October 24, 2014 @ 04:51 PM

Feature: Infiniti Q50 S Hybrid – plenty of new tech but does it work?

Infiniti’s new steering system is said to have its roots from the aviation industry. Yet, it feels very much like the human nervous system. Time to see if the synapses are firing Words: Chris Ng

 
Infiniti’s new steering system is said to have its roots from the aviation industry. Yet, it feels very much like the human nervous system. Time to see if the synapses are firing
Words and Photographs: Chris Ng
 
Let’s talk about the steering wheel, that round thing that makes the front tyres turn in order to have a vehicle negotiate a bend; some do it with more ability than others. At the moment, there are generally two kinds of steering systems although the hydraulic is fast giving ground to electric. The common ground here is that both systems require mechanical means to open communication channels between the steering and the front wheels. So it is ludicrous to know that the car I am driving – Infiniti Q50 S Hybrid – has completely done away with the mechanical bits. 
 
As amazing as it sounds, there is really nothing substantially physical connecting the steering wheel to the front axles with the exception of a few wires and some computers. Infiniti calls it Direct Adaptive Steering, which is essentially a steer-by-wire system. How it works is rather simple: the input from the steering wheels is translated into electrical pulses that is sent to the steering actuators and rigid steering rack mount. With this, Infiniti says that there is virtually no delay in turning the wheels. Come to think of it, isn’t this how the PlayStation joy pads work as well?
 
Not that the steering column is completely eliminated, mind you. The old ways are still needed as a last ditch safety net; better to have a reliable backup than none at all. After all, new technology always has a rather irritating characteristic of failing completely in the most inconvenient of situations. Like how a simple mobile phone can get bricked by a flood of the simple binary codes of Whatsapp messages.

If that somehow put you on edge, you can take comfort in the fact that the aviation industry have successfully flown with a similar system. Let’s get right to the point, most planes will be un-flyable if not for the fly-by-wire system, something I think you would have heard of.
 
In the Infiniti Q50 S Hybrid, this steer-by-wire system performs the minor corrections that one would normally do on a craggy piece of road, making the car wander less. It also helps the driver counter strong crosswinds to make sure the car is kept on the straights. 
 
Whether steer-by-wire catches on or not, it is undeniable that the push for better fuel efficiency will see a complete evolution of the humble steering wheel. In a sense, this steer-by-wire system will eventually be found in all cars; so I am really driving the future, yes?  But is the future any good?
 
Close to a hundred turns later, going up and down Frasers Hill, I am no closer to the answer. What I do know is that DAS allows you the freedom of setting up the steering by weight (Heavy, Standard and Light) with response time (Quick, Standard, and Casual) of your choice – how would you like to drive today, sir? 
Right this moment, having the wheel set to Heavy and Quick is giving my arms an unnecessary workout. The setting that I favour most is Standard and Quick, meaning that the wheel isn’t heavy but just as responsive. It also means that I can mimic the exact flight pattern of a flying dragonfly.
 
Later, I found out that different drivers have their own individual preference in steering; the Light-Casual pairing seemed to be the more popular choice. Infiniti somehow preempted this. Customers have the option to have four keys, each programmed to a different driver setting. So if you were to unlock the Q50 S with your grandmother’s key, chances are the steering would be set to Light and Casual. Smart.
 
Unless Light is selected, Standard and Heavy is just as talkative as a well-tuned electric power-assisted steering, and then some. That said, Light isn’t at all mute, it does communicate some road-rumble to your hands. It is the actuators, I am told, which receives the signals from the tyres that put pulse into the steering.
On the other hand, I do suspect that most of the rumblings hail from the uprated spring and dampers of the sport tuned suspension (denoted by the blue ‘S’ on the boot lid). The ‘S’ also puts the car about 15mm closer to the tarmac, which incidentally enhances the fierceness of the Sport’s aero kit. 
 
I keep the DAS on Standard and Quick, my choice setting. And point the nose up some steep inclines that leads back to Fraser’s Hill; I’ve lost count just how many times I’ve been up here today. In this case, it is the journey and not the destination that matters. Secretly, I’m hoping that if I do this enough times, the entire DAS system fails.
The road leading up isn’t the widest, so put a wrong foot forward and you will end up as a temporary installment in the green scenery; that is before the officials scrape you off the side of the hill. Still, there is a certain thrill that comes with the knowledge that the next eight kilometres of continuously flowing S-bends will be a one way road.  
But before I head up, there are more electronics to fiddle with before this car can truly appreciate the ascent. Flicking a little toggle just below the gear lever and you’ll head straight into the Infiniti Drive Mode. There are four pre-set modes that alter engine and transmission response, and how heavy-handed the Active Trace Control (Infiniti’s brand of traction control) will be. The usual Sport, Standard and Eco are here, with the additional Snow and Personal.
Here’s the thing with Personal – in most cars, this mode grants you the flexibility of altering the engine and transmission. Sometimes, it will also allow you to mess around with the steering; but rarely all together. Infiniti lets you do that. They tell me that the Q50 S Hybrid with DAS, the car you see here, allows up to 96 – that’s right, ninety six – different configurations. No, I don’t have the time or the patience to test each one out. The thought of the act itself is already quite insane.
 
Alright, so I settle on a Standard-Quick steering, Sport for engine and transmission, which also reduces traction control. I can’t find anything better given the time.
The car breaks from standstill without so much delay, and without the rear tyres smoking despite giving the accelerator a heavy-footed approach. 5.1 seconds is the time given to get this Q50S Hybrid to 100kph from standstill. But I never made that fast before the first set of corners happen. 
 
The turn in is quick with a kind of sure-footedness that obliterates the first set without giving it a second thought. I’ve done this enough times to know that the left turns can be taken at higher speeds as they allow you to see further up the road. It is the right ones that are tricky, mostly because there are all blind. Go in with all chips on the table and you’ll risk running into the rear of a struggling car.
And so I feed it in slowly, turning the wheel with definite but minute degrees until I can scan the stretch beyond it. Progressive and responsive is the steering, with plenty of feel as the front double-wishbones flexes with the road. The whole setup is smart and well-programmed, making the car feel nearly as good as a BMW 3-Series, the Q50’s natural rival. So it seems that Sebastian Vettel has a career should he decides to leave Formula One.
 
Power out of the corners and the rear comes alive just enough so that the whole smokeless affair isn’t mundane. The car is working with me, flowing with the road then tapping every apex on the head without messing up yaw and pitch. It does not take long before human and car share the same nervous system, as if the electrical impulses from the brain are zapped directly to the wheels.
 
But, go in too fast, swing the steering like a hammer and the car rewards you with a good dollop of traction control. However, the unwanted braking of the wheel and the cut in power serves only as a slap on the wrist. The car gets back on the power instantly so that you can go back to making mischief just as quick.
 
The engine is more than capable; the 3.5-litre V6 lets out 298bhp with 338Nm of torque. But coupled with a 50kW electric motor, which lends an extra 270Nm of torque, we have a total of 364bhp getting dumped into the rear wheels at high-revs. The seven-speed automatic, in its manual setting, is programmed to match revs during downshifts. 
Let’s not forget that this is a hybrid car with a rated fuel consumption of 6.2l/100km. I couldn’t even get anywhere close to that figure, and getting the car below 9.8 is a struggle that saps fun. With that said, I do appreciate that the Atkinson-cycle lets the car sit with the engine dead but the air-conditioning fully alive. I also appreciate, when I’m not chasing an invisible opponent, that the Q50 S Hybrid can cruise at a speed of 90kph using only the magic of electricity. Infiniti says the Q50 can drive in EV-only mode at speeds of approximately 100kph, although doing that will drain the battery as quickly as the plummeting water level of the Sungai Selangor dam.
 
As good as all of it sounds, I nearly sent the car back to Infiniti just after doing 50km in it. The car simply could not be driven; would answer to my instructions only with a stubbornness of a donkey. Whether it is stepping out of the broken white lines or the closing distance between it and the car in front, I got a full recital of safety chimes just right before that car takes over – steering, accelerator and brake – to make sure there isn’t even a remote chance of an accident happening. The drive back to Car HQ was one of the worst drives I have ever had. Period. While the safety suite does have its merits – it will save a drowsy driver’s life – an alert drive will be wrestling with the car every metre of the way. I turn it off and remained unconvinced.
 
Now that I have sussed out the Q50 S Hybrid, I realise that I have only chiseled the surface with many more technology-bits left to play with. The level of customisation the car’s computer offer is staggering especially when you can actually turn the systems on and off so you can find THE driving sweet-spot. Things are nicely helped along with sci-fi touch-panels and snazzy animation and glowy line-drawings; all to make it seem needlessly futuristic. Which also makes it very interesting and definitely intriguing. More importantly, it makes you want to drive it at least one more time. 

Specification:
Infiniti Q50 S Hybrid
 
Engine
3498cc, V6, DOHC, CVTCS, Atkinson-cycle, 298bhp @ 6800rpm, 338Nm @ 5000rpm / Infiniti Direct Response Hybrid with lithium-ion battery and electric motor, 50kW, 270Nm / Total system output 364bhp

Transmission
7-speed automatic with Adaptive Shift Control, rear-wheel drive

Performance
5.1secs 0-100kph, 250kph, 6.2l/100km

Weight
1815kg

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