I love cars, but every time I’ve bought one, I have driven off with a sinking feeling and a little voice inside asking, “Did I buy the right one?”
That sense of doubt would only be magnified if I were buying a new luxury SUV. Not only are there a frankly ridiculous number of compact luxe crossovers on the market (I lost count north of 20), but there are also quite a few SUVs from mainstream brands that approximate the luxury vehicle experience rather well.
Could you get more for your money by shopping the Chevrolets of the world instead of the Cadillacs? Is that luxury nameplate really worth it?
The 2020 Infiniti QX50 Luxe AWD should be well-positioned to take on the suave Mazda. Introduced last year, the QX50 represents the way forward for Nissan’s luxury brand, blending the latest in technology with unique design, styled both inside and out to mimic an ocean swell (yes, Infiniti really said that).
The QX50’s party piece is its advanced new VC-Turbo engine. This 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 engine features a first-of-its kind variable compression ratio, automatically raising the compression ratio when cruising for higher fuel economy and lower emissions and dropping compression to accommodate turbo boost when more power is needed. Peak output for Infiniti’s trick new engine is 268 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired with a standard CVT and optional all-wheel drive.
Infiniti also makes sure its lower-trim models still get a decent amount of swag. Our $44,525 as-tested QX50 with second-rung Luxe trim is well-equipped with heated front seats, navigation, and safety features such as forward collision alert, blind-spot monitoring, and a six-speaker audio system. One notable missing feature: Infiniti’s quite good semi-autonomous driving ProPilot Assist; it doesn’t become available until you step up to one of the QX50’s top two trims, so this QX50’s cruise control system makes do without any fancy radars or cameras.
Across the ring, the 2020 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD shows that Mazda hasn’t been resting on its laurels. When it beat the Lexus NX, the CX-5 Grand Touring was the top dog of the CX-5 line, but the new-for-2019 Signature model is now the range-topper. Featuring a new engine, Nappa leather, and real wood trim (among other things), the CX-5 Signature promises the full luxury experience at a price that seems expensive for a mainstream brand but is a bargain for luxury—just $39,375 as tested.
The CX-5’s turbocharged I-4 trades the QX’s trick variable compression system for an extra half-liter of displacement. On premium fuel, the Mazda’s 2.5 makes 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. (output drops 23 hp and 10 lb-ft on regular gas.) It’s paired with a six-speed automatic and G-vectoring all-wheel drive.
Standard luxury equipment on the CX-5 Signature includes a 10-speaker Bose audio system, a head-up display, heated front and rear seats, cooled front seats, and a full suite of semi-autonomous hardware, giving this CX-5 features like radar cruise control and lane keep assist.
What makes a good luxury SUV?
How will we determine whether the Infiniti or the Mazda is the better compact luxury SUV? If you guessed by price, you’d be wrong. It’s a common misconception that something is luxurious just because it’s expensive—look no further than the Ed Hardy trend of the mid-2000s for proof of that. Besides, at current incentive levels, the QX50 and CX-5 are essentially the same price.
Instead, a lot like Best Driver’s Car, we’ll be looking at how these two luxury SUVs make us feel. Are they comfortable on rough roads and confidence-inspiring on twisty ones? Is their technology suitably advanced and intuitive to use? Are design, build quality, and material choices appropriate for the luxury price tag?
The place to start with any luxury vehicle is in its curb appeal and in cabin quality—after all, there’s no sense in seeing if these two crossovers drive like luxury SUVs if they don’t first look the part.
The Infiniti QX50, even in this near base spec, is among Infiniti’s most successful efforts since the early 2000s, when its G35 sedans and coupes and FX SUVs were flying off dealer lots. Its waveform sheetmetal looks contemporary and chic, and its scarab beetle profile pays tribute to the original FX. The combination has a certain curb appeal to it that definitely screams “luxury” while delivering a distinctively Japanese design aesthetic.
The QX50’s cabin is even more impressive than its sheetmetal. “The dashboard design is modern and elegant, and the materials are generally excellent,” features editor Scott Evans said. Although missing the truly gorgeous blue suede dash and quilted leather seats found on the top-trim QX50 Autograph, the Luxe edition doesn’t punish you for spending less.
True, the blue suede and quilted leather are replaced by black plastic and black leatherette, but the replacements feel worthy of the badge on the hood and the asking price—kind of like subbing out a beef patty for an Impossible Burger on a Burger King Whopper. The plastics are all soft to the touch and have a pleasing, expensive-feeling grain and gloss to them, and the leatherette is such a convincing leather alternative that it might as well be mooing.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement across the whole QX50 line. Infiniti’s stacked-screen infotainment system is one example. Although we like the idea of dual displays, the user experience could use some work. “There’s a knob, a touchscreen, and a plethora of hard buttons, but you can’t seem to just use one for everything,” Evans said. Worse, the hard buttons are scattered all over the place. If you want to get straight to the map, it’s on the center console by the knob. But if you want to get to the audio screen, you have three separate audio, radio, and media buttons to choose from.” The simplest solution we found was limiting use of the upper display to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, ignoring the lower screen.
We were also disappointed by the amount of “Nissan” we found in the QX’s cabin. The steering wheel, control stalks, most of the physical buttons, and even the instrument cluster feel taken from Infiniti’s mainstream sibling. Infiniti didn’t even bother to change some of the fonts used. This is truly the nittiest of nits to pick, but details matter in the luxury space—you wouldn’t catch Audi passing off Volkswagen switchgear.
Mazda, the rare automaker going it solo in this world of mega mergers, obviously doesn’t have that issue of component sharing. The CX-5 Signature’s cabin is “clean and elegantly styled, the materials are rich looking and feeling, and everything feels a class above,” Evans said.
It’s as if mainstream Mazda is trying to pass itself off as a luxury automaker. The CX-5’s cabin is a genuinely swanky place to be, accented with satin metallic, properly done piano black, and real wood trim. Its seats are wrapped in a gorgeous, thick brown perforated Nappa leather. Even the plastics and switchgear in the Mazda’s cabin look and feel rich.
On the technology front, the CX-5 features a clear, easy-to-read head-up display and a CarPlay- and Android-friendly infotainment system. The system, like the Infiniti’s, can be operated via a scroll knob on the center console or via touch—if you’re stationary, that is; frustratingly, the touch function is locked out when you’re on the move.
Space is a weak point in the Mazda’s cabin relative to the QX50’s. Simply put, there’s not as much of it. Although overall passenger volume between the two SUVs is roughly equal, the CX-5’s back seat feels significantly tighter than the Infiniti’s. Whereas I can easily squeeze my 6-foot frame into the QX50’s comfy back seat with the driver’s seat in my driving position, when doing so in the Mazda, I find my knees pressed up against the front seat and legs splayed outward like a drunk on the subway.
Luxury That Moves You
The driver’s seat is the best in the house when it comes to the CX-5 Signature, and not just because it’s roomier than in the back—it’s because the Mazda is properly fun to drive. The CX-5’s new turbocharged engine deserves a lot of the credit for that. “This turbo-four has a lot of punch to it,” Evans said. “It’s a big improvement over the standard four, which feels just good enough but not great.”
Mazda’s new turbo-four is smooth, powerful, and nearly lag-free, effortlessly whisking the CX-5 off the line like a proper luxury car’s engine should. Its six-speed transmission—an anachronism in the age of nine- and 10-speed automatics, is biased toward efficiency, upshifting earlier than we’d typically like in the CX-5’s default driving mode. Regardless, we found the transmission responsive, downshifting quickly when more passing power was needed and holding lower gears in Sport mode. The engine delivers a throaty growl under hard acceleration, but otherwise the cabin is relatively quiet, save for some tire noise at highway speeds.
Unsurprisingly, considering Mazda’s “Zoom-Zoom” brand heritage of yore, the CX-5’s ride and handling balance are top notch. With stiff springs but soft shocks, the CX-5 is a willing corner carver, exhibiting minimal body roll. Yet it still dispatches impacts from the road quickly, minimizing their transfer to the cabin. That’s luxury.
Although steering feel is accurate and sporty, the effort required to turn the wheel is artificially heavy, almost like it were tuned by someone who’d just gotten done with arm day at the gym. “Steering effort is rather high for a crossover, like it’s trying to reinforce a sporty image,” Evans said. “It’s unnecessary, and Sport mode makes it even worse. The CX-5 shouldn’t need to be muscled around.”
The QX50 needs no such muscling. In comparison to the CX-5, there’s a sense of softness and elasticity to the way the Infiniti drives. Its steering rack is one example—Infiniti uses a drive-by-wire steering system in the QX50, meaning there’s no physical connection between the steering wheel and the front wheels (save for a vestigial shaft that engages in case of system failure).
The system is great in theory, as it allows engineers to perfectly fine-tune feedback and feel (there’s a reason nearly every modern jet uses fly-by-wire controls), but it doesn’t seem like Infiniti’s engineers spent enough time doing such fine-tuning. The QX50’s steering is both light and somehow gluey at the same time, and it never delivers the sense of directness and control that you want—you’re left always guessing at what the front tires are doing.
That’s too bad because the QX50’s ride is actually pretty refined. Intriguingly, it’s perhaps a touch stiffer than the Mazda—though transmitting more gut giggle to the cabin than the CX-5, the Infiniti dispatches impacts quickly and with little drama.
All the drama in the QX50 comes from its, uh, very busy powertrain. A good luxury vehicle should waft away from a stop effortlessly. In other words, it should never let you see it sweat. The QX50’s VC-Turbo powertrain is doing a lot of sweating. With variable compression, a turbocharger, and a CVT to manage, there are—at the high risk of clichéing you to death—too many cooks in the kitchen.
“The whole powertrain is among the most flexible ever designed, but it feels rigid and inflexible in its operation,” Evans said. “Any throttle request is met with the exact same procedure: Change gear ratio, see if high compression is enough to satisfy the request (it never is), drop compression, and then activate the immensely laggy turbo.”
The QX50’s VC-Turbo and CVT combo as a result is an erratic pair. More often than not, power delivery is inconsistent, snapping your head back and throwing your body forward as it surges down the road, even when you hold the throttle steady. It’s not a pleasant experience—which is disappointing because in the rare instances that the Infiniti’s powertrain works as intended, it feels smooth and powerful. We’re not anti-CVT by any means, but we have a sneaking suspicion that a proper automatic gearbox would do wonders for both the VC-Turbo engine and the QX50’s overall drive experience.
So is luxury worth it?
When it comes down to picking a winner between these two SUVs with premium aspirations, the Mazda CX-5 Signature is the more convincing luxury product despite the mainstream badge. The QX50, as Evans put it, “is by far Infiniti’s best effort at the moment, but it’s still not quite enough.” It’s comfortable and stylish, delivers all the quality items, and provides a luxurious ride, but the balky powertrain is too lackluster to overlook.
The CX-5 manages to tick all the luxury vehicle boxes. It’s more rewarding to drive, thanks to its superior steering feel and powertrain. Its phenomenal ride and handling balance makes it more comfortable in your day-to-day life. And its cabin matches or exceeds the Infiniti’s in quality, usability, features, and perceived value.
Truthfully, the Mazda CX-5 is such a convincing luxury SUV that you could have swapped its sticker price with the QX50’s and it would still feel worth it. And what better feeling is there than that when driving off the lot in your new car?
Get the Mazda CX-5 Signature if you:
– Like sporty driving
– Are an audiophile
– Want a sleeper-luxury SUV
Get the Infiniti QX-50 Luxe if you:
– Need a bigger back seat
– Value luxury’s curb appeal
– Desire a quieter cabin
|SPECIFICATIONS||2020 Infiniti QX50 AWD (Luxe)||2020 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||2.0L/268-hp/280-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4||2.5L/227-250-hp/310-320-lb-ft* turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto||6-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST%)||4,171 lb (58/42%)||3,791 lb (59/41%)|
|WHEELBASE||110.2 in||106.2 in|
|L x W x H||184.7 x 74.9 x 66.0 in||179.1 x 72.5 x 65.3 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.4 sec||6.3 sec (MT est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||24/30/26 mpg||22/27/24 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||140/112 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/125 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.74 lb/mile||0.81 lb/mile|