By Warren Brown
Sunday, June 20, 2010; F01
The automobile industry is amoral in accommodation. It goes where invited and stays as long as it is profitable to do so.
That explains the 2011 Infiniti QX56 sport-utility vehicle, among the last of the truck-based, space-gobbling, gas-guzzling, personal-transport leviathans still available in the U.S. automobile market. It competes with the likes of the Cadillac Escalade, Lexus GS 570 and Lincoln Navigator, luxury SUVs that nowadays are likely to bring as much opprobrium as praise.
But public sentiment is subservient to reality. People decry prostitution and oil pollution, yet one has flourished through the ages and the other is poisoning the Gulf of Mexico. Both are the result, directly or indirectly, of consumer demand.
Infiniti, the luxury division of Japan's Nissan Motor, thinks enough consumer demand remains in the United States to profitably support sales of its most in-your-face SUV, yet -- the 2011 QX56 with all-wheel-drive.
As it happened, my sample of the QX56 arrived just as undersea cameras began documenting how our insatiable demand for oil, and the hustle of companies such as BP to supply it, could lead to disaster. That SUV could not have come at a more inappropriate time.
The QX56 stretches 17.3 feet, stands 6.3 feet high and has a width of 6.7 feet. It weighs nearly three tons and swallows premium gasoline at the rate of 14 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. Driving it on the streets of Baltimore and the District of Columbia, I felt as welcome as a BP executive at a Louisiana crayfish boil.
Nissan and Infiniti executives had no way of knowing that their latest iteration of the QX56, a vehicle line that began in 1997, would appear in the midst of America's most devastating oil spill. But they must have assumed that the new QX56 would be fighting an uphill battle in public acceptability in a recessionary economy, which would explain why they went over the top with luxury appointments in this one.
It is a successful strategy used in the best and worst of times. To wit: Outrageousness attracts attention, favorable and unfavorable. Enough outrageousness yields sales.
Infiniti's marketing people describe that strategy with the term "immersive luxury." The objective is to drown you in luxury, to deaden your sensitivity to societal objections via pleasure and seduction.
So what if you're driving a three-ton beast? It doesn't feel beastly with a 5.6-liter V-8 engine (400-horsepower, 413 foot-pounds of torque) pulling it with the ease and feel of a sports sedan. What about handling? In the QX56, it has been made remarkably easy with what Infiniti calls its "hydraulic motion control system."
I looked at the size and plush appointments of the Q56 and thought I'd be driving just another overweight land yacht. But Infiniti used computer-assisted engineering and design to confound that expectation. The Q56's four-wheel-independent suspension allowed me to turn corners and take curves with complete confidence and competence.
In that and other ways, there was so much to love about the Q56, including the ability to move its middle seats back and forth, using a button conveniently adjacent to the driver's seat. "Immersive luxury" might be a fancy term for selfishness, but I was falling in love with it.
I believe people who have the intelligence to earn lots of money should have the right to spend it as they see fit. But I lack a liberating sense of entitlement, which is essential to become rich.
Do I really need a vehicle as large as the QX56 to carry one person through these streets? Exactly how comfortable and coddled should I be in congested traffic, where rapt attention and at least a little edginess is needed to avoid collisions?
And that oily mess in the Gulf of Mexico, that petro-soaked wildlife and ruined tourist industry -- is that really just BP's fault?
The genius of Infiniti and its rivals in the car business is that they know how to overcome such doubts with what the industry calls "content." Automatically close the windows of the QX56. Turn on the three-zone (front, middle, rear) cabin cooling system. Inhale the fragrance of that supple interior leather; step on the accelerator. Varrr-ooo-mmmmmm . . . I don't know where the Q56 is taking me. But it sure as hell feels good getting there.