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.