Infiniti QX50 shows old-school driving feel but cutting-edge driver assists

Driving the 2016 Infiniti QX50 down canyon roads outside of San Diego, I'm transported back a decade by how the car feels. The responsive steering exhibits a softer feel than the laser-tightness of other new cars. The engine's power comes on steady, confident but not overwhelming.

The QX50 drives with classic Infiniti character, much like its cars of a decade past. And there's good reason for that -- not much has changed in the QX50 from when it launched under another name in 2008.

Starting life as the EX35 in 2008, the QX50 is a small crossover, comfortably sized for urban environments yet boasting a healthy amount of interior space. In fact, the biggest difference between the QX50 and its earlier incarnation is a 4.5-inch increase in overall length, that extra space all allotted to the rear seat for more legroom and easier entry.

2016 Infiniti QX50
Infiniti's small SUV is now called the QX50, and gives rear seat passengers substantially more legroom. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Otherwise, the QX50 comes with Infiniti's venerable 3.7-liter V-6, good for 325 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission, all holdovers from the earlier model. And unlike so many newer cars that have gone to smaller displacement engines as a means of saving fuel, and forced induction to keep power numbers up, the 3.7-liter V-6 seems anachronistically large for a car of this size. Its main trick comes from continuously variable control of the intake valve, helping to regulate the engine's fuel flow.

As such, the QX50's fuel economy comes in at 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, or an average of 20 mpg, fairly modest numbers.

When I floor it, during a special Infiniti press preview event, the QX50 hustles forward, maybe lacking neck-snapping acceleration but reasonable for passing maneuvers. The seven-speed automatic shifts quietly, meting out the power so as to avoid any big torque lurches but letting the engine wind up to 7,000 rpm. The engine note isn't the most pleasant, just a ragged growl more symptomatic than designed.

One real throwback characteristic of the QX50 comes from the fact it still uses hydraulic power steering, where the majority of production cars now use electric boost. Electric power steering, such as that used in the Ford Shelby GT350, is responsive and precise. In comparison, the QX50 responds well to my steering inputs, but there's a softer feel, a sort of rubbery edge as I crank the wheel around. It's actually quite comfortable, but lacks the efficiency of an electric unit.

Where the QX50 shines is its ride quality, relying on a fixed suspension well tuned for both ride quality and handling. During Infiniti's event, I drive both the all-wheel- and rear-wheel-drive versions of this small crossover, and it proves very capable on the twisty canyon roads. Not exactly a sports car, it does a good job emulating that type of performance.

2016 Infiniti QX50
Infiniti's cabin electronics come from the previous decade, and could benefit from an update. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

From a tech perspective, the QX50 looks stale. Up in the dashboard sits the same LCD and controller arrangement as before, supporting navigation, digital audio sources and a hands-free phone system. However, I always liked the ease of using this interface -- a main dial scrolls through menus and directional buttons embedded on its top make for quick onscreen cursor movement. And the LCD is actually a touchscreen, allowing direct control if you can't figure out how to use the switchgear.

Infiniti embraced perspective-view maps early on, helping to keep this navigation system current, but the resolution looks a little rough compared to competitor systems. Also, forget online destination search, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto -- this system predates those features.

Where the QX50 looks thoroughly modern, however, is with its driver assistance features, which were cutting edge when it launched and remain modern. Putting it in reverse, I was looking at a surround view monitor on the LCD complemented by front, back and curbside views. No automated parallel parking, but surround view makes it easy to maneuver in tight parking garages.

Infiniti also offers what it calls Safety Shield, a collection of driver assistance technologies including adaptive cruise control and lane departure prevention. Adaptive cruise control automatically hits the brakes when its radar detects slower traffic ahead. Because the QX50 still has hydraulic power steering, lane departure prevention works differently than on competitors' cars. Where other systems can actually turn the steering wheel, the QX50 applies slight braking to the wheels on one side, causing the car to nudge back into its lane.

2016 Infiniti QX50
The surround view camera shows how advanced the QX50's predecessor was when it launched in 2008. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

One of the more interesting assist technologies on the QX50, called Distance Control Assist (DCA), does the braking for you. While driving behind another car, I could feel the QX50 apply the brakes as I began to get close. If I really wanted to tailgate, I could defeat it by hitting the accelerator, but ultimately I found DCA convenient. I used the accelerator as needed, but when traffic slowed ahead, maybe stopping for a red light, I didn't bother with the brake pedal, letting the car handle it. I found it very easy to get comfortable with this system and begin to rely on it.

Before its time

In some ways, the EX35 was ahead of its time, so the 2016 Infiniti QX50 benefits from a few advanced technologies and a body style, the small SUV, that has become very popular in recent years. Infiniti sets the base price at $34,450 in the US and £34,490 in the UK due to the brand's upscale demographic and the QX50's premium car appointments, from interior trim to standard features. (Infiniti does not offer the QX50 in Australia.)

The dashboard electronics could certainly use an upgrade, but ultimately the existing features are pretty solid. Navigation will help you get where you want to go, although I hope the maps and points-of-interest database has been updated, and the stereo supports Bluetooth streaming and includes a USB port for iOS devices or USB drives. Driver assist features add convenience for road trips and everyday driving.

The easy and comfortable driving character makes the QX50 a get-in-and-go type of car, suitable for a quick trip to the store, the daily commute and even longer vacations. The extra rear seat room is a boon for passengers and the design remains individual and fresh. And while the availability of all-wheel-drive gives the QX50 appeal for winter driving, the fuel economy may become a burden.

Editor's note: CNET accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgements and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.