Infiniti is getting squeezed. On the one hand, its premium rivals have fresher ranges, more competitive models, and sports sedans like this 2021 Q50 Red Sport 400 AWD can no longer count on power alone to distinguish them. On the other, mainstream and more affordable vehicles are getting ever-stronger, including cars from Infiniti’s own Nissan sibling.
It’s a pinch that has already claimed the QX80, Infiniti’s three-row SUV being more expensive yet less user-friendly than its Nissan Armada counterpart, and the QX50, which delivers “acceptable” in a category where “outstanding” has become table-stakes. I suspect the Q50 will be next to succumb.
Launched in 2013, and then massaged back in 2016, the Q50 is no spring chicken. Lest I be accused of automotive agism, let’s be clear: older needn’t mean worse. Get the recipe just right – as the old G-Class and Defender showed – and you can coast for decades on enthusiast appeal alone.
Problem is, I’m not convinced the Q50 is cooked quite right. At least, not sufficiently to make it an icon of the sort that you willingly look beyond its peccadillos. In short, a great engine does not a great car make.
Make no mistake, Infiniti’s 3.0-liter V6 twin-turbo is a lovable thing. 400 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque are more than healthy, even half a decade after Infiniti unveiled it, and it sounds pretty darn glorious too. Raspy and prone to the occasional bark, it’s an exhaust that reminds you why – even with electrifications’ clear performance advantages at this point – EVs haven’t quite won over everybody yet.
Infiniti pairs it here with all-wheel drive and a 7-speed automatic transmission. The Q50 grips nicely, and though there’s a little lean through more aggressive cornering it’s never to the point where you’re afraid things might break loose. It’s definitely tuned on the firm side, and shoddy road surfaces do make themselves known in the cabin.
The automatic shifts smoothly, and is positively slushy when you’re pottering around town. It’s capable of faster stuff, though, however in Sport and Sport+ modes it’s perennially reluctant to upshift. That’s great when you’re pushing hard, but does leave you sounding like the person who forgot how to change gears when you’re tapping the 400 horses for more point-and-squirt play.
Since I’m British and already riddled with anxieties, I figured it was better to take over the gear-changes myself, lest people in the lane next to me think I just enjoyed the sound of a V6 spinning at 4,500 rpm while I was cruising at 35 mph or so. The good news is that manual overrides here don’t have any of the lag or seeming-disconnect that some automatics suffer, where it can feel like each snap of the paddle has to go via a panel of adjudicators before the cogs are actually shuffled.
My review car didn’t come with Infiniti’s most controversial option, the drive-by-wire steering. In theory, it allows for more responsive control as well as the ability to more comprehensively tweak the performance and feedback according to each drive mode. In reality, whenever I’ve driven an Infiniti with it, I’ve found it oddly light and distant: as though you’re using a console’s gaming wheel.
Honestly, even the Q50’s regular steering still feels a little disconnected from what’s happening at the road. Enough that, after my first drive, I double-checked the specs to make doubly-sure the Direct Adaptive Steering wasn’t added.
The overall feeling is a little… old-school. Infiniti’s V6 has plenty of torque from the get-go, but the underwhelming steering and transmission foibles just don’t make the best of it. A good sports sedan makes you want to drive it, even when you don’t have any other reason than desire. Even in Red Sport form, the Q50 just doesn’t inspire that lust.
The interior only helps a little. There’s plenty of space for those up front, but the rear bench is tight. Cabin nooks and cubbies are on the small side, too, and the 13 cu-ft trunk is easily bested by its competitors. It’s the tech where things really show their age, mind: Infiniti’s dual touchscreen dashboard is complex and the graphics are lumpen and ugly.
Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, as is – on the Red Sport 400 – a well-tuned Bose 16-speaker audio system, but they’re not enough to distract you from the small, outdated-looking display that’s sandwiched between the analog gauges.
Part of my frustration is the sense that Infiniti isn’t really trying, here. Or, at least, if the wishlist of potential upgrades for the Q50 had been ranked from easiest to toughest, the automaker hasn’t tackled even the low-hanging fruit. Sure, ditching the twin-screen infotainment for a whole new platform might be cost-prohibitive, but swapping in some metal paddle-shifters, replacing the cheap-feeling generic Nissan starter button, and upgrading some of the more plasticky trim would go a long way.
Instead you pay $145 to add charging ports to the rear, and that just seems ridiculous on a $58k luxury sedan. You do, at least, get leather, a power moonroof, heating for the front seats and steering wheel, adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping assistance – that works well, unlike some rival systems – and dual-zone climate control. On the safety side, there’s predictive forward collision warnings with emergency braking, blind spot warnings and backup collision intervention, lane departure warnings, and a 360-degree camera that, though suffering woefully low-resolution graphics, does at least flag any moving objects to you.
Outside, 19-inch alloys are standard, plus red-painted calipers for the grippy sport brakes. All-in, with the carbon fiber side mirror covers and rear spoiler, the new Slate Gray paint, illuminated kick-plates, and the Cargo Package, it brings the 2021 Q50 Red Sport 400 AWD to $61,890 including the $1,025 destination.
For running costs, the EPA says you should see 19 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway, and 22 mpg combined. Not great on paper – though the RWD version does nudge ahead a little – but I managed over 24 mpg without too much effort.
2021 Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400 Verdict
The market has spoken and, as buyers swarm SUVs and crossovers, the stakes and expectations are higher than ever for a sports sedan. Therein lies Infiniti’s problem: the Q50 Red Sport 400 feels a lot like the car which launched in 2016. For about the same money today, you could have an AMG C43 or a BMW M340i xDrive, both down on power but each more engaging to drive and with nicer accommodations.
Or, for that matter, you could soon buy a 2021 Acura TLX Type S. Again it’s down on power, but it’ll be considerably cheaper than the Infiniti and the difference in cabin design and tech is chalk-and-cheese. In the end, after all, while high horsepower numbers are nice they’re still only part of an overall package.
That’s the challenge the Q50 faces. The V6 under its hood is the star, but even a perfect powertrain can’t carry a car that’s lacking elsewhere, and Infiniti’s isn’t even a perfect powertrain. It’s a potent engine, and it sounds fantastic, but the rest of the pieces here just don’t add up to something properly compelling in a fiercely competitive segment.