Infiniti’s high-content heavyweight, the QX80, idles at the foot of a long, steep dune at a 4×4 track near Mossel Bay. To reach this intimidating point, the super-sized luxury vehicle has travelled over several rough gravel roads and mountain passes in the area, impressing for its ability to cover ground as rapidly as an express train. Now comes a bigger test: will the vehicle, an eight-seater SUV that weighs more than 2.8 tons, make it to the top of the incline without bogging down in the thick, fine sand? What’s more, will it accomplish the task with five adults on-board?
Sitting behind the steering wheel at the base of the churned-up dune, I begin to wonder whether the instruction to select 4WD High Range (Sand Mode) — instead of the 4WD Low Range with rear diff locked — was ill-considered. The directive had come from Derek Lategan, route planner for the QX80’s launch itinerary, who had, the previous day, tested the vehicle’s ability on the dune. “Don’t worry,” he had told me before the excursion began. “The only thing we’ve got to do before you attempt the climb is to reduce tyre pressure. The QX80 is so powerful it could probably reach the top without four-wheel drive.” First thing to know is that the vehicle is shod with the biggest tyres I’ve ever seen on a car outside a motor show — a set of 275/50s that measure 22 inches across and eight inches wide and which wrap themselves around 14-spoke rims.
Deflated to one bar, the contact patch between rubber and the surface over which it is travelling is extended significantly — and it’s this fact, Lategan knows, that will help the QX to maintain traction to claw its way to the dune’s summit. Of course, horsepower is crucial to success, too. “You’ve got 400 ponies under the bonnet,” he tells me. “If you feel the car bogging down, give it some gas … it should pull through with no problem.” The operative word here is “should” and, looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing three passengers anxiously peering upwards at the dune’s summit, I’m not so sure that they believe we’re going to make it. There’s more worry than confidence on their faces.
Still, I feel reasonably sure that the QX80’s 5.6-litre engine — which, in metric terms, delivers 298kW — will offer enough gallop, coupled with a maximum of 560Nm of shove, to take us to the top. Accordingly, I put the slick-shifting, seven-speed auto gearbox into Drive and gun the engine. When the needle on the tachometer reaches the 4 000rpm mark — the point at which all of the torque is available — I take my foot off the brake. Nearly three tons of metal leap forward like a cheetah — and keep going until the QX80 reaches the dune’s summit. Easy as that: no slowing, let alone bogging down. No loss of flotation; good traction all the way up. A couple of sand spumes past the driver’s side window as the vehicle traverses very loose sections of the course but, in all, momentum is maintained and the result is a comfortable, stable ride that’s well within the vehicle’s capabilities.
Based on a platform shared by sister brand Nissan’s Patrol — which means it has a similar, ladder-framed chassis — the Infiniti represents an interesting mix of old-fashioned engineering and cutting- edge technology. And even in a vehicle segment that’s characterised by the bulkiness of its contenders — the Mercedes-Benz GL and Range Rover Vogue, for instance — it manages to look epic. From an exterior styling perspective, it has been described as a vehicle that taste forgot — but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and anyway, from a practical point of view, the QX80’s long, wide and tall stance (5 305mm x 2 266mm x 1 945mm) offers a remarkably spacious cabin with significant utility options, capable of providing up to 2 693 litres of load space. The opulently furnished, leather-clad interior features useful things such as a button to power-fold the third row of seats — which disappear slowly to provide an almost flat floor — and two switches to operate the tailgate: one button at the back and one at the front. A monitor provides a virtual 360° view of the environment while parking — essential in a vehicle that’s as big as the QX80, which is difficult to manoeuvre — and passengers in the second row have the benefit of TV screens built into the back of the front seat headrests, so that they can watch videos transmitted through the Bose infotainment system. There’s a hard-drive navigation system with a three-dimensional map; a camera-operated lane departure prevention system and intelligent cruise control to automatically adjust your following distance to the speed of the car in front, even in traffic.
Climate-controlled air conditioning with a Plasmacluster purifying system (which means it releases ions to attract specks of dust to the filter) is supported by climate-controlled front seats that can be warmed or cooled. And, of course, the seats are adjustable for height and reach. Equally, the steering column moves up and down — or in and out — at the twirl of a control stalk. Self-levelling air suspension at the rear is complemented by a hydraulic body motion control system that automatically adjusts dampers to reduce body roll in corners and smooth out road surfaces. Its benefits are best felt at speed, when it is supplemented by zero-lift aerodynamic aids that have been incorporated in the bodywork to dispel the unsettling effects of wind turbulence. Headlights are of the adaptive variety — capable of seeing around corners — and automatically dim for traffic ahead. Mirrors are similarly configured. There’s also a glass moon roof over the passenger compartment that opens wide to let in light.
The gearbox features adaptive shift control as well as a manual shift mode with downshift rev matching, although there are no paddles on the steering wheel with which to swap cogs. For that you have to rely on a sizeable, old-fashioned gear lever. Also somewhat old-fashioned is the foot-operated handbrake. Although the engine is equipped with variable valve control in the interests of heightening fuel efficiency — Infiniti spokesmen quote a combined cycle consumption figure of 14.8 litres per 100km — real-life experience puts the number closer to the 25 litre per 100km mark, about what you’d expect from a vehicle with serious off-road chops. In the drive department, the QX80 offers a choice of four terrain modes, which can be selected via a rotary knob to incorporate 4-High, 4-Low or 4-Auto settings. Like many of its competitors, the model offers brisk acceleration, mechanical refinement and an adept ride across a variety of surfaces.
The suspension system is tuned to coddle, a job it does commendably. Thanks to the armchair-like seats and a cabin that remains quiet even when the V8 is spinning at high revs, sitting in the QX80 is akin to sitting in the living room of a small Japanese house. Safety features include intelligent brake assist with forward emergency braking, predictive forward collision warning, backup collision intervention, blind spot warning and steering wheel switches for Infiniti’s Safety Shield technologies. The model’s recommended retail price is R1 238 000, the only option being metallic paint, which adds R3 000. Would I consider buying the QX80? Not if I wanted to make a fashion statement. But if I had a yacht that I needed to haul by road around South Africa, along with six kids and their mother, I’d certainly consider it…
Engine: 5 552cc V8
Fuel consumption: 14.8l/ 100km (claimed/combined)
Price: R1 238 000