Infiniti's Entry-Level Crossover: The Brexit Problem

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 19, 2016

SEATTLE—Sean McNamara, Infiniti’s senior manager for product planning, was outlining the plans for the company’s new entry-level 2017 QX30 crossover, replacing the G-Series sedans. It’s a sign of the times, since Americans have made it abundantly clear that they love small SUVs these days. But here was another sign of the times: The QX30 is a global car, fruit from the close partnership between Nissan/Renault and Daimler (launched in 2010).
 
Three versions of the QX30 in Seattle, starting around $30,000. (Jim Motavalli photo)The big picture according to SlashGear: “The 2017 Infiniti QX30 is Japanese designed, built in post-Brexit Britain, with German parts and engineering, and packaged for crossover-loving America: if that doesn’t earn it the title of a ‘global car,’ I’m not sure what would….Underneath Japan’s bold styling, this car speaks German.”

From the back, the family resemblance with the QX50 is clear. (Jim Motavalli photo)The QX30 (based on the Ethera concept) indeed speaks German, because under the skin it’s a Mercedes-Benz GLA—the two were designed together. But the German has an English accent. As McNamara explained, the QX30 will be built in Nissan’s plant in Sunderland, England, where the Q30 sedan began production last year. Three hundred new jobs will be added.

This is Spinal Support! No word on whether these seats go to 11. (Jim Motavalli photo)The new crossover isn’t just for America. McNamara explained it’s also aimed squarely at European buyers—specifically, introducing them to the Infiniti brand with an affordable new model. And there’s the rub. When Nissan made its bet on Sunderland, it couldn’t have known that Great Britain would get serious about Brexit—and actually pass the darned thing. I asked McNamara how backing out of the European Union would affect the car’s prospects, especially since many of the cars are earmarked for Europe, which may well slap import duties on vehicles from England. “It complicates matters,” he said.

Here's just how huge Nissan's Sunderland plant is--500,000 cars a year, and 80 percent for export. (Jim Motavalli photo)It’s not like Nissan could easily shift production elsewhere. Sunderland is huge, with a volume of 500,000 in 2014 (one in three of all cars made in the U.K.)—and 80 percent is exported. The Nissan Leaf electric car is made there, also the Nissan Qashqai, Note and Juke. It employs 6,700 people, and Nissan has invested more than $4.6 billion there since 1986.

I wrote a whole column about why Brexit is a bad deal for England’s struggling auto industry, virtually all of which is under foreign ownership (including Mini, Bentley and Rolls-Royce in German hands). Post-Brexit, could manufacture of those cars shift to continental Europe? It’s still unlikely, given how entwined those marques are with their British heritage, but possible. But new export-oriented car plants in England? Doubtful.

The QX30 on the road at Chateau Schafer. (Jim Motavalli photo)Nissan/Infiniti must surely have wanted the vote to go the other way. Because they have a global car to sell, in an exploding category—Nissan expects sales in the C-Segment crossover category to triple. The QX30 has a lot going for it, including a well-equipped base model priced under $30,000. Rear visibility isn’t great (the rear window is narrow), but it’s the best-handling crossover I’ve driven.

Driving the QX30 was fun. The scenery sure helped, since we drove all around the Olympic Peninsula and Bainbridge Island, stopping at places like Gig Harbor on Puget Sound—so pretty it looked like a movie set.

The new car’s quirky styling isn’t a departure, since the resemblance to the larger QX50 is quite clear. Drivers will “sit up high” in all three variants—the QX30, QX30 Sport and QX30 AWD—though there are minor differences in ride height. (The Sport is 0.6 inches lower than standard; the AWD 1.2 inches higher.)

Of course, nobody’s expecting that many $30,000 cars will escape the factory—there are lux and premium packages for even the base vehicle. All that stuff is pretty numbing to enumerate (the AWD comes with standard roof rails!), so let’s just say you can build your own QX30.

I’m an automotive journalist, so I chose to drive the QX30 Sport in, well, sport mode. As such it had refreshing alacrity off the line, though there was some lag at specific acceleration points. It’s a fairly quiet car, too, and McNamara was sure to point out that despite the raiding of the Mercedes' parts bin, the transmission, throttle and steering were all tuned by Infiniti.

Driver change at Gig Harbor. This auto writing thing is tough. (Jim Motavalli photo) The two-liter turbo four-cylinder engine offers 208 horsepower, and 258 foot pounds of torque. That’s mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Start-stop is standard, but it can be turned off via a defeat switch. I’d leave it on, because it’s part of why the QX30 will achieve an estimated 30 mpg on the highway. (Infiniti is a bit tentative about that, though.)

A big plus in the QX30 is acres of front-seat legroom, which makes long-distance travel a lot easier. Of course, rear-seat riders would have to be compliant. Also worth applauding are the spinal support seats, which are supposed to reduce fatigue 30 percent compared to a standard seat. The wheelbase of the QX30 (106.3 inches) is slightly longer than the BMW X1 and the Audi Q3, but of course it’s exactly the same as the Mercedes GLA. And there’s 19.2 cubic feet of cargo space.

Yes, that is indeed the Sleepless in Seattle house. (Jim Motavalli photo)MacPherson struts are up front, multi-link suspension occupies the rear. Electronic power steering had very nice feel on the twisty Olympic Peninsula roads. Lane departure warning was very present when crossing the double lines—it gently vibrates the steering wheel. Also available, and worth paying for, are forward emergency braking, high-beam assist (one of my favorite new features on cars), intelligent cruise control, forward collision and blind spot warning.

For less than $30,000, the QX30 comes with dual-zone automatic climate control, a non-premium six-speaker audio system, paddle shifters, rear view monitor and LED running lights. That’s OK, but the $38,500 Sport adds a Bose 10-speaker job, 19-inch wheels, cross-drilled front rotor braking, and intelligent park assist.

My guess is that Infiniti will sell mostly Sports and $34,400 AWD Luxury packages. The latter is a pretty swanky car for a price that’s around the average Americans pay for cars ($33,560 last year, according to Kelley Blue Book).

But what will happen in Europe? Well, that entirely depends on how Brexit is received in countries such as France, Germany and Spain. With a big price increase because of import tariffs, the QX30 will lose its status there as the entry point for the Infiniti brand.

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