EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

We think it would be really hard to write the ads for the QX4, Infiniti’s near-luxury sport-utility vehicle. That’s because the QX4 (yes, even company representatives call it Cue-by-Four), although it’s an extremely competent entry in this highly competitive segment, has no “unique selling proposition,” as they say on Madison Avenue.

Like most of its counterparts in the upper end of the sport-ute market, the QX4 started life in blue-collar trappings. Japanese parent Nissan Motor Co. basically took a Pathfinder, added a new nose and a different four-wheel-drive system, plus some nice leather upholstery and lots of amenities, and slapped an upscale marque on it.

Should the QX4’s slogan be “a Pathfinder and little more?”

Well, like we said, it’s a good thing we don’t write jingles.

She: I felt very lucky that we hauled a lot of people in the Infiniti while we were testing it. And that’s where some of my problems with the QX4 began – getting in and out it. That’s why classy hotels spend so much on doormen, marble floors and fancy chandeliers. If you’re not sold while stepping into it, how can you appreciate hidden qualities?

For starters, the rear doors aren’t wide enough, especially if you are a candidate for Weight Watchers or you’re trying to strap a child into a car seat. And the running boards weren’t wide enough and needed some other nonskid material on them, especially in rainy weather. So I admit I was a little cranky about those two things.

He: Well, that’s the first step. First step, get it? Never mind. I have no major complaints about the QX4, but then I always liked the Pathfinder. I’m just not sure I’d spend the extra dough on the Infiniti over the Nissan unless the special treatment at the Infiniti dealership makes a big difference to you.

She: Like most guys, you could learn a few lessons yourself in the special-treatment department.

He: Are we still talking about cars here or what? As I was saying, probably the biggest beef I have is with the engine, a single-overhead-cam 3.3-liter V-6 that puts out 168 horsepower and comes with a standard four-speed automatic transmission. Next to many of its competitors, that feels almost anemic. And there’s a disturbing lag in the throttle when you mash the accelerator pedal. It’s especially disconcerting if you’re pulling out to pass on a busy two-lane highway.

She: On the plus side, the QX4 has a really smooth ride, and it’s easy to maneuver and park. I also like the fact that you don’t have to fool around too much with the four-wheel-drive system, which Nissan calls “All-Mode 4WD.” It sounds more complicated than it is. There’s a switch on the instrument panel with three settings, including positions that will lock you into either two- or four-wheel drive. The “auto” setting basically gives you on-demand four-wheel drive, like when you’re driving on wet or icy pavement and the rear wheels start to slip. Then the system automatically sends more power to the front wheels.

He: It’s not as efficient or as stable as full-time four-wheel drive. Plus Nissan didn’t really save all that much in fuel economy.

She: The gas mileage is awful, considering this is really a compact, and not a full-size model. The EPA ratings are 15 miles per gallon in the city and only 19 on the highway. The Lincoln Continental we drove last week had a bigger, more powerful V-8 engine and still got 17 and 24 mpg. What’s the problem?

He: While we’re on the subject of drivetrains, I wish Nissan would have gone all the way and eliminated that primitive little shift lever on the floor for the 4WD transfer case. If you’re off in the woods and want to go to 4-Lo, you have to reach down and pull the lever. A dashboard-mounted pushbutton would have been a much simpler and more elegant solution, especially in a vehicle with luxury pretensions.

She: Typical, Lienert, you want everything the easy way. If you paid any attention t he marketing surveys, you’d know that sport-ute owners actually prefer that shift lever on the floor. Even the ones who never plan to take their vehicles off the pavement.

He: Hey, I’m allowed to gripe a little, aren’t I?

She: Not today. It’s Friday, and you’ve been whining the whole week. Why don’t you talk about how nice the cabin is? Our test vehicle was pretty loaded, and had only two options – a sunroof package with a CD changer for $1,250 and heated front seats for $400. I thought they were both useful. And the bottom line is still only $37,695. Did you notice that Nissan didn’t raise the price on the ’98 model? It also comes with a great warranty – four years or 60,000 miles – and a terrific 24-hour roadside assistance program that’s good for 48 months.

Besides that, you get a free loaner vehicle from the dealer when your QX4 is in for scheduled warranty work. Now that’s what I call customer satisfaction.

He: So should their ad slogan be, “A Pathfinder – with dynamite customer service?”

She: Or maybe “A nice Pathfinder that still needs wider doors and better running boards.”

1998 Infiniti QX4

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle

Price: Base, $35,550; as tested, $37,695 (includes $495 destination charge)

What’s new for ’98: Carried over from ’97 with few changes

Standard equipment: Leather upholstery, eight-way power driver’s seat, four-way power front passenger seat, split fold-down rear seat, power windows, power locks, keyless remote entry system, automatic temperature control, cruise control with steering-wheel-mounted controls, front and rear dual cupholders, front and rear 12-volt power outlets, overhead console with temperature and compass display, map pockets, cargo net, retractable cargo area cover, Bose 150-watt audio system with AM-FM cassette and CD player, alloy wheels, Bridgestone all-season radial tires, integrated HomeLink transmitter

Safety features: Dual front air bags, height-adjustable front shoulder belts, child-proof rear door locks

Options on test vehicle: Sunroof Preferred Package, including power sunroof, CD changer, rear wind deflector ($1,250); heated seats ($400)

EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city/19 mpg highway

Engine: 3.3-liter V-6; 168-hp at 4800 rpm; 196 lb-ft torque at 2800 rpm

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Competitors: Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, Ford Explorer Limited, Mercury Mountaineer, Oldsmobile Bravada, GMC Jimmy SLT, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, Honda Passport, Acura SLX, Mitsubishi Montero, Isuzu Rodeo, Isuzu Trooper, Land Rover Discovery

Specifications: Wheelbase, 106.3 inches; overall length, 183.9 inches; curb weight, 4275 pounds; legroom, 41.7 inches front/31.8 inches rear; headroom, 38.1 inches front/37.5 inches rear; shoulder room, 56.6 inches front/56.4 inches rear

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $ 2,109

Where built: Kyushu, Japan

* Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

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