LOUISVILLE, KY – When it debuted in 2004, the Infiniti QX joined the fray of SUVs that emphasized style – at levels not seen since Cadillacs wore fins – over substance.

With big chrome wheels and scads of interior bling, the QX soon became a popular urban limousine. It was just as outlandish as the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator before it.

The Infiniti, Cadillac and Lincoln brands were laughing all the way to the bank as the segment hit 161,661 units in 2004. Infiniti freely admits the QX buyer is its wealthiest, with a $203,000 annual income.

Six years later, after the 2008 gas-price spike, the current oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and Infiniti-parent Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s new green image, what sense does the all-new ’11 QX make?

Very little.

But with its luxurious leather, beautiful matte interior trim and a more-powerful-but-not-so-thirsty direct-injection gasoline V-8, Infiniti’s new SUV is certain to keep well-heeled buyers coming back.

The most noticeable change for the QX’s first full redesign since 2004 is its exterior. The new look is a winner.

Now a better fit with Infiniti’s lineup, the SUV boasts the same wavy styling cues and soft corners found on the G sedan and FX cross/utility vehicle, and it bears the brand’s signature double-arch grille.

The new QX’s flat roof and low stance invite comparisons with the Ford Flex CUV – not a bad thing. The new model’s sunken posture is not an optical illusion: It has lost 3 ins. (7.6 cm) in height from its predecessor. However, it actually has gained in other dimensions, with length and width up an inch.

The QX still has 5.6L V-8 power but gains direct-injection, Nissan’s Variable Valve Event and Lift variable-valve timing and a standard 7-speed automatic transmission. The same engine is in the new M56 luxury sedan.

All three features help the QX, with 4-wheel drive, tie for class-leading combined fuel economy of 16 mpg (14.7 L/100 km), per Environmental Protection Agency figures, despite output of 400 hp and 413 lb.-ft. (560 Nm) of torque. It also achieves 16 mpg with 2-wheel drive.

The 4WD model matches the 2WD ’10 Escalade in fuel efficiency, as well as the 2WD-only ’10 Navigator. The Escalade makes more power than the QX, but not the Navigator.

Slightly smaller fullsize SUVs, such as the Land Rover LR4, Mercedes-Benz GL450/550 and Lexus LX570, all average a less-impressive 14 mpg (16.8 L/100 km).

In a 65-mile (105-km) test drive through the Kentucky countryside in a $69,000 4WD QX with technology package, the new vehicle is just as big a brute as before. And with 5,850 lbs. (2,653 kg) to move, it’s none too quick off the line. A fairly timid throttle tip-in emphasizes that.

But our trip computer showed a respectable 16.2 mpg (14.5 L/100 km) at the end.

A quick jaunt in the Escalade finds similarly shy throttle response.

’11 Infiniti QX56 4WD
Vehicle type Front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 4-door SUV
Engine 5.6L DOHC all-aluminum DI V-8
Power (SAE net) 400 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque 413 lb.-ft (560 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 98.0 x 92.0
Compression ratio 10.8:1
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Wheelbase 121.1 ins. (307 cm)
Overall length 208.3 ins. (529 cm)
Overall width 79.9 ins. (203 cm)
Overall height 75.8 ins. (192 cm) with roof rack
Curb weight 5,850 lbs./2,653 kg (4WD)
Base price $56,700 (2WD)/$59,800 (4WD)
Fuel economy 14/20 mpg (16.8-11.8 L/100 km)
Competition Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator, Lexus LX, Mercedes G-Class, Land Rover LR4
Pros Cons
Direct injection Still only 16 mpg
Hydraulic suspension control Steering too light
Lovely leather Large panel gaps

Most notable between the two is the quality of the interior materials. The QX has soft, billowy leather, while the Escalade, admittedly a rental, has shiny, tough cowhide swathing its seats and high-gloss, soft-touch trim.

The QX has good fit-and-finish, although gaps between the front doors and instrument panel are noticeably large. A bigger-than-average gap also is noted where the glove-box door meets the center stack.

Overall, the interior excels, with high-quality materials, particularly the matte leather-wrapped IP with stitching accents. Shiny wood and metal are employed with restraint, mostly on the center stack.

Like the new M, the QX is chock full of whiz-bang technology, with safety and convenience features such as blind-spot and lane-departure warning systems, as well as Infiniti’s Around View Monitor, providing a 360-degree overhead view at very low speed.

The QX one-ups many intelligent cruise-control systems, most of which become inoperable at about 20 mph (32 km/h). The ’11 QX can decelerate down to zero in ICC mode.

A planned test went awry as we lost our courage, scrambling for the brake pedal as traffic slowed to a stop ahead, even though it appeared the vehicle was braking aggressively and on its own.

Most likely we would have stopped – we think.

On-road, the QX has a dignified manner, largely thanks to its new, optional bounce- and lean-minimizing Hydraulic Body Motion Control System.

Co-developed with Hitachi Automotive Products, the system uses nitrogen-charged accumulators to transfer hydraulic fluid from one side of the QX to the other, allowing the suspension to respond immediately to changes in road and driving conditions.

The system definitely lives up to its billing and likely will please most QX occupants by improving stability and comfort.

The steering system leaves something to be desired. A vehicle this size should have heavier, more controlled steering. The QX’s is uncomfortably light, making over-correction too easy.

Seating is for seven or eight passengers, and second-row captain’s chairs have a quick-flip feature. The third row has power-fold and power-recline functions and in general is quite comfy, as are all seating positions in the vehicle.

The QX goes on sale in early July, and options are plentiful, with a $5,800 touring package boasting 22-in. aluminum-alloy wheels (Infiniti’s largest to-date), the hydraulic body-control system and heated second-row seats.

The QX stands a good chance of success in the market as large SUV sales inexplicably have grown this year. The richly appointed interior and outsized grille likely will appeal to the luxury-SUV buyer of today, until the next Escalade trumps it.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com