2019 Infiniti QX50 first drive review: variable compression, constantly good

The Infiniti brand is difficult to pin down. Its struggle to introduce a cohesive brand identity and driving character and hide Nissan underpinnings overshadows impressive interior materials and exterior aesthetics. Few premium brands have had to prove their credentials so often.

With the 2019 Infiniti QX50, the questions and concerns can stop: Infiniti has built a premium product through and through.

Riding on a brand-specific platform, featuring what's arguably the most advanced gas-only engine on the planet, and blessed with a class-leading cabin, the 2019 QX50 is the culmination of a journey Infiniti started at the 1989 North American International Auto Show, when it debuted as Nissan's answer to Lexus.

The star of the show

The QX50's turbo-4 is the first engine that can vary its compression ratio on the fly. I'll spare you the gory details on how the compression ratio can jump from 8:1 to 14:1 and everywhere in between and instead suggest checking out my full deep dive with engine man Chris Day.

The 2.0-liter VC-Turbo, as it's known, stacks up well on paper. At 268 horsepower, it's down on the old QX50's 325-hp 3.7-liter V-6. But the 2.0-liter gains ground quickly, with 280 pound-feet of torque to the V-6's 267 lb-ft and more accessible torque and horsepower peaks. Combine that with less weight—297 pounds to the V-6's 363 pounds—and what Infiniti thinks will be a 27-percent improvement in combined mileage, and the VC-Turbo more than makes up for its horsepower deficit.

Torque is impressive at low rpm, which is where the QX50 will spend most of its time operating, but it's hard to ignore the missing 57 horsepower from last year's model. The 2.0-liter lacks the high-end punch of the V-6 it replaces, although that argument could easily fit any other V-6-to-2.0-liter swap. In the grander scheme, the new engine's performance will thrill most consumers.

2019 Infiniti QX50, first drive

2019 Infiniti QX50, first drive

2019 Infiniti QX50, first drive

2019 Infiniti QX50, first drive

2019 Infiniti QX50, first drive

2019 Infiniti QX50, first drive

Whether the VC-Turbo's idiosyncrasies will be as endearing is harder to say. The main problem I encountered while testing the new engine is the occasional and sudden peakiness of its torque delivery. The throttle response of the pre-production prototypes I drove was super sharp for the class, beyond even what performance-focused crossovers like the Alfa Romeo Stelvio and Jaguar F-Pace are doing. Combine that with a lack of feedback from the pedal and it takes time to figure out how to dial in the right amount of throttle.

But there could be another culprit, in the variable-compression ratio system. VCR is quick to respond by design, as engineer Chris Day told me a week after the QX50's 2017 Los Angeles auto show debut.

"The (VCR) mechanism itself isn't the slowest thing," Day said in December. In other words, it takes more time for stuff like the turbocharger to spool than for the engine to adjust its compression ratio.

The sudden surges in torque could be an overly eager variable-compression system responding to an overly sensitive throttle and calling up the full-bore 8:1 ratio when a more balanced 11:1 ratio could do.

But the 2.0-liter's behavior is difficult to pin solely on the VCR system, which fluctuates constantly but is invisible in every other circumstance. You don't feel it working. Aside from the available gauge in the instrument cluster's digital display, there's no audible sign that something is happening. In a Pepsi Challenge, it's impossible to pick out the VC-Turbo from any other 2.0-liter. Aside from a quirk I can't even firmly attribute to VC-Turbo, this new engine is transparent.

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