2018 Infiniti QX80 Review: The Colossus of Kyushu Gets a Much-Needed Makeover
Can some strategic nips and tucks and a fancier interior turn back time on a seven-year-old SUV?
How you receive the new 2018 Infiniti QX80 will largely come down to your response to an age-old question that has vexed mankind for eons: Does size matter? Setting aside the relative merits of both camps, there’s no question that when it comes to the automotive luxury game, the answer is an unequivocal, wholehearted yes. Even as cars and crossovers continue to balloon in size, there’s still a place at the top for a true road-going ocean liner like the QX80. In fact, gigantic uber-luxury trucks are in the midst of their own sales renaissance, delivering huge profit margins for manufacturers—one of many counter-intuitive trends coursing through the automotive industry right now as we all try fruitlessly to predict the future.
So mock its beluga whale face all you want, but the Infiniti QX80 (née QX56) is probably the most important vehicle the Japanese automaker sells in terms of burnishing its top-shelf luxury image and making inroads with the kind of high-dollar buyers who would cross-shop it with things like the Toyota Land Cruiser-based Lexus LX570, the Mercedes-Benz GLS-Class, and the Land Rover Range Rover. And let's not forget the two domestic offerings in the segment, the Cadillac Escalade and the Lincoln Navigator, which have both advanced a generation in the seven years since the subject of this review debuted.
Yet the QX80 remains surprisingly hip with the 'yoots,' sporting the lowest average buyer age in the full-size luxury SUV segment. With all that in mind, you might think the 2018 Infiniti QX80 would be bright and shiny and new inside and out, and that parent company Nissan went all-out to capitalize on its strengths and cover up its weakness. But that's not really the case. Other than the sleekly-redesigned front fascia, the changes are far more evolutionary than revolutionary. (Admittedly, some are welcome, like the quieter cabin, the fancy stain-resistant leather now available in a gorgeous Saddle Brown shade, and a dedicated smartphone rest in the center console.)
That approach also lays bare a plain and undeniable fact: This is still a seven-year-old SUV. Your hands grip a steering wheel that apes a decade-old design from the 2007 Infiniti M35. Your eyes stare at the same physical gauge cluster that's anchored by the same cheap LCD screen found in the Nissan Sentra. Your butt is planted in a quilted leather seat that, while very comfortable, lacks the sophisticated lumbar and bolster adjustments found in other brands. And you fiddle with an infotainment system that still goes without Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
The automotive industry is built on incremental improvements, and it's hard to fault Infiniti for taking a conservative tack in redesigning its cash cow. Yet the result is also pretty unapologetic; either you like the somewhat old-school approach to luxury, or you find yourself wanting a little more bang for north of $80,000 when all the packages are added up. What side will you fall on? Infiniti invited The Drive to a strangely-cold Charleston, South Carolina for a few days to help you get a better idea.
The 2018 Infiniti QX80 Gets a Nose Job... But Not Much Else
With the exception of Lexus's notorious Predator spindle grille, the outgoing Infiniti QX80 sported probably the boldest design in its class. For better or worse, that swoopy, prow-nosed look and funky lines really stood out in the Whole Foods parking lot. But for 2018, everything in front of the A-pillar has been completely redesigned. The "eye-inspired" headlights have been updated and raised from their old position, while the grille has been widened and the fenders flattened. Overall, it's simultaneously sleeker and more squared-off than the old design. Some angles look better than others, but it's a marked improvement.
Other than a new strip of chrome running across the width of the tailgate, though, not much else has changed on the exterior. There are a few little details that stand out, like wider running boards for ease of use and available 22-inch wheels, but chop off the front end and its mostly the same as the old model. That's probably a good thing, considering no amount of crimping will hide the fact that this is a 17-foot-long, 6,000 pound, body-on-frame truck—one that, honestly, looks even bigger in person. I heard more than one Infiniti executive refer to the QX80 as "architectural-scale, not human-scale," which is either an apt description or an Orwellian obfuscation depending on your tolerance for marketing speak.
Again, if you were decidedly "meh" on the design of the old QX80, a new front clip might not be enough to change your opinion. Mark me down as a cautious fan, though.
QX80 Interior Is a Home Run Hitter With a Strikeout Problem
Opening the driver's door on the QX80 reveals some of the greatest hits on the redesigned luxury SUV, and also some of its worst misses. The new quilted leather seats are classy, butter-smooth, and ridiculously comfortable. And yes, fitting for the vehicle that's most popular with young families in its class, the semi-aniline (read: expensive) leather is now more resistant to stains and denim dye transfer from jeans. The seating arrangement is also more functional, as the $2,450 Theater Package adds second row seats that flip up individually at the touch of a button—smartly located within the driver's reach—to allow easy access to the third row. An optional second-row bench expands the seating capacity to eight. With the third row down, cargo room is generous and unchanged at 49.6 cubic feet, though that drops to just 16.6 cubes with the back row up.
There are also a lot of thoughtful details that come together to enhance the ultra-lux experience. In addition to the smartphone cubby, the center console also features deep, notched cupholders to secure even the tallest of handled travel mugs. The available 15-speaker Bose surround sound system (part of the $5,700 Deluxe Technology package) comes through clean and crisp, thanks in large part to a better-insulated, acoustically-tuned cabin. Triple-zone climate control ensures everyone can ride in comfort; Infiniti made a big deal about how the QX80 stands for "inclusive luxury," where features and trinkets aren't limited to the driver's throne any more. A combination rear view mirror and camera allows uninterrupted backwards visibility even when the cargo area is stacked to the ceiling with suitcases. There's no doubt that it's a supremely nice place to spend time, as you'd expect considering the price—and the competition.
But if you think too hard about either, things start to unravel a bit. I mentioned the gauge cluster up top, but it bears repeating; commendable as it is that the automaker is sticking with physical dials in lieu of a totally digital instrument panel, there's really no excuse for the budget, monochromatic, low-resolution display sited between the speedometer and tach. Anyone spending more than $80,000 on an SUV likely doesn't want it to share any parts—especially one you stare at so much—with a $16,000 economy car. Making matters worse, it's operated by a completely unintuitive two-button interface that's mounted on the dash, instead of the industry-standard steering wheel controls. And yes, take away the contrasting leather and that steering wheel is essentially a decade old.
Likewise, the entire center stack is running a few years behind the rest of the industry, an explosion of buttons with a giant CD-player slot stuck right in the middle. The 8-inch touchscreen offers the Infiniti InTouch operating system, but no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. For a car that's ostensibly a segment leader in attracting younger buyers, ignoring smartphone integration seems like an odd choice. Finally, the third row seats are power-folding in both directions, but they take approximately three hours to complete the move and the only switch is located in the cargo area. The whole interior is a study in comfort and contradictions, and the former doesn't always outweigh the latter.
Mechanically, the QX80 Is a Tough-as-Nails Nissan Patrol
Despite its 22-inch dress shoes and accompanying low-profile tires, the 2018 Infiniti QX80 remains incredibly capable thanks to its rugged body-on-frame construction, on-demand 4WD system, and its 5.6-liter, naturally-aspirated V8 engine. Its 400 horsepower does fall short of the outputs of the Navigator, Escalade, and GLS, but it beats the Lexus LX570 and lesser Range Rovers. And with a perfectly decent 413 pound-feet of torque and that BoF architecture, the engine can haul 6,000-plus pounds of truck and up to (a class-leading) 8,500 pounds of trailer with ease. No one is going to mistake it for an AMG-beater, but it has all the power any driver would realistically need (especially at the low end), and a nice throaty growl under load.
That engine is connected to a seven-speed automatic transmission, which forgoes the fuel savings of the nine- and 10-speed transmissions found in the competition in favor of the quick, decisive, and—most importantly—more appropriate shifts that come with having fewer gears to choose from. But man alive, does this thing drink gas. Infiniti claims you'll get 14 mpg in the city and an optimistic 20 on the highway (one less on each count in the 4WD version, which doesn't have a standalone rear-wheel-drive mode), but I averaged a paltry 12.5 in very mixed conditions around Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry. When asked about the dismal mileage, a company executive basically said that buyers at this level don't care.
Should an owner actually take advantage of the QX80's off-road abilities, they'll find its low-range transfer case and high ground clearance well-suited for the task. Stick with the 20-inch wheels and add some proper off-road tires, and the truck's shared lineage with the desert-bashing Nissan Patrol would be liable to shine through. It may not be a Toyota Land Cruiser, but the Patrol is just as venerated around the world for its go-anywhere capability and durability. There's one thing that might affect the QX80's performance, however; it's equipped with a rear auto-leveling suspension rig for towing and loading purposes, and the system emitted an angry ticking noise from the outside when I parked at an angle on a small rise and forced a bit of articulation.
On the road, the body-on-frame construction makes for a floaty driving experience that's somewhat mitigated by the company's Hydraulic Body Motion Control, which counteracts body roll in the turns and keeps the truck level. It's definitely noticeable and helpful, though the unbolstered seats do little to hold you if you really throw it into a curve. But overall, the ride does a great job of smoothing out the bumps in the road (or the cobblestones around Charleston) without feeling overly soft. The only problems are a feather-light steering rack that makes it too easy to wander in your lane and slightly unimpressive braking performance, especially considering the towing ability.
And despite being too old a platform for Nissan to integrate its new ProPilot Assist semi-autonomous feature, Infiniti's engineers managed to rig it with the usual driver assist technologies (lane keep assist, radar cruise control, forward and reverse automatic emergency braking) as part of a $2,900 Driver Assistance Package. Two nits to pick: In narrow lanes, the lane keep assist was far too sensitive for a vehicle that's over six-and-a-half feet wide. The QX80 also features Distance Control Assist, which takes the principle behind radar-assisted cruise control and applies it to everyday driving by automatically braking and kicking the throttle back up at your foot if you get within a preset (and adjustable) distance of the car in front. It's frankly a little unsettling, but you can always deactivate the feature or manually override it to achieve optimal ramming speed.
The 2018 Infiniti QX80 Moves Ahead and Falls Behind
Like much of the rest of the industry, Infiniti is moving to a simpler, package-focused sales model instead of allowing customers to choose from a huge list of options. Spec it out with all the bells and whistles from the factory, and the 2018 Infiniti QX80 jumps from a starting price of $64,750 ($67,850 for 4WD) to more than $83,000. That makes it cheaper than a tricked-out Cadillac Escalade, the Lincoln Navigator Black Label, and the base models of the Mercedes-Benz GLS550 and the Lexus LX570. As we've pointed out, though, those SUVs (except the LX) have all advanced a generation since the current QX80 launched in 2010.
It's also worth noting that a fully-spec'd 2018 Nissan Armada—essentially the same basic vehicle—can be had with the same capabilities, a similarly fancy interior, and slightly fewer options for just over $66,000. Additionally, you can get a Toyota Land Cruiser—which offers far more off-road ability and its own cultural cache—in its one and only configuration for basically the exact same price as a maxed-out QX80. Obviously, the Infiniti badge and nicer materials command a premium, but forcing buyers to choose between brand loyalty and a value proposition isn't always a recipe for success.
Still, nothing Infiniti has done here will chase away anyone who would have bought a 2017 QX80, and it might just lure in a few more buyers with that smartly-redesigned front fascia. The giant truck sold a record 16,772 units in the United States alone in 2016, and this year's sales are on pace to nearly match that despite a precipitous drop in the last few months as buyers waited for the 2018 model to debut. As a whole, the company is set for another record year in overall sales—and whether you think it's all thanks to Steph Curry or not, it's clear Infiniti is doing something right in the minds of consumers. Hell, even their sedans sales are growing.
Really, the QX80's biggest issues come down to a matter of timing. This is likely the last major update for the QX80 before the next generation comes out in 2021, meaning most of the already-dated features will still be in place for the next four years. None of its flaws are particularly egregious (except that awful gauge cluster screen), but they do stand out, because the target for a full-size luxury SUV has moved dramatically in the last seven years—and it should continue to do so over the next four. The QX80 is quiet, confident, capable, and comfortable, but it's not clear that will be enough to top its rivals going forward.
2018 Infiniti QX80 4WD - The Specs
Price (as tested): $67,850 ($83,195)
Powertrain: 5.6-liter, naturally-aspirated V8 engine; 400 horsepower, 413 pound-feet of torque; seven-speed automatic transmission; rear wheel drive, or all-wheel-drive with selectable four-wheel-drive and low range
Towing Capacity: 8,500 pounds
Fuel Economy: 13 city, 19 highway (with a good tailwind)
0-60 MPH: You're not buying this for that.