Nissan's Infiniti luxury division is the latest import brand to add a sport-utility vehicle to its lineup. The new QX4 is based on the popular Nissan Pathfinder, which was given a major overhaul in 1996. After spending a week behind the wheel of a dark purple QX4, I was mightily impressed with the vehicle's high quality, comfort and generous level of equipment. But I wonder if there is $7,000 worth of difference between the QX4 and the top-of-the-line $30,000 Pathfinder LE. Both vehicles have the same engine and transmission, nearly identical interior and much of the same equipment. When you buy the Infiniti, you get a more advanced four-wheel drive system, a different grille and taillights and some fake (make that faux) wood trim on the dash. There are also some other minor cosmetic changes. More importantly, you also get treated like royalty whenever you visit the Infiniti dealer for maintenance and service. That means a free loaner car and other perks. Whether that is a strong enough inducement to pay the extra $7,000 or so is strictly a matter of personal choice. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING Nissan could have and should have given the QX4 a more powerful engine. Not only would that have given potential buyers a more compelling reason to choose the QX4 over the Pathfinder, but it also would have made the most luxurious version of this truck more enjoyable to drive. As it stands, the 168-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6 delivers adequate acceleration and nothing more. The single overhead cam motor has a lot of work to do moving the 4,300-pound vehicle. Sometimes passing slower traffic quickly strains the engine. However, in normal city driving the V-6 runs smoothly and quietly and offers good acceleration from zero to 45 mph. TheQX4 comes only with a four-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive. By simply turning a small knob on the dash, the driver can set the system totwo-wheel drive, to ''auto'' or to ''lock.'' When in the auto mode, an onboard computer constantly monitors the speed of the wheels. If it detects rear-wheel slippage, power is directed to the front wheels. If not, the QX4 bops down the highway using only the rear wheels for propulsion. In the lock position, 50 percent of the power is sent to the front wheels and 50 percent to the rear. I drove the QX4 most of the time in the auto mode. Because it rained frequently during the weeklong road test, the roads were slippery. I could not feel the four-wheel drive system at work, either because the wheels didn't slip or because the system's delivery of power to the wheels is exceptionally smooth. In either case, the QX4 held the road well and inspired confidence when I drove it in bad weather. Infiniti engineers tuned theQX4's suspension system for a smooth, quiet ride - very much in keeping with the division's other luxury offerings. The QX4's stiff chassis allows t he front independent and rear five-link suspension system generous up-and-down wheel movement, so that when the truck rolls over big bumps, very little of the energy is felt inside the vehicle. In light off-road situations, such as on dirt roads and smooth fields of grass the QX4 is enjoyable to drive. Without more power, I'd never take the QX4 in off-road areas where a V-8-powered Land Rover Discovery, Mercury Mountaineer or Jeep Cherokee could go. Two thumbs up for the QX4's powerful front disc/rear drum anti-lock brake system and power assisted rack-and-pinion steering system. FIT AND FINISH When you start with a vehicle as good as the Pathfinder - which I think is among the best in its price class - it's hard to make improvements. But I think the QX4's interior is another area where Nissan could have done more to separate the top-of-the-line Pathfinder from the QX4. Some expensive-looking real wood trim on the dash and door panels would h ve been just enough to make the QX4 feel as if it were more than a tarted-up version of the Pathfinder. In any case, the gorgeous leather-covered bucket seats were extremely comfortable over the long haul. I made several trips of more than two hours and felt fine. Rearseat passengers will find a good amount of head, leg and foot room. But I felt the seating position in the back seemed a bit low. If Infiniti could raise the rear seats about two inches, rear seat passengers would feel more a part of the interior. I folded the rear seats forward and discovered the QX4 has enough cargo room to haul a full-size bicycle. But folding the seats forward is a two-step process that requires some handiwork. First you have to pull up the bottom cushions. Then you have to remove the rear headrests. Then you can fold the seatbacks forward. I have still not seen a compact sport utility vehicle that has a more user-friendly interior than the Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer. The Ford seats fold forward and flat in seconds. I have one major gripe about the QX4. The vehicle does a miserably poor job of dispersing water. Drive the QX4 through a large puddle and water will shoot out and up from the front tires and land on the windshield heavily enough to nearly obscure your vision. Further, water collects on the roof and runs down the windshield and the side windows when the vehicle starts or stops after being rained on. I can't recall driving a vehicle that so poorly managed water. As you would expect of an Infiniti, the QX4 is a very well-equipped vehicle. And though it is hard to define value in $37,000 truck, I can't find one area where I felt the QX4 was lacking in equipment. It had just one option, the $1,650 Premium Sport Package, which included a power sunroof and a limited slip rear axle. A CD player, cruise control, power heated seats, power mirrors, windows and door locks, leather interior, fog lights, aluminum wheels and many other items come standard. Since the QX4 went on sale in January, Infiniti dealers have been selling them with no trouble. Perhaps the same people who buy Infinitis wouldn't be caught dead in a Nissan showroom. But for those who are more concerned about tangible things, such as performance and value for the money, the Pathfinder Le will get you where you are going in much the same way for a whole lot less money. Specifications: INFINITI QX4 LENGTH Overall 183.9 FRONT COMPARTMENT Head room 38.1 Leg room 41.7 REAR COMPARTMENT Head room 37.5 Leg room 31.8 WARRANTY Four-year, 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper; six-year, 70,000-mile powertrain coverage; seven-year unlimited mileage rust protection and 24-hour roadside assistance. MECHANICAL Drivetrain layou t: front-mounted engine, transmission and transfer case, four-wheel drive. Brakes: Power-assisted front disc/rear drum with ABS. Engine: 168-horsepower, 3.3-liter single overhead cam 12-valve V-6. Transmission: Computer-controlled four-speed automatic. OTHER MODELS N/A -Base price: $35,550.
-Price as tested: $37,695.
-EPA rating: 15 mpg city/19 mpg highway.
-Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes and side-impact protection. Truett's tip: The classy QX4 is a tightly built and quiet-running luxury four-wheel drive vehicle. With more horsepower and some real wood trim inside, it would be a contender for best in class.
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