The Contender and the Pretender: Japanese Luxury Takes Another Swing at the Bavarian King
Allow me to introduce the two latest contenders to the BMW 3 Series‘ throne. They are the all-new Infiniti Q50 and Lexus IS350. In terms of this particular comparison test, we’re actually talking about the Q50S and the IS350 F Sport, both heavily optioned and aimed squarely at the iconic 335i. Why the Bimmer? These two vehicles wouldn’t exist if not for the success of the BMW 3 Series. Remember, for half of their history, both upstart Japanese luxury makes were perfectly content to sell tarted-up versions of lesser FWD sedans (ES350 in the case of Lexus, G20 and I30 in the case of Infiniti) instead of proper sporty four-doors. Very few enthusiasts were fooled. To combat that, Lexus rolled out the RWD IS300 in 2000, and Infiniti followed suit two years later with the G35. Both the IS and the G have been successful not only as volume sellers, but as occasional victors against the mighty Bavarian competition. But the BMW always seems to fight its way back to the top of any chart. Are either of these two brand-spanking-new Japanese sports sedans good enough to dethrone a king? One of them just might be.
The really big Infiniti news is under under the hood of the Q50S. Nope, not the engine, because that is a carryover piece of kit from the previous-generation G37 Sedan that still makes 328 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque, but has been nicely refined in terms of NVH. So no, you must go deeper to discover the crazy part: There’s no steering column! Well, OK, technically there is a steering column, but not when the Q50S is turned on. There’s a clutch in the middle of a vestigial steering column that “energizes,” or opens up, when the ignition is on. In the event of a dead battery (or whatever) the clutch is closed and the car can still be turned. But yes, friends, available as an option, the Q50S can be steer-by-wire. The first question is, why bother with a steer-by-wire system in the first place? Infiniti claims two things. One is that less NVH engineering (and weight) is required to damp down vibrations emanating from the steering column. The other is that steer-by-wire offers up an infinite number of ways to steer a car. Some of which, Infiniti claims, are better than anything you’ve ever experienced. Keep reading.
There isn’t nearly as much big news for the Lexus. If I had to choose something to trend on Google, if would be that the new IS rides on a cut-down version of the GS platform, a car we here at Motor Trend like very much indeed. The GS F Sport managed to easily beat out the comparable Audi, BMW, and Infiniti (see “Mid-Life Medicine,” June 2012) in our comparison test. The winning GS was not only the lightest car in that group (535i, A6, and M37) but it was without question the most fun to drive. As you might expect, an even smaller version of the GS F Sport feels quite nimble and tossable. In terms of the new IS350, the F Sport package consists of adaptive and variable suspension via electric dampers, variable rate steering, larger and higher performance brake pads and calipers, and larger 18-inch wheels with wider summer tires (225/40/18 front, 255/35/18 rear). Also of note is a new eight-speed automatic transmission for RWD IS350s — the IS250s retain the six-speed auto, as do the IS350 AWD cars — both regular strength and F Sport. The engine however (3.5-liter V-6, 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque) is totally carryover, and I think that’s a mistake. The same is true for the Q50S, and I think it’s an equally large mistake for Infiniti. Remember, this a massively competitive segment. Why launch an “all-new car” with a warmed-over engine? Especially since the German competition seems to add 10 horsepower every time white asparagus is in season.
This comparison test is a tale of two locations. The first is the test track, and the Infiniti beat the Lexus up and down said track. In terms of straight-line fury, the Q50S was the faster car, hitting 60 mph in 5.2 seconds compared to the IS350’s 5.5-second sprint. It’s about the same story in the quarter mile, with the quicker Infiniti taking 13.8 seconds to do the deed with a trap speed of 102.1 mph, while the Lexus is 0.2 second behind at 14 seconds flat but with a curiously slow trap of 98.5 mph. The Q50S also stops better, taking 110 feet from 60 mph compared with 114 feet for the IS350. Now that we’ve established that the Q50S is better at starting and stopping, here’s the interesting part. There’s a 31-pound difference in weight between the two (at 3766, the Infiniti is the slimmer car — the Lexus weighs 3797), yet they posted identical figure-eight times of 26.3 seconds. So if the Q50S accelerates and brakes better, one can infer that the Lexus can carry more speed through a corner. But you would never know it from the driver’s seat. In the admittedly go-hard-or-go-home crucible that is our figure-eight test — in other words, nothing but limit, 10/10ths handling — the Infiniti was at twice as much fun to toss around as the comparably buttoned-down Lexus. The IS350 felt sluggish, as if it hadn’t had its coffee yet. The Q50S, on the other hand, seemed like it had just paid a visit and some cheddar to Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.
One reason for that wilder ride is Infiniti’s one-touch-and-off traction and stability control system. Most modern cars — including the Lexus IS350 — feature a two-stage control for disabling everything. Typically you push the button once to disable traction, and then hold it for an additional 10 seconds to turn off stability. With the Q50S, you just push the button once and you are free to slide around the parking lot. Oh yeah, the Q50S is a seriously tail-happy car. There’s still some understeer if you enter a corner hot. Though if you provoke the Infiniti by, say, rolling on the throttle hard midway through a turn, the car is quite happy to show its backside. We were also pretty impressed at how well a car without a (functioning) steering column took to limit testing. As our testing director Kim Reynolds said after he ran the Infiniti, “I wish you hadn’t told me it was steer-by-wire — I never would have known.” You drifters out there will be happy to know that you can countersteer-by-wire. Strange but true. Everyone that touched either car declared the Infiniti to be much more fun on the track.
The next day, I headed up to an excellent canyon road with our road test editor, Scott Mortara, to sort these two out in something that approximates the real world. After running up and down a stretch we know quite well in each car, we both came to the same, simultaneous conclusion: Lexus. From Mortara concerning the Infinti: “A great engine with plenty of power, but I found the throttle a little lazy during spirited driving. The biggest drawback is the steering; this electric steering has a very unnatural feel when hustling the car around.” His two points are valid. The carryover seven-speed automatic feels lazy and laggy when compared to the new eight-speed in the IS350. Yes, there is more power, but it’s not always readily available. More important, however, is how odd the steer-by-wire behaved on a curving, undulating road.
The Q50s has four steering settings, ranging from light and casual to heavy and quick. Scott and I both preferred Standard, with its medium effort and medium speed. But even in that mode it just wasn’t right. I would say Infiniti is impressively about 80 percent of the way to making virtual steering feel like actual steering. However, for the purpose of this comparison test, the Lexus had better — and actual — steering. Moreover, if virtual steering can surpass actual steering as Infiniti claims, there sure wasn’t proof. From Mortara: “The biggest drawback is the steering. This electric steering has a very unnatural feel when hustling the car around. I found myself constantly correcting and adjusting the wheel position because of what the car was doing, even though it was a constant curve.”
As for the IS350, I’m happy to report that just as we were by its big brother GS350, we were considerably impressed by its back-road charms. Says Mortara, “Overall an amazingly fun car to drive, well, anywhere. This new Lexus is just as happy on a mountain road as it is cruising comfortably down the highway.” I’m glad he mentioned the highway, because driving on the freeway on the way up to the canyon I noticed the Lexus had a much creamier ride than the Infiniti. Ride and handling is usually better thought of as ride versus handling because it is typically a compromise. So I assumed the Q50S’s choppier ride would pay off in terms of control once the road got curvy. Not so. Somehow — and I suppose we’re thanking the F Sport’s active dampers — the Lexus rode and handled better. Even though the Lexus is down a bit on power, its superior transmission and throttle response meant that it didn’t feel at all slower than the Q50S. In fact, we both felt we could push the Lexus much harder. Color us impressed.
For its part, the Infiniti is a very good car and we’d love to get our hands on one with a real steering column, especially since it is so much more tail-happy than other vehicles in the segment. Personally, I think that’s fine — if the steering is laser-accurate. However, the combination of vague steering and a twitchy backend does not inspire confidence. Luckily, the steer-by-wire stuff is an option. My real question is this: Infiniti made a big deal about bringing in Johann de Nysschen one year ago as its majordomo. Before then, Mr. de Nysschen served as the CEO of Audi of America and is rightly (we feel) credited with turning that brand’s fortunes around in the U.S. Since then, de Nysschen has stated that he’s set on reshaping Infiniti into a performance-focused brand, going so far as to hire F1 star/stud Sebastian Vettel to serve as the Infiniti’s “Director of Performance.” With all that said, I have a very hard time believing that either de Nysschen or Vettel would sign off on this car with this steering and twitchy rearend as any sort of performance anything. Unless they spent all their time on a test track and not on a good canyon road, where their customers are more likely to drive. Our verdict is that Infiniti’s Direct Adaptive Steering needs to go back in the oven for 20 minutes.
We were also impressed by the IS350’s interior, both in terms of materials and execution. Mortara said the Lexus has “fantastic interior ergonomics,” and I liked all the cues taken from the LFA halo car, such as the air vents and the shape of certain parts of the dash. The IS350’s cabin appears to be a mix of LFA and GS, the two best interiors Lexus up until this point has ever done. In fairness, the Infiniti also has a very nice new interior with a slick, two-screen navigation and radio solution similar to the new Range Rover Sport’s. In terms of the exterior and general appearance, I find the new Q50 to be quite handsome and 40 times better-looking than the mutant-faced IS. If I were asked to describe the Predator-without-his-mask look of the IS in one word, that word would be “gross.” But aside from another 50 horsepower/50 lb-ft of torque, I can’t think of anything else I’d change about Lexus’s latest entry into the 3 Series segment. We’re going to have to see about lining the winning IS350 F Sport here up against a comparable BMW. Munich, you’ve been put on notice. Again.
|2014 Infiniti Q50 S||2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$51,805||$47,765|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan||Front-engine, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||3.7L/328-hp/269-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6||3.5L/306-hp/277-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed automatic||8-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3766 lb (56/44%)||3797 lb (54/46%)|
|WHEELBASE||112.2 in||110.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||189.1 x 71.8 x 56.8 in||183.7 x 71.3 x 56.3 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.2 sec||5.5 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||13.8 sec @ 102.1 mph||14.0 sec @ 98.5 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||110 ft||114 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.87 g (avg)||0.86 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.3 sec @ 0.71 g (avg)||26.3 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||20/29 mpg||19/28 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||169/116 kW-hrs/100 miles||177/120 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.83 lb/mile||0.87 lb/mile|