With its all-new Pathfinder Armada, 2004 saw Nissan dive into one of the most competitive segments in the automotive industry -- fullsize SUVs. Built on a solid platform, the V-8-powered Armada made a large splash with unique styling, off-road capability, a powerful new engine, and best of all, a Nissan that could seat eight passengers in comfort. Infiniti took the good Nissan idea, smoothed out the edgy lines, mixed in a full complement of interior luxury, and added the latest in technology to create its own all-new luxury SUV, the QX56.

On a recent weekend excursion in Palm Springs, we had a set of keys belonging to the newest member of the elite luxury SUV market and were asked to see what we thought. Competing against such marquee names as Navigator, Escalade, GX470, and Range Rover, the QX has a difficult road ahead to take over any market share. With the keys in hand, we stepped up into the largest vehicle in Infiniti's product line and began a driving experience that would tick off more than 200 miles on the digital odometer and test if we thought it could compete against its rivals.

On first sight, one's initial thought is the overall size of the QX56. With a wheelbase of 123.2 inches and an overall length of 206.9 inches, the QX is a large member of the fullsize group, and yet when behind the wheel, the QX drove smaller than the numbers suggest. One press of the adjustable throttle pedal and the rush of 315 hp was readily felt from the all-new 5.6L DOHC V-8, with an aggressive but not harsh exhaust note. Merging onto the freeway was a breeze with 390 lb-ft of torque pulling the QX right up to the 6,000-rpm redline. For those luxury SUV owners who need to tow, the QX is up to the challenge in a big way. With a class-leading 8,900 pounds of towing capacity, the QX56 has plenty of daily function to go along with the impressive acceleration. A great feature of the QX56 is the auto-leveling rear air suspension for load compensation, which is perfect for luxury owners who require extra towing needs.

One of the most impressive features of the new QX is the five-speed automatic transmission with a gated floor-mount shifter. In full-automatic mode, the Infiniti shifts with crisp acceleration, yet with an almost seamless quality that must be felt to be appreciated. Shifting at the perfect point was also available when shifting the gears manually, since the transmission holds each gear until another gear has been selected, a feature any driving enthusiast can appreciate. Standard Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) ensures the QX will always attain maximum grip, and when turned off, smoky burnouts at the country club are available.

Handling was both smooth and confidence-inspiring. Four-wheel independent suspension provides a glass-like ride, and the rigid body-on frame aids in eliminating unwanted rattles and squeaks. The turning radius was very impressive in the QX thanks to the double-wishbone front suspension and ample fender clearances. Available in all-wheel or two-wheel drive, the QX features an active center differential on AWD models that calculates torque needs and splits the power between the front and rear wheels.

Moving to the exterior, the avant-garde styling of the QX56 is a vast improvement over its edgy and somewhat unattractive brother, the Nissan Armada. Smoothing out the lines was achieved by lowering the headlights, reshaping the hood and front fenders, and adding the Infiniti stamp of quality, the waterfall chrome grille. Add Xenon HID headlights, a QX4-esqe lower valance with foglights, and beautiful 18-inch chrome wheels, and the QX56 is surely luxurious. Other QX exterior features include chrome front door handles, LED taillights, and body-colored steps. Inside the cabin, Infiniti continues with the luxury theme and provides even more options to meet the consumer's needs.

Once inside the QX's cabin, we were surrounded by plush Sojourner leather-appointed power seats with a comfortable and high sitting position. Directly in front of the driver is a dash that during the light of day was difficult to read, with a gauge cluster that includes LED lights surrounding the tachometer providing engine data. This design was poorly thought out and creates a very busy information center for the driver to decode. We were also disappointed with the lack of wood treatment on the QX's interior. Semi-wrapping the steering wheel is a slim wood piece that is not seamlessly incorporated inside the leather wrap. Another disappointment was the window and door lock controls (from the Armada) that are mounted too high on top of the door panel, making them difficult to operate for smaller passengers. Located in the center of the dash is a 7-inch DVD-based Infiniti navigation system providing the backdrop for navigation, stereo controls, and also the HVAC controls. Because of the monitor's deep recess, the screen is not touch screen and is controlled by a toggle switch mounted in the center of the navigation and stereo controls. We found the navigation system difficult to use at first, and we were constantly over-shooting our target with the toggle switch. Surrounding the center-stack console area is real aluminum trim, but all of the components inside the real aluminum are cheaper grade plastic. With the Bose 10-speaker audio system, however, most of our troubles were washed away with great-sounding tunes.

Aside from the ergonomic grievances, the interior is extremely comfortable and has the largest second-seat legroom and headroom we have seen in any fullsize SUV, an attribute that should be very appealing to large families. Third-row seats actually sit up higher than the second row, providing better vision and lesser feelings of claustrophobia. Another great feature inside the QX is the fold-flat, hide-away third- and second-row seating for optimal flexibility and maximum cargo capacity. The front passenger seat also folds flat for as much as 10 feet in length of storage from nose to tail. Quiet is a word commonly associated with the new QX's interior, as the QX56 has 80 pounds more sound-deadening insulation than the Armada and also features thicker exterior glass and triple door seals. Our tester had a powered sunroof and 7-inch flip-down monitor with wireless headphones for rear seat passengers. Second-row passengers also enjoy heated seats and separate climate controls.

Surging into the segment with a bevy of technological gadgets, the QX offers a rearview monitor with rear proximity sensor, a dual media Bose audio system, allowing both radio and CD to be used through the wireless headphones, and a rear power-operated lift gate. Other options include intelligent cruise control, satellite radio, and a DVD family entertainment system. Keeping things safe while driving the QX56 are standard advance air bags with side-curtain supplemental air bags for all three rows, standard ABS, Electronic Brake force Distribution, a tire pressure monitor system, and Vehicle Dynamic Control for improved steering under severe conditions. The build quality was excellent throughout, and the new QX is the only Infiniti completely manufactured in America, at the Canton, Mississippi plant.

Overall, we were impressed with the QX56's grandiose styling, first-class performance, and available technologies. Looking past the issues we had with the interior ergonomics, the QX56 is a great value with prices for the well-equipped RWD QX starting at $47,400 and AWD version starting at $50,400. With the introduction of this both athletic and elegant luxury SUV performer, the high-end SUV market just got more competitive.