In a quest to unlock more prestige, and hence higher profit margin sectors of the automotive market, Japanese giants Toyota and Nissan both created new brands that they launched within weeks of each other in 1989: Lexus and Infiniti. It was Lexus which first caused the world to sit up and take notice, with their extremely impressive LS400 model which got far closer to the supreme Mercedes S Class than anyone had predicted. Since that time, the two have continued to evolve their brands in different ways. Lexus’ initial focus was on luxury, producing beautifully finished and well equipped cars which hid their Toyota roots reasonably well. Success came when they diversified their range into SUVs and Crossovers, and they were able to capitalise on the work on hybrid technology that had created the Prius by applying it across almost their entire product range, which gave them something of a USP. Lexus sales in the US have been very strong for years, though the brand has struggled somewhat in Europe, with their cars only finding limited appeal. Even so, Lexus has achieved more than Infiniti in the last 30 years. Nissan’s new brand took the focus more of sports saloons and coupes, and whilst the early cars were rather niche in their appeal, they hit the proverbial bull’s eye with the G35 in 2003, a car which in many ways was as good as a 3 Series BMW. With a smaller range, and a reliance on potent petrol engines, the launch of the brand into Europe always looked like a challenge. But by 2009, the decision had been taken to come, but with only a couple of UK dealers, initial sales were predictably low. Most sales were of the FX35, a large SUV that had a certain appeal to those who did not care about the tax and the fuel bills. Diesel engines did not help very much, and although the number of dealers has grown since the early UK days, it was clear that the only way to make a real dent in the market would be to come up with a smaller, and cheaper product. With even the US buyers starting to think smaller, the business case should not have been that hard, especially if account were taken of the massive success of premium-priced medium-sized cars like the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A Class. Infiniti showed the world what they were thinking with a Concept model at a number of Auto Shows around the world in 2015, promising production by the end of the year. The car they launched came in two subtly different flavours: the Q30 and QX30. Unlike higher up the Infiniti range, where the QX crossover models look completely different from the saloon models whose componentry they largely share, the QX30 was little more than a Q30 hatch with a few styling touches to make it look like a soft-roader and a slightly raised ride height. The cars are produced at the Nissan plant in Sunderland, though when the details emerged, it became clear that this new model owed much to the partnership with Mercedes. UK reviews were muted in their enthusiasm for the new car, finding it pleasant but with no evident superiority over rival products. By the time the model was ready for the US, the decision had been taken to sell only the QX30 version, pitching the car as a small SUV, against rivals such as the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Mercedes GLA. A few of them arrived in the Hertz fleet in 2017, as part of a huge deal with Infiniti which saw rows of Q50 models and more than a few of the elephantine QX80 lined up at major locations, along with smaller number of the rest of the range. I got the chance to drive one for a day from the Phoenix location when I spotted this freshly serviced car tucked away in a long line of Toyota Avalon models. Having been pretty impressed with most Infiniti models that I’ve driven, I wanted to see if the baby of the range is as good as they are, or whether its shared DNA with the Mercedes A Class would reduce its appeal.
There’s only one engine available in US-spec Q30 models, a 2 litre Turbo 4 cylinder, and there are 2.0T badges on the front wings to tell you this. Whilst the QX30 is assembled at the NMUK plant in Sunderland, the engine comes from Germany, a clue to the fact that under the skin, there is a lot of Mercedes in this car. With 208 bhp on offer, you expect decent performance, and that, by and large, is what you get. The engine is eager, though it can sound a bit gruff at times, and combined with the 7 speed automatic gearbox, there is ample acceleration available in most circumstances. The gearlever has just three positions on it, pull back for Drive, push forwards for Reverse, with Neutral in the middle. To select Park, you press a button in front of the lever. It was a simple set up to use, though there are wheel-mounted paddles if you want to change the gears manually, as an alternative. There was an indicator in the dash so you could see which gear you were in, and whilst gear changes themselves were smooth, I was certainly aware by the change in engine note, especially of a down shift when the car sensed the need for a bit of engine braking when coming back down into the Phoenix valley area from my trip out to Globe. I covered exactly 200 miles in my day with the car and needed to put 7.2 gallons in to refill it, which computes to 27.77 mpg US or 33.19 mpg Imperial, a decent figure considering the performance on offer, though it should be noted that the test mileage was mostly done at a steady speed on the Route 60, albeit with the long and quite steep climb up out of the valley towards Globe which would have taken its toll on consumption a bit. There is a Stop/Start system, and this proved unobtrusive and effective in is operation. The Infiniti proved to be quite a restful cruiser on that journey, though wind noise did feature more than I would have liked, or expected for a prestige-priced car.
Infiniti’s marketing would have you believe that this is a sporty premium hatchback. I think they might be better in suggesting is a luxury premium car, as it does not feel that sporty from behind the wheel. There’s a nice chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel to hold. There’s decent feel to the steering set-up and it is well weighted. The test car was the front wheel drive version (an AWD is available at extra cost), and it handled and held the road much as you would expect, with plenty of grip, and no drama. Cornering was pretty flat, with roll kept well in check. The ride was firm enough without anything to induce discomfort. The QX30 rides on 235/50 R18 wheels. I found no issues with the brakes, which work just as you need them to do. There is an electronic parking brake, as is the case with so many cars these days. Visibility when driving along is fine, but when reversing, although there is a rear-view camera to help, the problem comes with the very thick C pillars, so over the shoulder, there is a thick expanse that you cannot see through at all. It was only reversing at an angle, or a particularly oblique junction where this is likely to present a problem, though.
Most Infiniti models that I have sampled have a very strong family resemblance inside, with lots of design features to identify the marque. This one looked quite different, despite the large Infiniti logo on the steering wheel. Indeed, those familiar with a Mercedes A Class will probably feel more at home here. It starts with the key, which is definitely like a Mercedes key and not an Infiniti one, though as there is keyless starting, I then put that in my pocket and only used it to lock and unlock the car. Then you spot the seat adjusters, on the door, with buttons laid out in the shape of the seat, just like any Mercedes.
The dials look like Mercedes ones, too and the audio unit is exactly the same. Not that is necessarily entirely a Bad Thing, as the overall cabin ambience is pretty good, and certainly up to premium standards. There’s lots of the leather here, and the interior seems well put together. There are two large dials in the instrument cluster, with smaller ones for fuel level and water temperature inset in the lower parts of the speedo and rev counter. All proved easy to read at a glance. Further evidence of the Mercedes shared-heritage come from the fact that there are two column stalks, both on the left of the wheel. The larger of the two, and the one where you reach for first operates the indicators, and by twisting the end of the stalk, the wipers, whilst the smaller and lower set one is for cruise control. Lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. The centre of the dash contains the integrated audio unit display screen. With no navigation fitted to the test car – an extra cost item on all models – this unit is used only for the AM/FM and XM Satellite radio and some vehicle settings. There is a control wheel and some buttons in the centre console, set well back by the driver’s hips which allow you to make selections on the screen, or you can use the buttons that are underneath the unit itself. Beneath this are the dials and buttons for the dual zone climate control. There are repeater buttons for the audio system on the steering wheel, along with those you need to cycle through the trip computer functions in the dash display.
As already mentioned, the controls for adjusting the seat are on the door panel, and they follow established Mercedes practice of separate buttons for the different parts of the seat. The only exception of the lumbar adjuster which was on the side of the seat itself. Both driver and passenger get this. Once you have found the seating position you want, there are three memory settings you can use to store what you have chosen. The seats in this Luxury trim model had a heating function available, though in Arizona you are not going to need that very many times a year. The steering column telescopes in and out as well as up/down, so it was not hard to get a comfortable driving position, and to enjoy the nice leather on which I was perched. Those in the back may not be quite so well off. There are belts for three, but that would be tight, so better to think of this a 4 seater, really. Legroom will depend on how far back the front seats are set, and if they are towards the rear of their travel, then this will feel a bit tight. My head just cleared the rooflining, but I think large adults would find the space here a bit confining. There is a drop down central armrest, which had cup holders which pull out of the front face.
The boot is a reasonable size, and it is a nice regular shape. Space for odds and ends can be found under the floor, and as there is no spare wheel, there is plenty of room for quite a lot to be hidden away here. There is a ski flap in the rear armrest, and the backrests, asymmetrically split, drop down to form a much longer load bay. Inside the cabin, there is a small glove box, there are bins on all four doors, there’s a net on the passenger side of the centre console, a cubby under the central armrest, a couple of cup holders in the centre console and for those in the back, as well as door bins, there are nets on the back of the front seats.
For 2018, the QX30 comes in four trims: the base QX30, Luxury, Premium, and Sport. Comfort amenities and safety features are the main elements that separate these trims. All models use the same turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and seven-speed automatic transmission, and all come standard with front-wheel drive. If you want a QX30 with all-wheel drive, you have two trim options: Luxury or Premium. An Infiniti QX30 AWD costs around $2,100 more than a standard version. With the QX30, you get a lot of standard features in the base model for a (just) sub-$30,000 purchase price, listing at $29,950. For this, you get cloth seats, a 7-inch touch screen, two USB ports, HD Radio, satellite radio, a six-speaker audio system, a rearview camera, and dual-zone automatic climate control, though note that the rear seat does not fold down on this version. If you want a swankier model, the QX30 Luxury, which was the spec of the test car, costs an extra $2,650. This adds on niceties like heated front seats and Nappa leather upholstery, with 8-way power adjustments and folding rear seats. This trim is better equipped than the Mercedes-Benz GLA250 and costs $800 less. Extra features added to the QX30 Premium ($35,300) include a 10-speaker Bose premium audio system, a panoramic moonroof, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. The Premium AWD costs $37,700. As the name implies, the QX30 Sport model ($38,500) has a bolder, more “athletic” appearance. A lower ride height, a unique grille and body panels, a flat-bottom steering wheel, and aluminium-trimmed pedals impart a sportier look. This edition also comes with front sport seats, leatherette upholstery, sportier suspension tuning, and the self-parking Intelligent Park Assist system. A few add-on packages are available in select models. The $1,850 Navigation package gives you turn-by-turn directions and traffic updates, as well as Infiniti’s InTouch telematics system and front and rear parking sensors. The Technology package ($2,200) bundles safety features including adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, active park assist, and a 360-degree camera. Compared to its US market rivals, the QX30 scores well on total kit count for the money, as it is cheaper than its competitors, model for model.
I quite liked the QX30. Aside from the poor rear visibility and the rather tight rear accommodation, there are no significant weak points, even if you do feel at times that you are not so much getting an Infiniti as a Mercedes A Class in disguise. The car went well, and is nicely finished. However, it has plenty of rivals, and so the question is whether you would pick one over, say an Audi A3. And if it came to it, I don’t honestly think I would. The Infiniti is a nice enough car, but the Audi strikes me as just that bit better polished in almost every regard, from the way it looks, to the quality of the interior, the way it drives and for the space inside. And therein lies Infiniti’s problem, pretty much with the whole range. The cars are pleasant, but they lack the overwhelming something to propel them over and above their rivals, and unfortunately, that means that sales remain low. And in Europe, where the fiscal regime is different, I think they will continue to struggle even more, as they still have not figured out – unlike Audi, BMW and Mercedes – how to play the emissions game to make the tax as low as possible. Until they do, the QX30 is destined to remain a niche choice. A rather nice niche choice, but niche all the same.