As concerned Ford Explorer owners search for replacement tires, I found myself helping friends clean out a garage full of old car parts.The reason car enthusiasts hord parts is so that when something breaks, the collector will have a spare on hand. Although these friends (aka the troublemakers) do have extra tires, some of which I hauled, they don't have any extra Explorer tires. This is despite owning an Explorer. Of course, after an afternoon of hauling dusty old boxes full of enigmatic scraps of rubber and metal, it was comforting to climb into the cushy luxury of Infiniti's newly-reworked QX4 sport utility vehicle. This vehicle was way too nice to haul dusty old car parts. The basic chassis is carried over from last year, as is most of the bodywork. But the grille and bumpers have been reworked. The most notable change is the high-intensity discharge Xenon headlamps up front. But this subtle change shouldn't hide the bigger change underneath. For 2001, Infiniti ups the power ante with an all-new 3.5-liter double-overhead-cam V-6, good for 240 horsepower and 265 foot-pounds of torque. This is a huge improvement over the 3.3-liter single-overhead-cam 170-horsepower mill that previously resided under the hood. Power is effortless and comes on strong from low in the rev range. It comes on smooth, with a solid exhaust note to remind you that you're riding in a truck. But it's not objectionable. Power is fed through a four-speed automatic transmission to an all-wheel-drive system. The system is derived from the all-wheel-drive system used in Nissan's Skyline sport coupe. It works invisibly with a simple twist of a dash-mounted switch, delivering up to 50 percent of the vehicle's torque to the front wheels. A low range is included for low-traction situations. For the first time, a two-wheel-drive version is available. Handling is quite adept for an SUV. This was always a QX4 strong suit, but the added power makes it more apparent. There's an excellent balance between a comfortable ride and capable handling. Body lean is minimal, and there's little front-end dive when braking. There's some tire noise, but otherwise, the car is quiet. This is one SUV that has terrific on-road manners. Overall, this is one the best handling SUVs I've driven in a while. The interior sees some change, as well as the exterior. Infiniti warms up the interior with generous doses of leather and imitation birds-eye maple. With a new analog clock at the top center of the dash, the interior does have a more opulent feel. The leather is of a better quality than previous samples. The dash has easy to read gauges, although as is typical these days, information is limited to fuel and temperature. The test vehicle has the optional GPS system installed, which mired the otherwise ergonomically-correct interior. Like all GPS systems, this one was distracting. The visual presentation is crudely executed, again, common to most systems o f this ilk. Uncommonly, this map was presented in a 3-D grid and didn't seem very accurate. Worse, one has to use the GPS screen to adjust the climate control. Skip this option. The center console had plenty of space for beverages. The storage bin had loads of space. A console and outside temperature gauge is mounted just above the rear-view mirror. Heated seats, auto up/down windows, seat position memory were all included. Despite the pretense of luxury, there were a couple items missing that are common in luxury vehicles. There's no auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear seat climate controls or mini-computer to gauge fuel economy and other miscellaneous info. The low-mounted front seats proved comfortable, although long-legged drivers will find leg room on the short side. Raising the power-activated seats doesn't help, for head room is tight. It's even worse in the rear seat. I didn't fit. This cabin seems very tight for the size and mission of the vehicle. Cargo room is ge ous and like any SUV the rear seats fold flat to provide 85 cubic feet of space. The CD changer is located in the cargo area behind a door. A piece of velcro keeps it from flopping about. However, there's no provision for the CD cases, which must be carried elsewhere. Fuel economy was about the norm for an SUV, 16.5 mpg in mostly city/suburban driving. Inifiniti recommends using premium fuel. Yes, this quiet capable SUV was way too nice to haul old Packard parts. But it was nice enough to haul my aching body home to rest up for next week. There's still half a garage to empty.
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