Infiniti is taking a different approach to the increasingly crowded compact luxury segment with its. The Japanese luxury brand's new gateway model isn't a traditional sedan ( ) or a sedan with a coupe profile ( ) like the latest German entries to storm the marketplace. Instead, it's a hatchback, or if you want to subscribe to Infiniti lingo, an Active Compact ("hatchback" remains a bad word in some parts of the world).
Is Infiniti trying to pull a Dodge Caliber on the luxury compact segment? Sort of. Like that short-lived discount domestic, the Q30 offers a more practical body style, but any similarities between the two thankfully end there. Unlike the Dodge, the Q30 is handsome, with a double-arched grille, dramatic sheetmetal curves that run the length of its body, crescent-cut C-pillars and a fast roofline. For additional attitude, the available Sport model shown here wears more aggressive bumpers, gloss-black grille, body-colored side sills and unique 19-inch aluminum wheels. It was enough to make lots of pedestrians stop and take notice as I idled through congested city streets outside of Lisbon, Portugal and while I snapped photos by the oceanfront.
There's a solid foundation underpinning the Q30 (again, unlike the Caliber) with platform and drivetrain components borrowed from the aforementioned Mercedes CLA, thanks to Renault-Nissan's partnership with Daimler. Does that mean the Q30 performs like CLA with an Infiniti body on top? No, it doesn't. It actually behaves like, well, an Infiniti. Credit chief vehicle engineer Grahame Cornforth and his team for that.
A 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque married to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is the sole drivetrain combination coming to the USA early next summer, and it's where some of Cornforth team's most impressive tuning work is on display. My aforementioned stop-and-go driving through crowded city streets is where dual-clutch gearbox tuning is truly put to the test, and the Q30 proved delightful. It consistently balanced right-now takeoffs from throttle tip-in paired with smooth shift performance. Notably, that's not always the case in the CLA, which has muted throttle response and is plagued at times with harsh, jerky gear changes.
Depending on your mood, the Q30's transmission offers three modes: Economy, Sport and Manual. Economy is for when you're feeling fuel frugal, and the gearbox short-shifts like crazy, trying to get the engine into a high gear and low revs. This frustrated me, as the car would bog down for a second before dropping a gear or two when I mashed the gas pedal in an effort to speed up. Sport holds onto gears longer and offers snappy downshifts when you're in a hurry. It ended up being the setting I used most. Manual mode is as described, with excellent response to paddle shifter commands for both up- and downshifts, and it's a perfect setting for the times you want to play racecar driver on your way home from work.
Get up and go from the turbo engine is strong, with gobs of power -- particularly in the middle of the rev range -- helping propel the Q30 quickly away from roundabouts and past slower expressway traffic with ease. I have no complaints about boost lag or peaky power delivery. At idle, this engine still sounds coarse and clanky, but you'll only notice it with the windows down. With them up, the racket is kept out by the well-insulated cabin.
Cornforth and his group also worked their magic on a suspension that features MacPherson struts up front and a multilink configuration in back. Adding to the dynamic challenge is a slightly higher ride height compared to most sedans. The Q30 doesn't sit as high as a typical crossover, but this taller height, along with its body design, is presumably what Infiniti means when it calls this model an "active compact." Either way, the surefootedness I experience snaking through winding Portuguese roads and around tight turns impressed me. The Q30 stays well controlled in all situations -- it never feels clumsy and topheavy. My Sport model's suspension with its firmer dampers, springs, larger antiroll bars and meaty 19-inchEfficientGrip run-flat tires surely helped matters.
Steering is similarly well tuned, being quick to respond to inputs while also providing enough feedback for a car in this class. The wheel simply did everything I asked of it without feeling numb on center, artificially heavy, or overly light. Finding an electric power steering system that strikes a happy medium between comfort and performance is difficult, but the Q30's is darn close. The Sport also gets larger front brakes, which confidently slowed things down with a progressive pedal feel.
The only caveat to my drive impressions is that my test car was fitted with all-wheel drive, while all Q30s destined for the US market will be exclusively front-wheel drive. Fans of AWD will have to wait for Infiniti's Q30-based crossover, dubbed -- you guessed it --. That model will join the ranks soon, as it's making its world debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show shortly.
Even with its fine handling chops, I found the Q30's ride comfort pleasing, as well. The combination of a firmer suspension setup and wide run-flat tires don't usually yield both a well-damped and quiet ride on paper, but they do in practice here. Only a couple of really large bumps during my drive truly jolted the Q30's cabin, but typical small to medium road hazards were easily absorbed by the suspension, with very little road, wind and tire noise penetrating the interior.
The cabin threw me off for a bit with its mixture of Mercedes controls baked in with its Infiniti design ethos. Things like the gauges, steering column control stalks, center-stack controls, window switches, transmission shift lever and flat-bottom steering wheel are sourced from Benz's parts bin. The overall blockier design of the dashboard, conversely, is all Infiniti, and it looks great with stitched, suede-like trim covering main touch points. Even what few hard plastics exist feel more substantial than those found in the CLA. The cockpit's sport seats with integrated headrests were easy to get comfortable in, and they held me in place nicely while bombing around corners throughout the afternoon.
Available in-cabin technology includes Infiniti's InTouch system, and it provides Bluetooth, voice recognition, hands-free text messaging and access to Google search and Facebook apps. When paired with navigation, InTouch is also capable of automatic collision notification, tracking a stolen vehicle, and remote locking and unlocking. A thorough test of the Q30's Infiniti InTouch system will come closer to the car's launch when a proper US-spec model becomes available for evaluation.
When the Q30 goes on sale in the US early next summer, expect it to carry a base price of around $32,000. Pricing hasn't been announced in the UK, but when it does reach showrooms there in mid-January, the Q30 will be available with four engine options, including 1.6- and 2-liter turbocharged gas engines, as well as a 1.5-liter or 2.2-liter diesel four-cylinder. Australia will get both gas engines next summer, with local pricing available closer to launch. (For reference, the US base price converts to around £19,750 and AU$42,300 at current exchange rates.)
Infiniti has a compelling luxury compact on its hands with the Q30. It doesn't look, perform or feel like a budget player, and it's a practical, refined and rather entertaining vehicle that people shopping this space next summer should certainly take a gander at. My early scorecard has the Q30 ahead of the CLA but neck-and-neck with Audi's A3.
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