Ask any braniac elementary school student what happened to the dinosaurs, and they'll tell you they turned into birds. While the mechanics are a bit more complicated than a momma T-Rex hatching a brood of yellow finches, modern science would seem to agree with the concept. When we were in school, the common perception was that those massive lizards parted ways with terra firma courtesy of a jumbo-sized meteor smack. Our Earth Science books called it a mass extinction, and they accompanied the definition with helpful illustrations that depicted contemplative Brontosaurus and Triceratops herds looking off into the distance as a chunk of orange sky plummeted toward the horizon.
So you can't really blame us for thinking that the SUV would follow a similar natural path. When fuel prices shot up, many rejoiced at the thought of global body-on-frame extinction. This was the event some had been patiently waiting for since the high-riding people movers first supplanted the minivan as the family cruiser of choice. And while we've certainly seen weaker species succumb to the heat of pressure from more efficient breeds, the strong continue to soldier on, slowly adapting to a world grown hostile to anything big and thirsty. If you believe Infiniti, that's exactly what the 2011 QX56 has done – evolved.
Ask Infiniti why they bothered to build a third generation QX at all, and they'll politely tell you that the average buyer is one of the youngest and most affluent luxury vehicle consumers out there. The average guy or gal with a QX56 fob in their pocket is 45 years old – a full seven years younger than the national average for all luxury owners – and the luxury arm from Nissan says that its SUV is a sort of brand gateway drug that will have buyers returning to showrooms for years to come.
Instead of abandoning the dwindling large SUV segment altogether, the company has given its flagship QX56 a whole new set of bones. The truck is now based on the globe-crushing Nissan Patrol instead of the Nissan Armada platform, and as such, the dimensions have stayed fairly uniform every which way but up. The new generation bears a nearly identical track compared to the 2010 model, though the truck is three inches shorter thanks to a revised roof rack system. Even so, headroom remains unimpeded.
This isn't a segment that embraces shrinkage, so it's safe to assume that jaws won't drop when consumers discover that this big-boy SUV retains the same waist size. What is surprising is that Infiniti has let the truck's styling evolve into something that fits alongside its G and M siblings. The hard lines of the Armada DNA have been replaced with a calmer aesthetic thanks to a host of gentle curves and arches. Up front, the old blingtastic grille has been swept into a familial "double arch" design that's more cohesive with the rest of the vehicle. The QX56 still holds onto its low-mounted headlights from the last generation, though they've morphed into a much sleeker, form-fitting shape. In photos, the SUV may resemble everyone's favorite white whale, but the look is surprisingly cohesive in the flesh.
From the side, your eye is immediately drawn to those fender vents. The pieces are one part wince, one part engineered awesome, but all Pep Boys. At least the driver's side inlet is actually functional and operates as the intake point for the engine, but the passenger-side chrome is there simply for symmetry's sake. We're not quite sure what we would have preferred to show up in their place, but the vents look like an afterthought borrowed from the Buick parts bin.
If you believe Infiniti, the interior in the QX56 was inspired by the inside of an executive jet. We'd love to be able say whether or not that's a fair comparison, but honestly, we've never gotten within whiffing distance of a private aircraft's leather chairs. We can say that should you ever find yourself fortunate enough to be skimming the skies in a multimillion-dollar airliner, we hope the cabin is as nice as what you find in the new Infiniti bruiser. The front seats are a kind of infinitely-adjustable guilty pleasure. Even at this price point, manufacturers like Cadillac have no problem supplying you with leather-dipped versions of the same thrones found in lesser trucks, but the buckets in the Infiniti are as comfortable as can be.
Infiniti has all but banished hard plastics from the cabin in favor of plenty of leather and other soft touch goodies. The center stack is trimmed in the same plush hide as the seats, complete with excellent stitching. A smoked burlwood of some exotic origin fills the spaces between the vehicle controls, and a handful of chrome accents crop up in all the right places. You won't find any design-shockers on the dash, but everything is easy to access and the controls don't require a computer science degree to navigate.
One of the most useful features onboard is the company's Around View Monitor, a bit of tech that's been popping up in Infiniti models for the past couple of years. The system uses a total of five cameras to help you figure out exactly where the QX56 is in relation to objects around it. If it sounds like a useless piece of kit, we suggest hopping on down to your closest Infiniti dealership for a demonstration. It makes short work of parking lots, detritus-laden garages and towing a trailer in tight spaces.
The QX56 is an eight-passenger craft thanks, in part, to a second row comprised of two buckets and a console instead of the standard bench. Infiniti managed to stretch the second-row leg room to a hefty 41 inches, besting its closest competitor, the Mercedes-Benz GL450, by a full inch and a half. Even with Kareem Abdul Jabar in the pilot's seat, there's plenty of room in the second row for the long-legged. For 2011, the SUV also boasts a slick new power folding seat on the passenger side. Push a button and the unit collapses to make ingress and egress a snap for passengers in the third row.
Speaking of the way-back seats, Infiniti has worked in a new power mechanism that can fold the third row flat to make room for additional cargo. The unit isn't exactly lightening quick, but it beats the pants off of fiddling with tethers, levers and locks. The third row also comes equipped with a power reclining feature that goes a long way toward making the seats more habitable for well-fed adults. We still wouldn't want to spend more than an hour back there, but the space should be more than enough for kids up to tween age.
All in all, the interior is well executed no matter where you're sitting. Though, we aren't entirely without gripe. We would've enjoyed more user-friendly steering wheel controls, as the cruise is operated by no less than five buttons and toggles, and the slew of switchgear is somewhat overwhelming as you're driving along at speed. Likewise, Infiniti has chosen to nestle the adjustments for the side-view mirrors near the driver's left knee instead of on the door panel. We found ourselves rocking back and forth like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman as we tried to find a visibility sweet-spot.
Get past the side-view mirror woes and into traffic, and it quickly becomes clear just how much work went into bringing the third-generation QX56 to life. By moving to the truck to the Nissan Patrol platform, the company managed to slim the curb weight by a healthy 161 pounds. Couple that to a 5.6-liter, direct-injection V8 with 400 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque, and the new SUV has no problem getting out of its own way.
Infiniti says that other than the displacement, the engine shares nothing with the lump in the 2010 QX. Despite the additional 80 horsepower and 20 lb-ft, the new powerplant serves up 14 percent better fuel economy, according to the EPA. That means drivers can expect close to 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway – not entirely impressive, but you then again, you can't tow 8,500 pounds with a Toyota Prius.
Those fuel-economy numbers are partially due to the fact that Infiniti threw an extra three gears into the QX transmission, resulting in an all-new seven-speed unit that keeps the big V8 breathing easy at highway speeds. The 2011 model also boasts a revised four-wheel drive system. Under normal driving conditions, all of the engine's power is directed toward the rear wheels, though up to 50 percent of the grunt can be ushered to the front as necessary. The driver can still lock the system in a 50/50 split via a four-high button, and four-low will still pull you through the really nasty stuff should you ever venture off of your pea-gravel driveway.
Abandoning the Armada platform in favor of Patrol guts had another benefit for Infiniti engineers: stiffness. The company boasts that the new high-rider has less body roll than most luxury sedans thanks in part to a 26 percent increase in torsional rigidity in both the body and frame. Less flex is good, even if you never plan on shuffling the big QX56 through a slalom. Those buyers willing to lay down the extra $5,800 for the Deluxe Touring Package will also enjoy what Infiniti calls the Hydraulic Body Motion Control System – essentially two fluid reservoirs front and rear that send liquid from one side to another to reduce roll and vibration. Trust us when we say it makes a huge difference on how the SUV behaves on the road.
The numbers all talk a pretty good talk, and for the most part, their sum means that the QX56 drives more like a big sedan than a lumbering brute. Power from that reworked V8 is more than ample, and when you give the truck the spurs, it responds with capable speed and a flurry of seamless shifts. Thanks in part to its lower overall height, stability feels greatly improved over the old Armada-based QX, and you find yourself carrying more speed through tight corners than should be possible. We would have liked to have seen more communicative steering in a vehicle of this size, though – the steering wheel offers next to no feedback and was overly sensitive, resulting in lane wandering of the worst variety. Likewise, the brakes, while plenty powerful, are controlled by a less-than-confidence-inspiring pedal. We don't expect racecar characteristics here, but a little firmness never hurts.
For our money, if the luxury SUV genus is to survive for our posterity, it might as well look like the QX56. For 2011, the truck's engineers have managed to give the creation the camouflage it needs to survive in a world dominated by new breeds of crossover, all while keeping the base price identical to the 2010 model – the new Q starts at $56,700 for the two-wheel drive model. It's more comfortable, more controllable, more efficient and more powerful than its ancestors. There may come a day when the QX mutates from the body-on-frame beast we have come to know and love into a more svelte unibody design, but we hope we aren't around to see it.