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2014 Infiniti Q50: Competent but not a game changer

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Infiniti has a simple plan to break the German stranglehold on the sport sedan segment — build an "overwhelmingly superior" challenger, in the words of Chief Executive Johan de Nysschen.

Unfortunately, the 2014 Infiniti Q50 sports sedan fails to hit that high standard.

This new model is the first that Nissan's luxury brand has rolled out under the regime of De Nysschen, who came to Infiniti last year from Audi. The Q50 is competitive, to be sure, but it won't transform the brand.

The Q50, formerly known as the G37, starts at $37,605. It faces a steep challenge in stealing attention from venerated models including the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4.

Automakers take the segment quite seriously. Most luxury brands sell more sport sedans than anything else in the lineup — by a wide margin.

Half of Infiniti's U.S. sales last year came from the G sedan, coupe and convertibles, according to Edmunds.com. It's also one of the more popular cars in the class, trailing only the BMW and the Mercedes.

But Infiniti has bigger ambitions for the Q50. To break into that rarefied world of lifestyle brands like a Mercedes — and stay there — Infiniti needs to see itself as a challenger to the establishment, De Nysschen said in an interview at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

"If we create products that are just as good, then we will at best be judged as just as good," the 53-year-old South African executive said. "Since it's not better, [buyers] might as well stay with the safe branches."

The Q50 was already in the oven when De Nysschen joined the brand, and he concedes it represents less of a reinvention than a well-executed evolution of the G37.

"I think the Q50 is a very capable product," he said, falling somewhat short of the overwhelming superior standard.

A week testing a Q50 confirmed that assessment: The car does many things well, making it a viable alternative to anything with a German emblem on the hood. But it won't shake up the segment.

The Q50 starts off with a strong drivetrain in a well-equipped base model. The 3.7-liter V-6 is largely a carry over from the G37. With 328 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, it offers more power than most and delivers it with a smooth confidence.

A quick-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission is your only choice for a gearbox. Rear-wheel-drive is standard. The AWD system, an $1,800 option, came on the loaded $44,655 Q50 Premium we tested. Our time with the AWD model left us big fans of its hearty grip and confident predictability through turns.

The Premium edition is rated at 19 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. In a week of testing the car mostly on highways, we averaged 23.8 mpg. Conspicuously absent from the Q50 roster is a smaller four-cylinder engine — an even bigger faux pas in the European market, where drivers view four-cylinders as providing plenty of oomph. Keenly aware of the need, Infiniti says it plans a turbocharged four-pot, to be built in partnership with Mercedes parent Daimler.

Infiniti offers a hybrid version of the Q50 now. Positioned as a premium sport model, the hybrid offers even more power — 360 horses coming from a 3.5-liter V6 paired with an electric motor. It runs about $4,400 more than a similarly-equipped base Q50 and can also be ordered in all-wheel-drive form.

Hybrid buyers get an impressive bump in fuel economy; the RWD model we tested was rated at 29 mpg in city driving and 36 on the highway. After around 280 miles of mostly city driving, we averaged 24.5 mpg.

But it's a bit of an unfinished mess to drive.

Under full throttle, the car has heaps of effortless power. But in almost any other scenario, the two power plants never seem to get along. The car doesn't accelerate evenly, and the seven-speed transmission downshifts abruptly. The regenerative brakes were poorly modulated.

The inside of the Q50 is largely a pleasant experience. The airy cabin is solid, comfortable and quiet, though the leather on the seats felt like dried beef jerky. There's plenty of room for five adults, and the back seat never felt cramped.

A pair of dash-mounted touch screens are well-designed, with intuitive controls and displays. Too bad the functions often simply don't work.

The system crashed twice on each car we tested, once in spectacular fashion. A song played through an iPod started skipping, and every button in the vehicle — digital or analog — stopped working, including the volume controls. The only solution was to pull the car off the freeway and restart it.

Superior this car isn't. The hybrid model stinks, and the electronic gremlins prove why potential buyers should always take a test drive that's longer than 15 minutes. But at its core, the 2014 Q50 is a solidly competitive car in a fiercely competitive segment.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimes_driven

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2014 Infiniti Q50

Times' take: A no-nonsense, savvy alternative to the Germans

Highs: Tight handling, smooth engine, good interior space

Lows: No four-cylinder, poorly developed hybrid model, wonky electronics inside

Vehicle type: Four-door compact sports sedan

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Infiniti Q50 AWD

Base price: $37,605

Price as tested: $44,655

Powertrain: 3.7-liter direct-injected V-6 engine, all-wheel drive

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters

Horsepower: 328

Torque: 269 pound-feet

Zero to 60 mph: 5.6 seconds, according to Infiniti

EPA fuel economy rating: 19 city, 27 highway

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Infiniti Q50S Hybrid

Base price: $44,845

Price as tested: $53,655 (est)

Powertrain: 3.5-liter direct-injected V-6 engine, rear-wheel drive paired with electric motor

Battery: 50 kW lithium-ion

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters

Total horsepower: 360

Zero to 60 mph: 4.9 seconds, according to Infiniti

EPA fuel economy rating: 29 city, 36 highway

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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