Charleston, South Carolina is one of the oldest and most interesting cities in the United States. Its cobblestoned streets are lined with historic buildings, replete with restaurants cranking out all manner of modern twists on low country classics, and teeming with residents who display that famous passive-aggressive southern charm best captured by the phrase, “Bless your heart.” It’s thankfully also a city that shows that you can make something better without tearing everything down and starting over, which is an apt metaphor for the 2018 Infiniti QX80.
For proof of this, you need look no further than my hotel for the trip, The Dewberry. A former government edifice with classic mid-century modern bones, it had been sitting empty for nine years after being destroyed by hurricane Floyd, its spartan interior and red brick exterior slowly rotting away in the humid, ocean air. Part-time Charleston resident, John Dewberry, saw an opportunity to do something spectacular with its seven stories that overlook Marion Square in the heart of the city and after buying the property at a bankruptcy auction from another development group, undertook the project of transforming the L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building into The Dewberry Hotel. It is one of those improbable places where luxury hides in plain sight. While the exterior was completely redone and now sports a more welcoming entrance and courtyard that hints at the building’s inner luxury, the grey brick, white marble, and glass structure still looks as though it could house hundreds of bureaucrats pushing paper across government-issued metal desks, making lives miserable for all manner of law-abiding citizens.
Step inside, however, and be prepared to gawk.
The lobby features high ceilings with full-length windows allowing light to stream through the open bar area. Decked out in wood, leather, metal, a mix of colorful textiles covering mid-century modern furniture and simple white curtains, it’s like stepping back in time in the best way possible. Head up the elevators to your guest room and it only gets more impressive. Using the basic structure of the building they were able to carve out rooms and suites that exude character and quality. There’s a blend of style and substance baked into this place that is seemingly impossible to create in a modern luxury hotel.
Which brings me to the Infiniti QX80. While refreshed, this is not a new vehicle. Its platform dates back to 2003 when Nissan first introduced the Titan pickup and Armada full-size SUV. The QX80 still uses rugged body-on-frame construction which has been both proven and perfected over the years. The engine is Infiniti’s venerable 5.6 liter V8 that pumps out a stress-free 400 HP and 413 lb.-ft. of torque. The 7-speed automatic transmission is also unchanged as are the available rear and all-wheel-drive systems. All the specs both exterior and interior are unchanged, even the EPA mileage estimates are the same.
So what’s different? The thing that needed fixing most.
Much like the Dewberry prior to its reconstruction, the QX80 was not a handsome thing to look at. The fascia of the SUV always looked as though it had melted and drooped toward the pavement before resetting. Everything about it looked soft, from the indistinct lines to the poorly placed and proportioned tail lamps. If I had to sum up its exterior design in a word, it would be droopy.
Now, however, you have a taut fascia, sculpted body, and toned rear end that would make a Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon proud. The 2018 QX80 is actually handsome. It looks better and more unique to my eye than any full-size SUV other than perhaps the Mercedes-Benz GLS. This was a surprise to me because I wasn’t sure Infiniti’s new design language developed by Alfonso Albaisa and his team over the past few years would translate to a full-size SUV. The combination of works really well on their sedans, coupes, and crossovers creating a cohesive but not cookie cutter family of vehicles. How would the combination of tight creases and subtle curves work on a tall, boxy, slab-sided truck? Pretty damn well it, turns out.
It starts with a wider version of Infiniti’s signature double-arched grille. It’s still large, but the more horizontal proportion makes the QX80 feel wider and more balanced. Under the grille, the chrome accent strip adds to the perception of width, making the car look more planted and confident.
The grille dovetails nicely into the headlight cluster which incorporates all LED headlamps and running lights. Placed higher on the fascia, the new lights curve nicely into front fenders that have been re-sculpted providing an anchor for the tension line that runs along the side of the vehicle to the top of the tail lights. Those fenders have been squared off a bit and are more chiseled, giving the QX80 a more athletic feel. And the hood has been redesigned with subtle bulges hinting at the beefy V8 that resides below it.
Walk to the back of the QX80 past the striking available 22-inch wheels and you’ll find redesigned taillamps that integrate nicely into the new tailgate. Those changes, in addition to the cleaner, less fussy finish of the bumper make this one of the most successful design refreshes of an existing vehicle in recent memory.
The new design is the most noticeable change to the QX80 for 2018, but it’s not the only one. An interior that was near the top of its class gets even classier and the suspension has been tweaked to provide a smoother ride and more confident handling.
Open the door, climb into the cabin and the luxury focus of this vehicle is evident. My test vehicle came with the deluxe interior which includes diamond quilted, heated and ventilated, semi-aniline leather seats. Available in a new saddle color with contrasting piping and stitching, they are as comfortable and supportive as they are handsome. All the touch points feature high quality materials, whether it’s the soft touch leather surfaces or metallic buttons and switches. Those traveling in the second and even third row are still treated like first-class passengers. No matter where you’re sitting you get all the leather and most of the room.
The navigation and infotainment systems have been upgraded to Infiniti’s InTouch 5.0 system and features an excellent Bose 15-speaker surround sound system. It offers multiple ways to interact with the system including a touchscreen that has virtually no lag between your touch and its response. If you prefer there are real buttons and dials on the center stack as well as on the steering wheel, and of course, you can use voice commands to perform most functions. Rear seat entertainment has also been improved with larger screens embedded into the backs of the front seat headrests. These can be operated independently so each rear seat passenger can enjoy their own content via wireless headphones. One nice touch is the “All Mute” button up front. If you want to communicate with your kids who are deep into their movie or game, just press the button and it silences all entertainment systems in the car so you don’t have to talk over anything to tell your kids to behave or you’re going to stop this car right now and they’ll have to walk home.
Another piece of technology new for this year is the smart rearview mirror. In normal mode, it operates like a traditional mirror, but flip the switch underneath and it becomes a video screen for a camera mounted just inside the rear glass. This allows you to see behind you even if you’ve filled the cargo area to the roof. Of course the QX80 is also available with a full suite of driver assistance and active safety features including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and intervention, blind spot warning and intervention, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and predictive collision warning which senses the speed of the two cars in front of you to warn you if someone you can’t see is on the brakes hard.
My morning drive took me from the Dewberry to the Sewee National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center where I got a glimpse of one of the most endangered species in America, the red wolf. Indigenous to the area, the red wolf was nearly hunted out of existence, and through programs like the one at Sewee, is slowly being bred and reintroduced back into the wild.
On one of the area’s rare lengths of winding pavement – a seven-mile stretch of Halfway Bridge Road that runs through the Francis Marion National Forest – I found the Infiniti QX80 handled surprisingly well for a 3-ton behemoth. This is due to two things: the fully independent suspension system (MacPherson Struts up front and a double-wishbone setup in back) and Infiniti’s hydraulic body motion control system. The suspension system – tuned decidedly for comfort – allows the wheels to deal with the road’s imperfections in isolation. The motion control system employs hydraulic cylinders which are interconnected between each shock absorber. When sensors detect body roll, the system goes into action, adjusting the stiffness on each side of the vehicle so it stays level through corners. The beauty of this versus traditional anti-sway bars is you get better stabilization without compromising the suppleness of the ride. That’s really important in the QX80. It is built on a truck platform, but nobody buying this full-size SUV wants it to ride like a truck. They want the utility of a truck with the ride of a luxury sedan, and after a morning behind the wheel, there’s no doubt Infiniti delivered.
The QX80 comes standard with rear-wheel drive but most will order it in four-wheel drive. In auto mode on dry pavement, the power is directed to the rear wheels for optimum handling and performance. When conditions get dicey, the computer goes to work and puts up to 50% of the power to the front wheels, helping you get through any obstacle you might encounter. The 4WD system also can be operated in high or low speed and has a snow mode to optimize the system when you’re trekking through the white stuff. In addition to all-road and weather capability, the QX80 can also tow up to 8,500 pounds meaning you can take a good sized boat or camper along for the ride.
In the automotive world, as with architecture, the temptation is always to start with a clean sheet of paper. With its new look, enhanced suspension, and improved interior, the 2018 QX80 manages to preserve the past and present a better future.
2018 Infiniti QX80 4WD
Four-door, 7- or 8-passenger full-size SUV
Base Price: $67,850
Price as tested: $82,170
Major Options: Driver Assistance Package – backup collision intervention, blind spot warning and intervention, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, forward emergency braking, predictive collision warning ($2,900), Deluxe Technology Package – Smart rear mirror, Semi-analine, climate controlled, leather front seats, 15-speaker premium Bose surround sound system, hydraulic body motion control, adaptive front lighting, headlight washers ($5,700), Theater package – 8-inch seat-back monitors, two wireless headphones, second row 120v outlet and USB port, heated second row seats ($2,450), 22-inch wheel and tire package ($2,800)
Engine: 5.7-liter 32-valve DOHC V8
Torque (lb.-ft.): 413
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Curb Weight: 6,094 lbs
Wheelbase: 121.1 in.
Total Length: 208.9 in.
Width: 79.9 in.
Top Speed: 130 MPH
0-60 acceleration: 7.5 seconds
City/Hwy/Combined MPG: 14/20/16