New Car/Review

1997 QX4 Luxury SUV
Best-looking beauty in the sport-utility class

by Mary Iacoponi

Infiniti

SEE ALSO: Infiniti Buyer's Guide

The sport-utility vehicle market is still sizzling. With almost three dozen species already hatched, they continue to propagate at a clip that makes Silicon Valley start-ups appear lethargic. And 1998 promises to deliver even more from both the luxury-liner mold and the hot new trendsetters -- the mini-sport-utilities. Most of the models driving this booming market fall in the $30,000 range and the baby-boomers are high-profile players in the sport-ute spending spree.

It wasn't so long ago that being 40 or 50 years old was really "OLD". Most dedicated rock-n-rollers never thought they'd reach the ripe old age of 50. Luckily most survived and joined the working stiffs, bought property, and sired one or two cute little runny-nosed kids. But they didn't get "OLD" and they didn't feel "OLD". They continued their active life-styles, and modern kiddie backpacks allowed them to haul their bambinos around while they skied, hiked, biked and fly-fished. And for quite awhile the mini-van seemed to suit many just fine. But the emergence of the sport-utility vehicles was a better match, and by the end of 1996 the SUV market blossomed well beyond the two-million-dollar mark.

In 1989, the Infiniti Division of Nissan Motor Corporation made its maiden voyage into the automotive market with a great luxury sedan , the Q45. It was one of the best luxury sedans on the market but Lexus got the jump on them and a lackluster add campaign failed to let the public know what a hot property they had. This year, 1997, Infiniti once again took the plunge -- this time with its all-new luxury sport-utility vehicle, the QX4.

Infiniti vice-president Tom Eastwood says, "The QX4 designers set out not only to build an exceptional sport-utility vehicle, but to create a classic luxury vehicle." After recently completing a 2,700 mile round-trip to the Big Horn River in Montana, I couldn't agree more. Comfortable hardly tells the story.

After a glorious week of 12-hour fly fishing days topped by a 2-day trailride clenching a horse named "Wheels", my body felt like Joe Montana's when Giants linebacker, Jim Burt, came from behind and treated him like an auto crash test dummy in the 1989 play-off game. Those QX4 leather seats with the soft wrinkle-shirring, ten power adjustments and extra padding were a delight -- the perfect remedy for a sore butt. And the rear seats were roomy with a comfortably angled seat-back. My fishmates were impressed with all the luxury and creature comforts. They really appreciated the hand-holds for both front and rear passengers when disembarking with their puff-ball waders and clunky boots. The same high quality and elegant styling used on the flagship Q45 permeates the cabin of the QX4. And Infiniti's long tradition with premium Bose audio systems continues in the QX4. After a short time behind the wheel of this SUV tuned into your favorites, you quickly escape the worry and stress of your daily life. Even with wounded body parts on the return trip, I never felt fatigued driving this spot-ute.

I vote this newly badged QX4 the best looking sport-utility vehicle on the market today. The contemporary styling of this sport-ute blends its color-coded wheel flares, good-looking mag wheels, running boards, roof rack and distinct front end into one fine-looking automobile. It definitely turns heads.

The QX4 is powered by a 3.3 liter V-6 engine that produces 168 horsepower. Most of the engine's torque is in the low-end range, from 1,500 to 1,800 rpms. This, of course, is great for low speed off-road driving, towing and gives good acceleration from a stop. But I'll keep my fingers crossed for a V-6 with 200 horses in this sport-ute.

The advanced 4-wheel drive system of the QX4 is called All-Mode 4WD and its simple to operate with a knob on the dash. This sophisticated design rewards both the driving enthusiast and the non-technical type driver. Many SUV's have 4-wheel drive systems with shift-on-the-fly which allows you part-time or full-time 4-wheel drive. The QX4 system delivers torque to the front wheels only when needed to get the traction back. Infiniti accomplished this by using a mechanical system with a wet multi-plate clutch in the center differential. For those of you intending to do serious off-road driving, you can buy the Premium Sport Package for $1,650. This includes a limited-slip rear differential that will give you optimum traction for the most challenging driving conditions.

My road trip to the Big Horn included four days travel through heavy rains, and very unexpected miles of potholes and frost damaged pavement in Yellowstone Park capped by 30 miles of rain-drenched dirt roads connecting the southeast corner of Yellowstone to Cody, Wyoming. But bad weather didn't rain on my parade -- I had a blast. The miserable weather turned into a perfect opportunity to test all the functions of the QX4 All-Mode System. As I headed east out of Yellowstone on this nasty dirt road, I felt a bit scared and apprehensive. It was plenty lonely out there. But pretty soon I was loving it. The QX4 was so steady and solid, I found myself feeling quite confident in no time at all. It's a funny thing, but after you drive through nasty conditions like that with a tough driving vehicle, you feel pretty good -- like maybe you just accomplished something. I have to laugh at all the folks out there poke fun at all this 4-wheel drive brouhaha and think it's just a good way for yuppies to spend more money on something they never use. You may not need it often, but when you do it sure feels good to have a peace of mind.

I calculated fuel mileage for 2492 miles and averaged 18.04 miles per gallon. That impressed me since the estimated figures are 15 mpg for city and 19 mpg for highway driving. I did use cruise control for many miles and on those long steep grades I hit the COAST button and let'er drift just like the truckers. My test QX4 had a very decent base price of $35,550 and a $1,650 Premium Sport Package. The grand total including destination fees was $37,695. Infiniti has a great 4-year/60,000-mile warranty and has always been a leader in customer assistance programs. Their commitment to the Total Ownership Experience gives the buyer 48-months worth of 24-hour roadside assistance. And when you take your vehicle in for a scheduled service you get a free Infiniti loaner car. Not a bad deal.

GEARHEAD CHECKLIST:

1997  QX4 Luxury SUV (sport utility vehicle) - 4X4

TYPE: Luxo sports-utility vehicle 
SPECIFICATIONS: front engine, four-wheel-drive, five-door, five passenger sport utility vehicle
ENGINE: 3.3 liter V-6, 168 horsepower at 4,800 rpm, 196 foot pounds of torque at 2,800 rpm
CURB WEIGHT:    4,275 pounds
MAXIMUM TOWING CAPACITY: 5,000 pounds
FUEL CONSUMPTION:   18.04 miles per gallon (observed)
PRICE AS TESTED: $ 37,695
FOR:  Wins the sport-ute beauty contest and supremely comfortable to boot
AGAINST:  How 'bout pumping up that V-6 to 200 horses?

MARY'S SCORECARD:

We rate this vehicle against similar luxury sport utility vehicles in four categories important to customers - plus a fifth category for relative dollar value.  The maximum category score of 20 points has been adjusted for 4X4 vehicles because a sixth category had to be added for off-road capability. 

								Test Points	   Max.Points
1. COASTAL CURVES / HIT THE ESSES:
  Complete comfort and control allows you a peek at the Pacific		18		20
2. VALLEY LOGJAM / THE COMMUTER'S BANE
  Escape to acoustical bliss with the best from Bose 			19		20
3. THE FAST LANE / PEDAL-TO-THE-METAL 
  2,700 miles of luxury and no saddle-sores  for the road jockey	19		20
4. THE CITY SLICKER / STYLE & TASTE
  Infiniti designers achieved their goal of a tasteful, 
  elegant, luxurious image						19		20
5. THE 1997 BUYER / FACE VALUE 				
  Your money covers all the bases - it's luxurious, sporty and useful	9		10
6. OFF-ROAD TREKKING / JUST DO IT
  Tackled nasty rain, pot-holes, frost heaves and 
  muddy dirt roads like a champ 					9		10
			

					Total Scorecard points	 93 points	 100 points	

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