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Test Drive: 2014 Infiniti Q50S 3.7 AWD

 

The Infiniti Q50 is the closest thing you can get to a flying car.

No, it isn’t capable of sustained flight, but it is the first production car available in the U.S. with an optional fighter jet-style steer-by-wire system called Direct Adaptive Steering.

The steering wheel is there merely to send electronic signals to an electric motor mounted to the steering rack that turns the front wheels. Technically it could be a joystick, or mouse, or touchpad, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The Q50 will replace the G37 in showrooms. At least it will when the G37 goes out of production next year. Until then the two will be sold side-by-side, with the Q50 taking on a more premium and pricier position in Infiniti’s lineup.

The Q50 rides on an updated version of the G37’s platform and is pretty much the same size, but prettier, featuring the super-curvy body language of Infiniti’s latest models. The cabin isn’t huge by today’s compact luxury sedan standards, but it is impeccably dressed in leathers, woods and metal trims of a quality that’s easily on par with its $37,955 starting price.

The touch-screen control panel for the infotainment system features a flush, tablet-style bezel that gives it a super contemporary look. The icons are big and easy to hit on the move, though they’re a little slow to react. There’s another screen above it that handles map and other display duties, along with plenty of redundant dials, buttons and a voice recognition system that let you control everything six ways from Sunday.

My only ergonomic complaint is that the leading edge of the center armrest is understuffed, and its frame dugs into my elbow. I wouldn’t normally whine about such a thing, but this is one of the few cars on the road that encourages you to relax a little bit in the driver’s seat.

Load it to the gills with options, which in the case of my all-wheel-drive Q50S test car cranked the price up to $54,215, and there is not a whole lot required for you to do behind the virtual wheel.

The Q50 has cameras all around to help with parking; will automatically stop if you’re about to back into something; monitors your blind spot and intervenes if it’s occupied when you try to change lanes; and can predict if the car in front of the car in front of you is about to crash, warn you, then cinch your seatbelt and hit the brakes if you ignore it.

It also uses the brakes to help you steer around turns, its Active Trace Control feature intervening far earlier than any traditional stability control system if it doesn’t think you’re being all that you can be.

Then there’s the steering itself, which, no surprise, has a semi-autopilot feature that monitors the lines on the road with a camera and can guide the Q50 between them like you’re in a log flume, even around gentle curves. Other cars, including some Infinitis, have had similar capabilities for years, but the fine motor skills of the electric steering rack make this one of the best.

Of course, at some point you’ll have to take matters, and the wheel, firmly into your own hands, and that’s where things get personal. Since there’s no fixed physical connection, it is programmable for both weight and response, so you can tighten it up and lower the number of turns it takes to go from right to left.

It’s not a one-way street, either. The system sends feedback through the wheel to make things feel perfectly normal to you. Well, not perfectly. It filters out the minor imperfections in the road that it determines you don’t need to worry about, so when you hit a small bump the wheel doesn’t even wiggle. Your muscle memory takes some time to get used to it, but not much.

Unless they go looking for it, most people probably won’t realize anything strange is afoot (although the gas pedal in the Q50 does have an Eco mode that allows it to push back if you’re being wasteful with fuel, but I digress). I’ve driven many cars with conventional steering systems that feel more artificial than this one.

Still, this is a sporty sedan with a 328 hp V6 that’s built on a chassis related to the one under the Nissan 370Z, and when you push it to the limit, that thousandth of a degree of disconnect through the wheel is noticeable, if not a dealbreaker.

Even with all-wheel-drive, deactivating the driving aids lets the Q50 be driven with the throttle as much as the steering. It’s much more of a tail-happy drift machine than you’d expect from its chrome-trimmed, upper class appearance.

Is it any more of one without the trick steering? I don’t know, I haven’t had the opportunity to try one of the Q50s with the old-school setup, but I can tell you that they are a little lighter.

In an effort to put the minds of early adopters at ease, Q50s with Direct Adaptive Steering also have a actual steering column installed for back up. It is split in the middle and fitted with a clutch designed to engage if all of the electronic control modules and their backup systems fail.

To some extent, it defeats a big part of the point of the system, which is to simplify things by removing parts from the car in the name of weight savings and safety, but we’re still looking at one giant step for automobilekind here. So far about 35 percent of Q50 buyers -- including those who choose the hybrid model that’s also available -- are opting in.

As it turns out, 23 of those cars have been recalled due to a software glitch that could render the steering inoperative in freezing temperatures, but no incidents have yet been reported from the real world.

Temperatures were in the teens the week that I tested the Q50. I didn’t know at the time that I was playing the role of a ground level Chuck Yeager.

Then again, his sound-barrier busting Bell X-1 had control cables.

Who's the badass now?

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2014 Infiniti Q50S 3.7 AWD

Base Price: $45,905

As Tested: $54,215

Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine: 3.7-liter V6

Power: 328 hp, 269 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

MPG: 19 city/27 hwy