Infiniti Goes Big

One indicator of the quality of the QX56 can be determined by looking at the tight gap between the front fascia and the headlamp and hood: the gap is just 6 mm, which is a fraction of that which is often the case with body-on-frame vehicles. Here, the fascia is attached to the body, not the frame.

The QX56 is being produced at the $1.43-billion, 3.5-million ft2 assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi. Note the extensive use of vehicle protection materials. This is the fourth launch in the new plant since May 2003, and it is the first Infiniti produced in North America. In addition to specially trained Infiniti quality personnel, the QX56 gets additional processing, such as a double application of clear coat paint and a 15-mile test drive.

Nowadays, vehicle manufacturers use the term, with remarkable uniformity, “product offensive” to describe their efforts to bring products to the market that will, they apparently believe, knock their competitors out of the way. Nissan, certainly, is in the avant-garde of this campaign, rolling out radically revised (Nissan Quest minivan) or all-new (Infiniti FX45 crossover SUV) vehicles. Not only is Nissan developing products that are almost polarizing in appearance, but the company is—almost audaciously—manufacturing four new vehicles in a plant in Canton, Mississippi. A new plant. A plant that was expanded before its original footprint was in place. And there is another vehicle going into production in Canton before the year is out. So the Canton start-of-production situation looks like this:

• May 27, 2003: Quest minivan
• August 14, 2003: Nissan Pathfinder Armada SUV
• September 21, 2003: Nissan Titan pickup
• January 20, 2004:  Infiniti QX56 SUV
• June 2004: Nissan Altima 

It is the penultimate—the QX56 SUV—that’s of interest here.

Consider: Infiniti is to Nissan as Lexus is to Toyota. Toyota Motor Manufacturing-Canada began producing the first North American Lexus, the RX330 in its seven-time quality award winning (four gold) Cambridge, Ontario, plant in September 2003. That plant has been in operation since 1988. And the RX330 was being built in the Toyota Kyushu, Japan, plant since February 2003. In other words, Lexus started building an SUV in a well-established plant after the production had commenced at the “mother” plant in Japan. Nissan? Look at the time line. As the QX56 shares a frame with the Pathfinder Armada and the Titan pickup (the F-Alpha platform), as well as a powertrain (albeit modified for the Infiniti), one could argue that the “experience” goes way back to August 2003.

The point is: These guys are nothing if not audacious.

Infiniti TLC. The day after QX56 production commenced, Dave Boyer, vice president-Manufacturing at the Canton facility said that all things were “go.” He said that there are “special checks in the system to assure quality from stamping through trim and chassis.” They’re employing additional body protection, especially in trim and final assembly (Boyer: “The number-one problem in assembling vehicles are the chips, scratches, dents, and dings that can occur”). They are running the QX56s on a 15-mile drive to simulate a variety of demanding conditions. And they are putting additional protection on the vehicles prior to shipping. How are they pulling not only this off, but the build of the other products, as well? “One of the keys is good planning,” Boyer answered, pointing out that there was extensive training of plant personnel. Some people were trained in Canton. Others at the Smyrna, Tennessee, Nissan plant (a perennial productivity leader in the benchmark The Harbour Report). And others—maintenance personnel, in particular—were trained in Japan.

The Infiniti side of the house must have nothing but confidence in the people in Canton. The day after the start of production, Mark Igo, vice president and general manager, Infiniti Div., said that he’s confident that there will be “better response and sales” for the SUV than they’ve predicted. They are slated to build 60,000 SUVs in the Canton plant, of which 15,000 will be the QX56 (they’re running the vehicles in mixed lots, not batches, according to Boyer). Igo suggested that he may have to have Boyer and his people provide them with more QX56s than planned for. (Boyer: “We can go to overtime and give Mark more if required.”)

A Full Package. So what is the QX56? A powerful*, large SUV** that’s meant to compete with the likes of the Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac Escalade, Lexus GX470, and Range Rover. It’s a vehicle that sits seven if the standard second-row captains chairs are selected or eight if it’s a bench (the bench is a no-cost option). The H-point of the third row of seats is 70-mm above that of the second row so the third-row passengers have a “stadium seating” effect. Not only do the second and third rows fold flat, but so does the passenger’s seat—in the unlikely event that someone needs to carry, say, a 10-ft ladder (as the median household income for the target buyer of the QX56 is >$350K per year, this vehicle probably won’t be spending a whole lot of time in the parking lot of the nearby Lowe’s). Luxurious touches include a navi system; Bose audio system; rear proximity sensors; auto-leveling rear suspension; rear power-operated lift gate; power-adjustable pedals; five-speed automatic transmission; leather-seating surfaces; real wood trim on the capacious center console cover and steering wheel. . . . It’s a vehicle with a starting price of $47,400 for the RWD version and $50,400 for the AWD version. (“Nissan is good at continuous improvement,” Boyer noted. For a price point like that, they’d better be.)

Although there is sharing with the Titan full-sized pickup truck of the basic platform, that’s only about the front 2/3 of the boxed frame (17 Hz stiffness), according to Larry Dominique, chief product specialist for the vehicle. The QX56 has a double-wishbone independent rear suspension, more in keeping with a plush ride (although it should be noted that the suspension is tuned so that you can feel bumps on the road; this isn’t like driving a living room couch). And while the basic V8 engine is the same as the Titan’s, the difference here is primarily in engine mapping and the requirement for the use of premium fuel, which contribute to a horsepower boost of 10-hp. All models are capable of towing up to 8,900 lb.

The all-mode all-wheel-drive system features an infinitely variable torque split; torque needs are constantly monitored. When starting out, the power is 50:50. When cruising along, all of the power is sent to the rear wheels. But in cases where there’s a need for dealing with slippery conditions, the Active Brake Limited Slip system is brought into play so that torque is applied to the wheels—or wheel—with traction. Speed-sensitive power-assisted rack and pinion steering helps the driver maneuver the QX56 such that it doesn’t feel as though an ocean liner is being piloted.

It has all of the amenities. Going forward, the real issue will be that of quality. Everyone that we talked to on the Infiniti team seems confident that this will not be a problem. 


How It's Done

In a Nissan development program there are three key people:

Chief product specialist
Chief vehicle engineer
Program director
In effect, the first one figures out what needs to be done, through competitive benchmarking and other research. The second, the chief vehicle engineer, figures out how that can be done. And the third holds the purse strings and determines what will be done, based on cost and profitability assessments.



* It has an all-aluminum 5.6-liter, DOHC V8 that produces 315-hp @ 4,900 rpm and 390- lb-ft of torque @ 3,600 rpm

** Wheelbase: 123.2 in.—largest in class
Length: 206.9 in.
Width: 78.8 in.
Height 77.8/78.7 in. (RWD/AWD)
18-in. chrome wheels and tires (largest stock tire in segment)