The BMW 3-Series casts its long shadow just as darkly over this Infiniti saloon as it does any other of the new pretenders. The Lexus IS, the Cadillac ATS, the upcoming new small Jaguar and the Alfa Romeo Giulia, they've all got to define themselves on the Bavarian's terms. They can copy the 3-Series all they like, but it'd be very obvious if they fail to better it. Or they could sidestep the BMW and do something a bit different. But if they go too far off-piste they risk missing the market's centre of gravity.
Well, Infiniti has gone down the latter route, aiming at people who just don't much like the flavour of BMW, or who maybe just fancy being a bit different for once. The company itself accepts that the Q50 is going to sell fewer copies than the 3-Series. Well, in Europe, it's bound to, as it doesn't offer the choice of bodies or engines or options.
But, instead, it offers some things that BMW doesn't. In fact, that no one offers.
Exhibit A: the optional Direct Adaptive Steering, or DAS. This actually severs the age-old mechanical link between the steering wheel and the rack. It is, literally, steer-by-wire. You turn the wheel, and it decides how much turn to apply by a motor on the rack. Another motor at the steering wheel supplies the feedback it calculates you need. Actually, there are three processors deciding these things, and there is a conventional steering column but it's normally disengaged. If one of the brains has a disagreement with the other two, a clutch engages, and it's back to steer-by-column.
How your hand movements are mapped onto front-wheel angle depends on speed: the virtual steering ratio gets lower as you drive faster, so the car is agile at slow speed and sweeps round mini-roundabouts with minimal twirling but isn't twitchy through fast sweepers. In fact, you can dive into the menus and alter that map, opting for a generally quicker one or a generally slower one. You can adjust weight too. But the heaviest, fastest settings seem false. This speed-dependent ratio is just one posited advantage of the system, and it seems slightly better resolved and more natural than others' mechanical attempts. But there are further advantages to the entirely by-wire approach. It works smoothly and effectively with the lane-keeping system. Also, there's no tramlining or kickback over one-sided bumps (which the 3-Series suffers from), because there's no mechanical link. It follows that as there's no need to isolate kickback mechanically, the rack doesn't require rubber bushes, so actually the steering is more precise in its initial take-up.
But, of course, it can't deliver ‘true' road feel. Various sensors can work out when the grip limit is approaching, and at that point reduce the weight you feel through the steering wheel. It works, up to a point. But, to be honest, it's not needed in the diesel. The standard steering feels fine - better at the limit, though it's muzzier to wake up as you turn in. The suspension's intrinsic softness still gives you slightly soggy steering. Sure enough, the DAS was better in the sport-chassis V6 hybrid I tried - but was the improvement down to the DAS or the all-round tauter set-up? Still, the diesel does have a nice cushy ride, which is worth more for most daily driving.
Exhibit B in Infiniti's quest to be different: the info, entertainment and online package involves two touchscreens and a rotary controller. It gives you access to a spectacularly configurable car plus a growing suite of apps. I like having two screens, as it means the top one can always show maps and arrows, while you can use the bottom one for entertainment and apps. That way, you don't miss a vital junction while your passenger is switching tracks. But, astoundingly, although both screens are standard, the two of them have entirely different graphic styles and fonts. The cabin is otherwise designed and finished with some considerable love, but this mismatch looks like it's still in beta.
Exhibit C: the styling. Not just inside but out. While it's still a basic three-box, four-door saloon, it is more pillowy and creased and chromey than the opposition. Note the characteristic wavy bone line along the shoulders and bonnet, and the reverse curve in the C-pillar.
But there has to be a limit to being different. That other Japanese contender, the Lexus IS300h, competes against the near-ubiquitous 4cyl diesels with a CVT hybrid. Although you can buy the top-spec Q50 with a combo of V6 electric motor and eight-speed auto, the mainstream model is motivated by about as regular an apparatus as you can imagine. A 2.1-litre diesel, with 170bhp and the choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed auto. In that sense, Infiniti isn't going an inch off-piste.
Who makes 2.1-litre, 170bhp diesels and seven-speed autos? Mercedes-Benz. Quite. Those specs alert us to the fact that Infiniti-Nissan is leveraging its technical tie-in with Mercedes to borrow that powertrain. So it feels like the Mercedes engine, gamely delivering its power across the low-to-mid ranges, is falling away when the needle is near the big 4,000rpm. Rather last generation in its noise and harshness, but decently economical.
The auto 'box too is standard-procedure Benz: smooth when you let it do its own thing but infuriating to override. Most versions of the Q50 don't get paddles, so you have to use the plus/minus gate on the lever, which is set up back to front and always interposes a half-second delay before shifting. Seems like a no-brainer to save yourself 10g/km in CO2 (down to 114) and go for the manual instead.
Obviously, the Q50 will sell more than the G37 it replaces, but when did you see one of those? It's a tricky thing to be alternative without being invisible - and given that there are only eight dealers in the entire country, you can see how Infiniti's scarcity won't end any time soon.
Verdict: Comfy company car, nicely made, high-tech, distinctive if a bit operatic-looking. Not the sports car they pretend.
Stats: 2143cc, 4cyl turbodiesel, RWD, 170bhp, 295lb ft 58.9mpg, 124g/km CO 2 0-62mph in 8.5secs, 143mph, 1669kg, £31,900