As one established manufacturer seeks to reaffirm its position at the top of the local compact-executive market, so a relative newcomer feels confident it finally has a product offering with which to gain a sturdy foothold.
The vehicle tasked with building on an admittedly low-key introduction of the Infiniti brand to South Africa is also the first to have been christened with the company’s new global naming strategy. With the letter Q denoting a sedan body, it’s the number 50 behind that letter that, based on size, signifies its intent to play within the highly competitive (and lucrative) world of the compact executives.
We’ve already seen the C200 bend a knee to the 320i, but this C220 stands a far better chance. In terms of specification, it’s how we’d appoint a C-Class – air-sprung suspension combined with comfort tuning – and the 2,1-litre turbodiesel promises to acquit itself better than the C200’s 2,0-litre turbopetrol.
Design and packaging
Built on Nissan’s FM platform, the all-new Q50 finds a welcome balance between the quirky styling of some of its older siblings and the sleek, if somewhat more conservative, European lines so popular in this segment.
We’ll put the fact that there is a hint of a spindle grille – highlighted by the Sport package fitted to our test unit – in Infiniti’s new design language down to coincidence (instead of an attempt at Lexus-aping). Either way, the new lines of the model carrying the hopes of Infiniti on its shoulders found general favour among the test team.
While it’s always interesting to note reactions towards a fresh design language, there’s a lot to be said for the evolutionary process that has seen the new W205 C-Class, particularly dressed as it is here in its more traditional (badge on the bonnet) Exclusive packaging, expand into the modern Mercedes-Benz design philosophy.
Compared with the Q50, the Japanese model’s near-100 mm extra length may suggest an advantage in interior space, but this is quickly nullified by a mere 10 mm difference in wheelbase lengths (2 850 mm for the Q50 versus 2 840 mm for the C). That said, despite a 24 dm3 advantage in boot space (including a standard 60:40 split rear backrest) over the Mercedes-Benz, it’s obvious given the comparable amounts of interior space that the German manufacturer has the most experience in terms of packaging its best-selling model. It’s not to say the Q50 feels cramped, fore or aft, but there is definitely a greater feeling of airiness in the C.
Infiniti seeks to tempt potential buyers into showrooms by offering longer standard equipment lists than the establishment, thus presenting a greater value-for-money prospect.
In the Q50, there’s little to want for in terms of built-in comfort and convenience. Snug leather-trimmed front seats are electronically adjustable and include a four-stage heating programme, while a multifunction steering wheel accommodates both cruise control and comprehensive audio functionality.
Tech-savvy prospective owners will enjoy the interactive touchscreen infotainment system that is able to store your favourite apps and driver-profile settings. The downside to this feature, of course, despite undeniably being the way forward, is that its intricacies may intimidate (and potentially frustrate) as many owners as it will please.
By the same token, the standard touch pad featured in the C-Class isn’t to everyone’s liking, while the screen is close enough to the driver that we’d like Mercedes-Benz to explore touchscreen technology in future.
Via a Daimler/Renault-Nissan alliance, the 2 143 cm3 turbodiesel engine found in the Infiniti Q50 2,2d is derived from the same unit featured in the C220 BlueTEC. In search of a different (more sporty) character, Infiniti included, among other changes, a new induction system, intercooler, low-pressure fuel system, ECU and engine mounts.
The reality, however, is a modified powerplant that not only feels less refined than the Mercedes-Benz-tuned BlueTEC example, but ultimately one with decreased performance and efficiency over its donor car. Not helping its cause is a recalibrated Daimler-sourced seven-speed transmission that trails the 7G-Tronic unit found in the Mercedes in terms of refinement and, ultimately, responsiveness (and the latter is hardly flawless).
Weighed down by optional specification, our C220 still managed to outrun the equally heavy (1 788 kg) Q50 by more than a second during our zero to 100 km/h test runs. As telling are the comparable overtaking acceleration figures.
Ride and comfort
While both test units were fitted with an optional size-up alloy wheel, it was the Infiniti’s ride that suffered the most by the fitment of 245/40 R19 rubber. Conversely, the general quality of the ride on the (non-sport-suspended, Airmatic-equipped) new C-Class is one of the highlights of this new package.
Indeed, much of the discussion regarding the outcome of this comparison test was levelled around optional equipment, not least Infiniti’s much-hyped Direct Adaptive steering technology offered as an option on the Q50. Essentially, this steer-by-wire system uses motors within the steering column to translate steering input into a reaction from the front wheels.
Designed to eliminate vibration and kick back, this system feels disconnected and devoid of feel, especially around it’s straight ahead point (no matter the mode which it’s in). Ironically, there’s a back-up, conventional steering column present…
Perhaps more obviously included in a vehicle with the Q50’s sporty stance, both models featured here nonetheless offer an array of configurable driving modes, each with a bearing towards throttle, steering, and engine responsiveness.
While Infiniti offers personal, sport, standard and snow (the European kind, not the Western Cape kind) the C-Class, despite the relaxed demeanour of its Exclusive trim level, affords its driver a choice of comfort, eco, sport, sport+ and individual modes. We’d leave both in their default standard/comfort modes.
It’s interesting to note an ongoing focus on active safety by both these manufacturers. The importance of the US market no doubt plays a role in the inclusion of systems such as lane-departure warning, lane-change prevention, intelligent cruise control and various collision-prevention systems.
There’s no doubt Infiniti dealers have eagerly awaited an all-new product with which to compete in this fiercely competitive class.
The fact that the Q50 has been launched six months ahead of its optional sat-nav system becoming available (rendering the top of the two screens a massive display for the clock) implies time was of the essence in terms of having a worthy presence in the market place. But the arrival of the excellent new C could prove a potential stumbling block for the new Q50 – the C220 BlueTEC is exceptionally good.
That said, there’s certainly a lot to like about the Japanese newcomer, not least its striking styling, left-of-field character and comprehensive standard specification. But, in a strange twist, it was the optional, much-touted equipment fitted to our test unit – including the vague steer-by-wire system and ride-compromising 19-inch wheels – that proved its undoing.
While the Q50 certainly warrants consideration for anyone shopping in this segment, based on our initial experience with the vehicle, we would however encourage steering clear of the newcomer’s options list. The C220 BlueTEC wins on the basis of its overall refinement.
Road Test Scores
Infiniti Q50 2,2d Sport: 72/100
Mercedes-Benz C220 BlueTEC 7G-tronic: 80/100