We approached the Infiniti QX4 with much mumbling and whining.

Because in this age of re-badged sport utilities lurk more masquerades than a costume ball for singles.

Car builders have nipped and tucked the Isuzu Trooper into an Acura SLX, and made a Mercury Mountaineer out of a molehill-stomping Ford Explorer. Toyota's Land Cruiser has been transmogrified into the Lexus LX450. Beneath the slick cladding of Honda's Passport lurks the viscera of an Isuzu Rodeo. It all comes dangerously close to royal marriages between first cousins.

Infiniti is quite shy about all this sleight of brands. In several dozen pages of press releases explaining the QX4, there is not one mention that this $36,000 vehicle is very much a mechanical, dimensional and visual clone of a Nissan Pathfinder that costs thousands less. Except, it must be noted, for the QX4's impressive, automatic, quick-thinking, four-wheel-drive system.

A 3.3-liter, 168-horsepower V-6 engine and four-speed automatic are common to both vehicles. So are the overall lines, interior layout, combination unibody-frame construction, multi-link suspension, five doors, seating plan, cargo capacity, fuel consumption, acceleration, top speed, length, height and 5,000-pound hauling capacity.

Standard equipment on the Infiniti QX4, however, means getting all the pricey options--four-wheel drive, leather seating, running boards, splash guards, alloy wheels and CD sound system--found only on a fully loaded Nissan Pathfinder LE costing $31,000.

So for an additional $5,000 you get a QX4 with faux walnut trim on dashboard and doors, 16-inch wheels, thicker insulation to drown out road noise and jungle screeches, a higher perch on the traffic chain, a softer ride for those whose idea of tough travel is crossing Wilshire Boulevard on a rainy weeknight--and that slick transmission system developed by parent Nissan and dubbed All-Mode 4WD.

And for ski-lodge rough riders ready to risk crud only when messy traction decisions are left to sensors and black boxes, this technology alone may make the QX4 a bargain at double the price difference.

What you don't see: A wet, multi-plate clutch in the center differential is managed by an electronic control unit that reads wheel slip, throttle position and engine revolutions, and instantly sends optimum, variable amounts of torque to front and rear axles. Even if front and rear wheels are losing grip, the unit favors the set with the least amount of grab.

Add traction control and anti-lock brakes, and it's a system capable of traversing a muddy Gobi in a freezing monsoon.

What you do see: a dash-mounted rotary switch with three settings. "2WD" casts the QX4 as a two-wheel-drive vehicle with 100% of engine power sent to the rear wheels. "Auto" adds bloodhounds to the system, sniffing out slippage and grip and splitting torque front and rear; anywhere from all power to the rear to a maximum 50-50 front and rear.

"Lock" puts the system in irons with full power to all wheels at all times. Settings may be switched on the fly. And with all wheels locked and ready to tug a condominium from quicksand, there's still a floor-mounted lever to engage a set of lower gears.

What you get: automatic, maximum traction in all off- and on-road slop for the very lazy. Also permanent engagement of 4WD and heftier gears for those intent on keeping up with the Indiana Joneses. Plus quick, total, flawless and brainless operation that takes only a tenth of a second to switch modes.


Fortunately, we got to play outdoors with the QX4 when recent storms brought gully washers to Beverly Hills and there was talk of launching a new Long Beach ferry. To Pasadena.

We were the last vehicle police waved onto Burbank Boulevard before steel booms clanged across the Sepulveda Recreation Area. Which, conveniently, left us to create our own wat r sports and a passable imitation of Jacques Cousteau visiting Splash Mountain.

With the transmission switch on "auto," the QX4 tracked straight and competently through hub-high damp while creating bow waves big enough to surf. Hesitations were slight, momentary and occurred only while the electronic gnomes down below were sorting through our savage, deliberately unreasonable power and steering demands.

In the softening goop of deeply flooded shoulders, the QX4plowed and ground ahead as if there were no mud. When water levels dropped to thick puddles, the QX4 handled the surfaces as crisp and dry.

There was no need to engage 4WD and lower gears although we were challenging a very nasty Southern California winter.

And there was a delicious superiority in remaining dry, warm, comfortable and listening to big band CDs in a luxury vehicle unperturbed by obstacles ahead or bottomless mush underfoot. The worst, in fact, was enormous fun.


Nissan and Infiniti have much riding on this vehicle.

Vehicle sales for parent and division, despite some award-winning advertising and proven product quality, continue to hover between dismal and panic stations.

Anxiety certainly was evident in a presumably confidential document--a strategy written by Infiniti's public relations counsel, Porter-Novelli of Irvine--that somehow wriggled into our press literature.

It outlined plans for October's press launch of the QX4 and targeted "select journalists [who] will be flown into Phoenix . . . [and] receive first-class luxury treatment to reinforce Infiniti's positioning, starting with a welcome dinner.

"Expected Results . .. article(s) on All-Mode 4WD System to achieve quotes like 'best available,' 'most advanced' or 'most significant.' "

Don't know about those descriptions.

But All-Mode 4WD is almost as much fun as wading across Sepulveda Basin in your Wellingtons.

You can quote me.

1997 Infiniti QX4

The Good: The easiest, most earnest, all-mode four-wheel-drive system. Excellent merger of on-road luxuries and comfort, off-road skills and power. Based on tough, stylish Nissan Pathfinder, a good path to find.

The Bad: A lift gate that will bruise many eyebrows. Ersatz wood trim out of place on a pricey sport-ute.

The Ugly: Depends how you feel about a Nissan in Infiniti clothing.

Cost Base: $35,550. (Includes dual air bags; all-mode 4WD; four-speed automatic; leather seats; 16-inch alloy wheels; anti-lock brakes; roof rack; running boards; tinted glass; power seats, locks and mirrors; six-speaker Bose audio with CD; cruise control; air-conditioning; and security system.) As tested, $37,695. (Adds power sunroof, heated front seats, limited slip differential and destination charges.)

Engine 3.3-liter, V-6 developing 168 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, five-passenger, luxury sport utility.

Performance 0-60 mph, as tested, with automatic, 12.8 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 110 mph. Fuel consumption, EPA estimate, city and highway, 19 and 15 mpg.

Curb Weight 4,275 pounds.