On Maine Maple Sunday, with a new luxury-ute, we pushed into central and western Maine to sample maple sugar houses in Pownal, Turner, West Minot, and Mount Vernon.

Escorting us for the day was Infiniti’s latest QX50 compact class crossover. Replacing the departed EX35, the QX50 does an excellent job of replicating the flowing style-lines from the larger (and very popular) QX60, while also copying the interior appointments that luxury crossover buyers expect.

Available in either front-wheel drive (our sample) or all-wheel drive, the QX50 (starting at $36,550) is the low-price leader in a segment populated with the Acura RDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Cadillac XT4, Lexus NX, Mercedes GLC and Volvo XC60.
Must know your alphabet soup to compete in this segment.

The QX50 looks larger than its predecessor (it is) yet smaller than several rivals (it is not). At 185 inches long on a 110-inch wheelbase, the Infiniti is smack-dab in the middle of the luxury compact class.

Even the weight, starting at 4,155 pounds, rests mid-pack. Three trims will fill consumer specifications: Essential, Luxe, and Pure.

Initially, the front leatherette-covered seats seem small. They didn’t prove to be during a week’s worth of vigorous use, offering ample support and excellent seat heaters. Rear seating is above-average roomy, with excellent head room and leg room.

Plus, the seatbacks recline for comfort and collapse for cargo with the aid of rear compartment release levers to form a flat load deck front to rear. A power liftgate is standard.

Like many of today’s small crossovers, the Infiniti uses a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Infiniti mates this mighty-mite motor to a CVT transmission for fuel-efficiency. Although Infiniti recommends 91 octane premium fuel only, this 268-hp powerhouse performed perfectly on regular grade fuel and proved robust and energetic at all throttle settings.

The QX is impressively quick and packs a huge mid-range punch that often overwhelms the front-wheel drive’s traction system. Realized fuel economy for three tanks – 21.8, 25.4, and 25.0 mpg – reflects exuberant operation against EPA estimates of 24/31/27 mpg.

Like the rest of automobilia today, the Infiniti’s dash has been overtaken by a touchscreen. While some basic knobs and pushbuttons remain, thankfully, the distractive tendencies of these controls are reflected in countless consumer surveys that gripe about inconsistent performance and multiple finger-touches necessary for simple changes. Automakers are, rightfully, getting dinged on their quality scores for these frustrations.

The primary complaints for too many touchscreens are that they take too long to load on each start-up; they don’t remember previous settings or displays, and there is no standardization making them more intuitive. Some buyers obviously embrace the technology, which is impressive in the showroom; in the real world, not so much.

The QX50 also has its push-button start button on the console, like some new VWs; moving another function from its normal position. The Infiniti has an electronic shifter for reverse, neutral, and drive, but a separate (and very tiny) push-button on the console for the “park” function. These oddities are not improvements.

The Infiniti’s lithe chassis and supple ride dynamics couldn’t hide the glare off the wide brushed-aluminum trim panel that spans the doors, or aid the driver’s vision beyond the wide blind spot created by the thick A-pillar and large mirror on the passenger side.

The “navigator” has found this issue with several recent crossovers, which in no small part, is due to more strident roll-over and crash criteria.

As the maple products tasted better and better (the maple-accented beers at Ricker’s Orchards micro-brew facility in Turner are well worth stopping for) the rural roads were getting worse and worse. The Infiniti was handling the heaves and holes with aplomb, yet Route 135 east of Mount Vernon earns special notoriety for being, easily, the roughest state road we traveled in more than 200 miles of maple inspections.

Endowed with the responses and performance that may remind drivers of early G35 Infinity coupes, the new QX50 also packs lots of room and comfort inside a package that still has a few blemishes, with nothing that should deter strong market appeal.

This is the hottest segment in the American auto-world right now. The new Infiniti is on target.