Las Vegas, NEVADA—As soon as I made plans to take the 2014 Infiniti Q50 to the Great American Desert, the editors in Michigan at Automobile Magazine said that I was crazy. “What is it with Brits and the desert?” they said. “You all think that you’re Lawrence of Arabia.”
For me, it started back in 1996 at a bar in Taos, New Mexico, during a conversation about detective fiction with Automobile Magazine’s legendary founder, David E. Davis Jr. He said, “Since you love the high desert landscape of the Southwest, I’ll send you a Tony Hillerman book.” Soon I had read all 18 books in the series about Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police.
It was the memory of Hillerman’s wonderful descriptions of the people, landscape, and Americana of the desert that prompted this road trip with the 2014 Infiniti Q50 to the country near Four Corners, where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah all meet. Many of the roads were ones that I had first traveled way back in January 1998 for a story called “On the Trail of Leaphorn & Chee,” written by another legend, the late Phil Llewellin, a contributing editor to Automobile Magazine.
A case of mistaken identityThe Infiniti brand has hardly created a ripple in the European market, so maybe it was understandable when Beverley, my wife, pointed out that we were checking in at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino in Las Vegas with a car that I described on the registration paperwork as a “Toyota.” Once we set off on our trip with a view of the famous sign for the city limits of Las Vegas in the rearview mirror, I finally had come to grips with the 2014 Infiniti Q50 AWD as a car from the brand promoted by the Red Bull Formula 1 team.
While heading north on Interstate 15 toward Bryce Canyon National Park, we soon became accustomed to being pampered by this $53,135 automobile, which is perhaps more like a luxury car than a sports sedan. On the freeway, Utah’s generous speed limit of 80 mph also encouraged the odd burst of rapid acceleration whilst overtaking. The 328-hp, 3.7-liter V6 was impressive and the seven-speed automatic delivered smooth shifts. Once we were heading east on Utah State Highway 14 through Cedar Breaks National Monument, the switchback roads encouraged me to try the various drive modes. Sport mode provided more fun, but a stick-shift manual transmission would have been better for yours truly. (Yes, I know that I am old.)
Bryce Canyon’s deep amphitheatres and hoodoo rock formations looked quite surreal. Taking the 18-mile drive along the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau we stopped to look over vast canyons of pink, orange, and red spires. We took a hike on the canyon floor, a natural maze that led Ebenezer Bryce, after whom the park is named, to comment that it was “a hell of a place to lose a cow.”
Tracking the Colorado RiverThe white Infiniti and I were becoming better acquainted as we headed down U.S. Highway 89 from the meadows country around Alpine to the desert. As we listened to Tom Petty’s “Buried Treasure,” a show on the Q50’s standard Sirius XM satellite radio, the 14-speaker Bose audio system did its stuff.
It was a day of driving with the cruise control engaged, as we enjoyed the view of the majestic vermillion cliffs on the north side of the road to Page, Arizona. Ten miles before Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, we couldn’t resist a turn left and a bit of gravel road (thanks, all-wheel drive) down to the shoreline of Lake Powell. Vivid blue water poured into a landscape of red rocks.
Looking at such a natural wonder is worth the pain of 10 hours in an economy airline seat to Las Vegas from London.
Next stop, the land of John WayneNext stop: Monument Valley, one of the first images I can remember of the Wild West, something that I first enjoyed as a kid in comic books and all those movies with John Wayne that were directed by John Ford.
The ranger at the gate to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park commented, “It’s a 17-mile scenic drive. You’ve got a nice car, but it’s a bit low; look out for potholes on the valley floor!” It soon became apparent that the Q50 was probably not best suited to this road, as I veered from side to side on the twisting descent to pick a route across the broken surface. The Bridgestone Potenza P225/55R17 tires skittered around while the chassis vibrated and interior echoed with the noise. Perhaps the big black tires and floppy suspension of the cars of yesteryear might have made for a more relaxed ride?
We were passed by beat-up Chevrolet pickups that had been adapted with rows of seats in the cargo bed to carry tourists who had arrived here in sports sedans much like ours. In the end, we made it across a mile of gravel and dirt (thanks again, all-wheel drive) to photograph the car pointed toward Merrick Butte and the twin Mitten buttes.
Perfect place for a rally stage, British-styleFrom the gate at Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, to the Devils Garden some 17 miles at the end of the pavement, we might have tested the 2014 Infiniti Q50 on a stretch of road perfect for a British-style rally stage.
I had to stop pretty often for photography, and access to the boot (trunk) became a bit of a pain. With its capacity of 17.6 cubic feet, the boot just barely consumed our luggage and my photo gear, and the lid had no power-operation feature, which made loading and unloading quite an adventure while balancing cameras, tripods, etc.
As we entered the Navajo reservation south of Mexican Hat, Utah, on U.S. Highway 191 while traveling to Canyon De Chelly National Monument, the car’s trip meter clicked over 1000 miles. During our seven days of driving so far, the 2014 Q50 had averaged 26.8 mpg, according to the on-board computer. Later the road sign as we entered the Petrified Forest National Park from Interstate 40 said 6000 feet elevation and I realized that the Infiniti Q50 had not shown any noticeable lack of power over the last few days of driving in the thin air of the high desert. (The passengers weren’t so fortunate, as we discovered while hiking to points of interest.) The climate control also kept us cool, calm and collected even while the desert temperatures reached 113 degrees.
The drive across the Painted Desert was quite surreal with its petrified logs, as was the equally petrified old car we saw as we crossed a section of historic U.S. Route 66, once the main highway to Los Angeles from Chicago.
A slow transition to the land of swimming poolsIn the old mining town of Globe, Arizona, we hit a car wash to remove eight days of red dirt and dead bugs as we prepared to spend four days in resort hotels. Arizona State Highway 77 to Tucson proved a terrifically challenging drive, and we stopped at the Spanish mission at Xavier del Bac, established in 1692. Later we saw the giant cacti of Saguaro National Monument. The desert heat had cooled as we pulled into our overnight stop at Loews Ventana Canyon in Tucson, a resort where the 2014 Infiniti Q50 seemed to be quite at home.
The next day we visited not only the Pima Air Museum but also took a bus tour of the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where -- as the tour guide put it -- some $35 billion of your tax dollars are stored in the form of row upon row of war birds safely cocooned for a day when they might be needed again. Once done, we took the Pinal Pioneer Parkway along Arizona State Highway 79 to Phoenix, as it put us close to the quintessential landscape of the Sonoran Desert.
Once in Phoenix, we sauntered between the art galleries of Old Town Scottsdale, then found a car meet on Indian Bend Road and had chocolate milkshakes at the 5 & Diner while 1950s American classics paraded that evening. (A bright orange McLaren P1 also appeared, much to the enthusiasm of kids with iPhone cameras.) We stayed the night at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort in Phoenix, where the moonlight-white Infiniti’s understated styling looked appropriate in what has become the sixth largest city in the U.S.
The Great American DesertFor the last day of our drive, we made the pilgrimage to Taliesin West in north Scottsdale, the home and studio of architect Frank Lloyd Wright (a car enthusiast) at the end of his life and still an architecture school of some note. It was Wright’s birthday no less, and it reminded me that I have always admired his belief in total design, which integrates site, building, and even the interior into a single expression. We weren’t disappointed.
At a farewell dinner at the Different Pointe of View, the restaurant at the Pointe Hilton that overlooks Phoenix, we appreciated the way the 2014 Infiniti Q50 had made a long and demanding trip possible for a couple of people from London, a place that could not be more different from the desert Southwest.