 340 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 333 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. It's a beautiful thing, with continuously variable valve timing and a variable intake manifold, titanium valves, lightweight pistons, and an electronically controlled throttle chamber, good for a blistering 0-to-60-mph time of 5.9 seconds. That's more than a second faster than the original Q45. That's faster than the Lexus LS430, faster than the Mercedes-Benz E430, and faster than a BMW 540i automatic, despite being heavier--at 3933 pounds--than all but the Lexus. All that and--at a base price of $50,500--cheaper, too.
Infiniti would like you to think performance when you think Infiniti. It would like to be your Japanese BMW. "The Apple to your IBM," says the brand's marketing director, Steve Kight. "The Handspring to your Palm. The W to your Ritz."
You would have to be the forward-thinking, affluent, risk-taking leader who would buy a Q45 to know what he's talking about, I should think.
Our mornings were spent on fairly rural two-lane roads, where the Q45 dashed about smartly but with a touch more body movement (not roll) than I would like. Our test cars were pre-production prototypes, so we'll withhold judgment until the independent strut front and multi-link rear suspension (with anti-roll bars at each end) are in final tune. Another pre-production glitch: The accelerator pedal had a slight bit of travel before actual acceleration, which is not an endearing quality in your high-performance luxury car. It turns out that Miyauchi-san had decided to tinker with the pedal travel two days before we arrived. He promised to change it back to eliminate the lag before the Q goes on sale here the first of April.
With chief engineer Miyauchi riding along in back, I took the wheel of a Sport model (retuned suspension, eighteen-inch wheels and Z-rated tires, some appearance changes) for one last determined blast of autostrada before our return to Rome. I nailed the Q's pedal to the floor, and after that initial, annoying sag, it leaped down the road, gaining speed in direct proportion to how much boot I was laying on the accelerator. Which was a lot. I leveled off at 50 mph, then hit it hard. It jumped ahead. I lifted at 80 and did it again. It was with me all the way, as sweet as you please. I would have preferred a heavier steering wheel, especially as I hit the triple digits. I kept checking on Miyauchi in the rear-view, but he never broke a sweat, so I kept going.
As the speedo needle climbed past 145, the left side of the aluminum hood began to vibrate badly enough that I finally pulled off to check the hood latch, knowing full well that if it hadn't been secured, the hood would have been ripped from its hinges by now. Yes, it was latched, but there was quite a bit of play in the hood when I pushed on it.I later mentioned the shaking hood to Cheever. "You're not the only one," he said. "I pulled off, too." He looked at me for a second. "Hey!" he said. "That meant you were going 145!"
"I was," I admitted, secretly tickled with myself. I guess it's not a problem the average American owner of a Q45 is going to have. But it may be one Infiniti would like to address if it truly wants to be the BMW of Japan. Then again, it's pretty sweet as simply the Infiniti of Japan.