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First drive: the Infiniti Q30, Japan’s answer to the BMW 1-Series

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What have we here?

The smallest car ever made by Nissan’s premium-wannabe upstart, Infiniti. It’s called the Q30, and it’s a British-built family hatchback with ambitions to steal BMW 1-Series, VW Golf, and Audi A3 customers.

That’s a big potential market. Vast, in fact, and already crammed with established marques offering talented contenders. Which means this is a proper make-or-break car for Infiniti so far as its UK and European sales targets go.

How does the Q30 plan to achieve this considerable feat?

By looking different, for a start. Job done. The Q30 is an accident blackspot of angles, swoops, and a decidedly Mazda CX-3-like nose.

In fact, it looks rather crossover-esque, despite the fact it’s supposedly a trad family hatch. There’ll be a outdoorsier QX30 high-riding version on sale soon.

So why does it look so tall?

Same reason there’s a lot of Mercedes switchgear inside. Underneath, this is a Mercedes A-Class.

That’s awfully generous of Mercedes. Taking pity on poor old Infiniti?

Nope – this is politics. Infiniti’s mothership Nissan has an alliance with Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz. As part of the deal, Infiniti is using Merc’s reheated leftovers to gets its own small hatch off the ground.

Now, the ride-height question. Infiniti claims that it did lots of research about family hatchbacks and noted that, in pursuit of ‘sportiness’, several of them are uncomfortably firm, the (pre-facelift) A-Class in particular. This is a sensible observation.

So the Q30 doesn’t wear low-profile tyres, and gets longer travel, Merc GLA-spec suspension to better soak up bumps. The pay-off is a slightly loftier, tippy-toes look – which just happens to be the fashionable faux-by-four thing right now.

How does that affect the drive?

The Q30’s low speed-ride hasn’t enjoyed the benefits of Infiniti’s retuned suspension – it’s wincingly harsh and clattery. Get flowing with the road at speed and it sorts itself out, however, leaving you to appreciate a relative lack of body roll and marvel at the hideously elastic self-centring steering, while ripples of wind noise busily attack the door seals.

The Q30 is agile enough, thanks in part to the multi-link rear suspension, and produces enough grip as a front-wheel drive car to negate the AWD models unless you’re really paranoid about winter driving.

The manual gearbox is a woolly old thing, but Infiniti’s made a better fist of setting up the seven-speed DCT auto than Mercedes ever did. It’s fine. But no more than that.

Any exciting engines?

The 57.6mpg, 2.1-litre diesel is the noisy problem child still ringing in your ears from the A-Class and Infiniti’s Q50 saloon. It will be bought by people who take one look at the brochure, observe the 8.3sec 0-62mph time and default to the brawniest diesel. Bad move.

Happily, the cheaper 1.5-litre (and 60bhp weaker) diesel from the Renault side of operations is more agreeable. It’s vastly quieter, and the performance gap isn’t the chasm you’d expect. Having to grab one extra gearchange on a motorway is a small price to pay to stop the dash vibrating like it’s got the shivers when you’re stationary. 

Come over all political and decided you hate diesels? You can have a hot 204bhp petrol too, if you’re clinically allergic to residual values.

You said it feels quite Merc-y inside?

Indeed. The dials, stalks, window switches and climate control, um, controls are all straight out of Merc’s parts-bin. So too is most of the steering wheel, the door-mounted seat controls, and the console’s gear selector, which is actually an A45 AMG’s idea.

It’s easy to sneer at this, but really, it’s not a major problem. Unless you were swapping into a Q30 from the Benz, it’s unlikely you’d ever notice. How many Aston Martin owners do you hear complaining about their Volvo light switches? Exactly.

What’s more, the cool-touch metal finishing and stitched leather dash has been really nicely finished. Certainly, perceived quality is higher in here than in the Mercedes.

All smiles inside then?

Afraid not. Infiniti’s ‘InTouch’ navigation is seriously off the pace, with Mario Kart graphics and an Amstrad processor that conspire against good sense when you just want simple, clear directions. The rest of the menus are smartly laid out, and you can either tap the seven-inch screen or use a dial and buttons to dart around it.

Even so, it’s well behind the likes of Mazda and Nissan’s offerings, let alone BMW and Mercedes systems. And Infiniti wants £1400 for the privilege of owning it. Forget it.

Squished windows mean the Q30’s visibility is poor, and it’s very cramped in the back (a sensation not helped by the claustrophobic glasshouse). An A3 Sportback is far roomier, as is a Golf. The boot’s a competitive 368 litres, at least.

Is it cheap?

Nope. Nissan has seen fit to give its burgeoning posh branch properly premium prices. The range starts at £20,550 for a boggo 1.6-litre petrol, but for a decently kitted-out 1.5 diesel, you’ll need north of £26,000.

For similar money, Audi and VW offer more enticing mainstream alternatives. What price do you put on standing out?

So it’s a better-made, comfier A-Class that’s small in the back and a tad dull to drive?

If you put it like that, yes. The Q30 is not a bad car. It would have been incredible if it was, given it’s so closely related to the likeable A-Class. But that’s the problem.

Given the Infiniti, with less badge pedigree, interior room and driver-pleasing factor is no cheaper, it suffers from exactly the same flaw as every other posh Nissan offshoot.

The only reason you’d buy one is because it’s rare-groove different. Not necessarily better.

What do you think?

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