2012 Infiniti QX56

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Infiniti’s all-weather, all-surface dreadnaught, the QX56. It doesn’t have to be pretty.
Infiniti’s all-weather, all-surface dreadnaught, the QX56. It doesn’t have to be pretty.

The most interesting thing about today’s monster sport-utility vehicles is not their size or their luxury or price, or even that they still exist, but how the best of them seem to defy the laws of physics.

We wouldn’t expect something 18 feet long and weighing almost three tons to skip down the road with the agility of a ballet dancer.

Well, OK—a retired, slightly overweight ballet dancer, but still. Once upon a time, only the Toyota Land Cruiser could do this. The others creaked and rocked and shuddered like old sailing ships.

Then the SUV segment exploded. Today the Germans make some awesome crossover SUVs that can outgun sports cars and still clamber over rocks, but even the few remaining truck-based, body-on-frame luxury behemoths with three rows of seats can hustle along with decent grace.

But with all due respect to the Escalade and the Navigator, the Lexus LX and Mercedes-Benz’s GL-class, this Infiniti QX56 takes the prize right now. Nothing else of its heft is so light on its feet.

All these vehicles are much the same size and weight. Towing capacity (high) and fuel economy (miserable) are essentially identical. So are the sticker prices, which run from about $60,000 to $80,000. They’re all armed with V-8 engines, but the Lincoln is way down at 310 horsepower and the Benz 335, while the Caddy and the QX make 403 and 400, respectively, and generate more than 400 pounds of torque. (The GL550 and LX570 are even more money, but still down on power.)

Of these, the Cadillac and the Infiniti are especially well matched. Prices and features line up closely—both even have 22-inch wheels—but the QX56 is much the newer vehicle, and it shows. The cabin is just plain gorgeous, laid out very well and decorated by people with good taste and a seemingly unlimited budget. Standard features include power-folding rear seats, three heating/cooling zones, Xenon lights and an electric liftgate. Various option packages include a DVD theater with two screens and wireless headsets, and everything but a gas fireplace.

Some of the most high-tech features are the ones we can’t see. These include (but are not limited to) cameras, lasers and radars that chime or beep to keep us from backing over the dog or running into the car ahead or the one alongside, or just drifting out of our lane. And then, if we ignore the warnings, they jump into action. Lane Departure Prevention and Blind Spot Warning both apply the brakes on one side to tug us back into line. Intelligent Brake Assist reduces speed before a front-end collision. Adaptive cruise control cuts the throttle when there’s traffic ahead, and speeds up again when the bottleneck clears.

Even the suspension is electronically manipulated. Sensors rush hydraulic fluid from one side to the other when the vehicle begins to lean into a corner, and pump it upright. This is where the QX gets some of its uncanny ability to defy gravity. The rest comes from the powerful engine and the adaptive, computer-controlled 7-speed transmission and transfer case, which offers snow and tow modes and can be switched instantly from automatic AWD to 4 High or 4 Low 4×4 ranges.

Everything is so smooth and so power-assisted, yet so responsive, that just one finger on the wheel and a toe on the accelerator can make the QX56 dance. A vehicle like this has considerable presence by virtue of its sheer size, and a number of my neighbors, who by now have seen about everything in my drive, were moved to comment on it. The feedback was unconstrained by any consideration for my feelings, because they understand no pride of ownership is at stake. So I’ve heard everything from “what a beast!” to “eww, hideous.” I can only reply that, once you’re inside, the ugly goes away.