Not so long ago, the mid-size sport sedan category was comprised of just two or three serious competitors, all of whom were German. Nowadays, every luxury brand has its own model and each brings its share of technology and theories on the right way to build this type of car.
Within this group, one pair of vehicles are closer rivals than the others: the Lexus IS 350 and the Infiniti Q50. Both feature V6 engines, automatic transmissions and all-wheel drive, sell for approximately the same price (about $40,000 for the base versions) and are comparable in size.
They also share a similar history, in that they were both created by sub-brands of a Japanese giant (Infiniti is Nissan’s offshoot, while Lexus is affiliated with Toyota, in case you didn’t know). Finally, both have undergone recent overhauls – the Infiniti for 2013 and the Lexus for 2014.
This begs the question: which one is better?
Impressionism or surrealism?
When placed side by side, you’ll immediately notice that the two sedans have distinct personalities: the Q50 is the more dignified of the two with rounded LED headlights as the finishing touch on its chrome-rimmed grille. Its reserved lines convey an image of luxury and refinement, while its plunging nose and wider front fenders reveal a hint of sportiness.
The IS 350 is its polar opposite, seemingly designed with the terms “dynamic” and “aggressive” as its sole guiding principles. Its headlamps are accentuated by a row of LEDs (that look a little like the Nike swoosh if you ask me) and its hourglass-shaped front grille and massive air intakes could swallow a cat. Even its central line is enhanced by a curve originating in the middle of the car and climbing towards the rear fender.
A style this unique is a double-edged sword: although I like several elements of the IS 350’s outward appearance, the Q50 is superior in this respect. It’s more consistent and will likely age better.
No risk, no reward
The same goes for the interior. Infiniti choose to play the luxury and opulence card, using wood and a few touches of aluminum to enhance the cabin. The bluish gauges are easy to read and the small central screen displays a myriad of useful information.
However, the infotainment system requires some getting used to: it includes two touch screens and you control what happens on the big one using the small one. For example, to map an address in the GPS, you must first enter the destination in the lower screen for the map on the upper screen to show the itinerary. It’s very nice, but even after a few days of practice, I was still have a hard time getting the hang of it.
Lexus, on the other hand, drew on the style of its first supercar, the LFA, to design the IS 350’s cabin. Its dashboard is linear and there’s aluminum as far as the eye can see. My test car was came with the F Sport Package, so it had a small flat-bottom sport steering wheel and instrumentation using a TFT screen inspired greatly by the FLA.
At the push of a button on the steering wheel, the round rev-counter splits to reveal another screen that displays either the radio controls or the navigation. Yes, it’s little more than a gadget, but on more than one occasion I caught myself tinkering with the dashboard just to see it move.
Finally, note that the Lexus’ passenger compartment was red, which automatically earned it a few points for originality (a very nice orangey sand leather is also offered).
When it comes to interior style, the Lexus comes out on top. Its designers took risks and it definitely paid off!
But not always...
But what about the ride? A quick glance at the specifications would suggest that the Q50 is superior. The Infiniti has a slight power advantage – its 3.7-litre V6 develops 328 horsepower, which is 18 more than the Lexus' 3.5-litre – and its seven-speed transmission is more advanced and smoother than the IS 350’s six-speed. The Q50 is also less fuel-thirsty, registering fuel consumption figures of 12 L/100 km city and 8.1 highway versus 12.6 and 9.1 for the Lexus.
So, the logical conclusion would be that the Infiniti Q50 drives better.
But there’s one major difference between the two competitors in this match-up: the Lexus comes with a good old-fashioned steering column, similar to the ones we’ve seen for the past 50 years. Sure, its power assistance (as opposed to hydraulic) dampens some of the feedback, but overall, it isn’t too hard to turn and holds its own.
Infiniti preferred to make way for the future by equipping the Q50 with the first-ever steer-by-wire system: the simplest way to explain this system is to take the wheel of a racing simulator as an example. If the driver turns the wheel to the left, a sensor detects the intensity of the movement and its direction. It relays the information to a computer, which calculates the force required to turn the wheels. It then sends this data to a motor that activates the rack. The result? The steering wheel is absolutely devoid of sensation. What more could you expect, since it isn’t connected to the road? (Actually, there is a steering column, but it’s only there for safety reasons.)
While most drivers won’t be bothered by this change, I had a tough time getting used to what this system does to the ride. The fact that the computer can change the orientation of the front wheels as it wishes (for example, turning the wheel 10 degrees may hardly turn the wheels at all, depending on your speed) is also disturbing, and on curvy roads, I had no confidence in the car.
For a sport sedan, it’s simply unacceptable.
Small detail, huge impact
At the end of the day, this simple detail ruined my experience driving the Q50. Otherwise, I liked the speed and smoothness of the transmission, I’ve always had a weakness for the sound of the VQ37 engine (which is essentially the same as the one found in the 370Z) and the sedan’s style impressed me. I also really liked the Lexus IS’ innovative look and its dynamic, high-quality passenger compartment.
If you ask me to decide between the Infiniti and the Lexus, I would definitely choose the one that inspires confidence when I drive it, the IS 350, rather than the one that places an additional computer between me and the road, the Q50.
Here are both cars, face to face! Lexus IS350 vs. Infiniti Q50