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Motor Trend|August 2020
MAZDA DEFENDS ITS LUXURY-CHALLENGE CROWN AGAINST A NEW FOE
CHRISTIAN SEABAUGH

I love cars, but every time I’ve bought one, I have driven off with a sinking feeling and a little voice inside asking, “Did I buy the right one?”

That sense of doubt would only be magnified if I were buying a new luxury SUV. Not only are there a frankly ridiculous number of compact luxe crossovers on the market (I lost count north of 20), but there are also quite a few SUVs from mainstream brands that approximate the luxury vehicle experience rather well.

Could you get more for your money by shopping the Chevrolets of the world instead of the Cadillacs? Is that luxury nameplate really worth it?

Two years ago, we set out to answer just that with our “$40,000 Luxury Challenge” and found that in three out of four contests, the mainstream brand offered up the more compelling value. One of those upstart mainstream SUVs that vanquished a luxury stalwart was the Mazda CX-5. Filled with a champion’s swagger, Mazda is back to face a new luxury challenger—the Infiniti QX50.

The 2020 Infiniti QX50 Luxe AWD should be well-positioned to take on the suave Mazda. Introduced last year, the QX50 represents the way forward for Nissan’s luxury brand, blending the latest in technology with unique design, styled both inside and out to mimic an ocean swell (yes, Infiniti really said that).

The QX50’s party piece is its advanced new VC-Turbo engine. This 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 features a first-of-its-kind variable compression ratio, automatically raising the compression ratio when cruising for higher fuel economy and lower emissions, dropping compression to accommodate turbo boost when more power is needed. Peak output for Infiniti’s trick new engine is 268 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired with a standard CVT and optional all-wheel drive.

Infiniti also makes sure its lower-trim models still get a decent amount of swag. Our $44,525 as-tested QX50 with second-rung Luxe trim is well equipped with heated front seats, navigation, and safety features such as forward collision alert, blind-spot monitoring, and a six-speaker audio system. One notable missing feature: Infiniti’s quite good semi-autonomous driving ProPilot Assist; it doesn’t become available until you step up to one of the QX50’s top two trims, so this QX50’s cruise control system makes do without any fancy radar or cameras.

Across the ring, the 2020 Mazda CX-5 Signature AWD shows that Mazda hasn’t been resting on its laurels. When it beat the Lexus NX, the CX-5 Grand Touring was the top dog of the CX-5 line, but the new-for-2019 Signature model is now the range-topper. Featuring a new engine, Nappa leather, and real wood trim (among other things), the CX-5 Signature promises the full luxury experience at a price that seems expensive for a mainstream brand but is a bargain for luxury—$39,375 as tested.

The CX-5’s turbocharged I-4 trades the QX’s trick variable compression system for an extra half-liter of displacement. On premium fuel, the Mazda’s 2.5 makes 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. (Output drops 23 hp and 10 lb-ft on regular gas.) It’s paired with a six-speed automatic and quasi-torque-vectoring AWD.

Standard luxury equipment on the CX-5 Signature includes a 10-speaker Bose audio system, a head-up display, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, and a full suite of semi-autonomous hardware, giving this CX-5 features like radar cruise control and lane-keep assist.

How will we determine whether the Infiniti or the Mazda is the better compact luxury SUV? If you guessed by price, you’d be wrong. It’s a common misconception that something is luxurious just because it’s expensive—look no further than the Ed Hardy trend of the mid-2000s for proof of that. Besides, at current incentive levels, the QX50 and CX-5 are essentially the same price.

Instead, a lot like in Best Driver’s Car, we’ll be looking at how these two luxury SUVs make us feel. Are they comfortable on rough roads and confidence-inspiring on twisty ones? Is their technology suitably advanced and intuitive to use? Are design, build quality, and material choices appropriate for the luxury price tag?

The place to start with any luxury vehicle is in its curb appeal and cabin quality—after all, there’s no sense in seeing if these two crossovers drive like luxury SUVs if they don’t first look the part.

The Infiniti QX50, even in this near base spec, is among Infiniti’s most successful efforts since the early 2000s, when its G35 sedans and coupes and FX SUVs were flying off dealer lots. Its waveform sheet metal looks contemporary and chic, and its scarab beetle profile pays tribute to the original FX. The combination has a certain curb appeal that definitely screams “luxury” while delivering a distinctively Japanese design aesthetic.

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