Wheels - The Infiniti QX56

Luxury in Utility — Infiniti scores big with its sporty, roomy road warriors.

The Infiniti QX56, according to the company, offers “anything and everything you could want in a premium SUV.” That’s quite a boast from a firm that only two years ago threatened to redefine dreary and bland.

But it does, indeed, have quite a lot to boast about. After more than a decade of producing technically brilliant cars that were boringly reliable and reliably boring, Infiniti has a new plan, one most other carmakers would do well to copy. It’s called: make vehicles people want to buy.

One of the most stunning examples is the FX45 sports-oriented SUV. Infiniti calls it a premium crossover SUV as it mixes sports car performance with the usability of a mid-size truck. We call it extraordinary. Here is a vehicle that recognizes only six people in Texas ever really go off road in their luxury SUVs and that all the rest of us want is great on-road performance and chunky good looks.

No problem on the first part. Fire up the 4.5-liter V8 and you don’t have to go more than a few miles down the highway to realize that even high expectations are not high enough. The steering is tight and direct, the seats supportive, and the engine ready immediately to fire you in any direction you care to go — which is pretty much wherever you want. The madly intelligent all-wheel drive system gives it handling that would embarrass many a supposed sports car.

Much like the styling. While the performance is some distance north of useful, it’s those looks that really set the FX apart. The bluff front, the high shoulder line and low roofline combined with the oversized 20-inch wheels give it a cartoonish, conceptual appearance that appeals on many levels. It’s an allure that’s standing the test of time.

For the record, it’s gratifying to see a Japanese carmaker confident enough to develop its own design language for its premium vehicles rather than produce unhappy-looking reworked amalgams of European forms.

With the FX as a scene setter, and Infiniti’s bold claims, the QX56 has a lot to live up to. It also has considerably more competition than the FX to fight off as the phenomenon that is the full-size luxury SUV.

If you look back, you can see it started with the Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade. Essentially versions of their worthy but lowly Ford and GM equals with a fully appointed multimedia lounge where the cabin used to be, these vehicles hit a power chord so loudly with the SUV-buying public they heard it in Japan.

Toyota, as ever, was first to respond with its Land Cruiser-based Lexus LX450 — now the LX470. And now it’s Nissan’s turn to play with the big boys in the full-size luxury arena, with its Infiniti QX56.

The first U.S.-built, full-sized Japanese SUV, the QX56 has clearly been on the same high-calorie diet as its domestic equivalents. Looking like a cross between a regular SUV and a Greyhound bus — Infiniti prefers to call it athletic, progressive, and stylish — the big QX is roughly the same size as the Navigator and Escalade on the outside but has a few new tricks up its massive sleeve on the inside.

One of the latest battlefields for these automotive quarterbacks is seating comfort and flexibility. The QX scores the first touchdown by offering fold flat seats in all three rows. It then scores extra points with its cavernous amount of available loadspace even with all three rows of seats upright.

Looking at it, you start to wonder who needs all that room. Particularly as there’s space on the roof for 200 pounds of luggage and the towing capacity is only slightly less than a whole house. But, of course, this vehicle has very little to do with need and a lot to do with want.

None of this flexibility has apparently been created at the expense of luxury. You want it? You’ve got it — mostly as standard: DVD-based entertainment systems, dual media audio systems, rear power-operated lift gate, power-adjustable pedals, and a long, long list of other features that would fill the rest of this page.

Powering this cinematic experience is a 5.6-liter (hence the QX56 name) V8 that has been tuned to give neck-snapping low-speed response and generally put a smile on your face when you floor the gas pedal. Not that you hear much from it — or anything else that’s not in the cabin thanks to some highly effective sound insulation that makes driving the QX a relaxingly peaceful experience.

For most vehicles of this supersize, “driving” wouldn’t be the right word to use to describe how you control them. Coaxing or remote control would be more appropriate. This is where the QX — with available all-wheel drive — scores big time over the opposition. Its independent rear suspension and auto leveling system allow it to be hustled through a series of bends without inducing seasickness in everyone present. Infiniti says the QX “carries and tows big but drives small.”

This makes journeys not just quicker but safer, too. It follows that if you can place the car where you want on the road, you are more likely to avoid having an accident in the first place. However, even if you do find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, the QX has more airbags than a balloon salesman — and enough weight to brush aside most non-fixed objects — so you’ll be all right.

Is the QX56 “anything and everything you want in a premium SUV”? Other than its little brother’s film-star good looks at this moment, it’s hard to think of anything they’ve missed.

Infiniti QX56 from about $48,080
Infiniti FX45 from $44,225

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