Contrary to public perception, SUV’s are not dead, not by a long shot. Hummer may have driven off into that outlet mall parking lot in the sky, but new SUV’s still clutter our highway and byways, even if many of them are now called “crossovers.” But aside from the marketers spreading this term of confusion among the populace while engineers continue to enact legitimate structural changes to lots of four-wheel-drive models, there is one segment that seems happy to wallow in its own classical truckish splendor, and that’s the full-size luxury SUV.

While it’s mass-market counterpart, Nissan, is busy reinventing itself as the brand that cares about the environment enough to roll out the Leaf, the first honest-to-goodness electric car that normal people can own, Infiniti is saying something a bit different with the 2011 QX56. Something like, “There are still wealthy families who need to tow boats and horse trailers.” And let’s be honest -- as Nissan was in admitting this to us -- the company makes boatloads (horse trailers full too, we imagine) of money on the QX. With a suggested retail price of $56,700 for the two-wheel-drive version and $59,800 for the four-wheel-drive model, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in finance to figure out what’s subsidizing the research and development that goes into less profitable products like the Leaf.

How much money Nissan stands to pocket from the QX56, however, will be entirely dependent on a market that’s taken an historically huge nosedive. According to Nissan, sales of luxury SUV’s peaked at over 290,000 in 2006, but have since plummeted by nearly 64 percent. Nissan tells us that this segment has stabilized at just over 100,000 vehicles annually, and paints the class as a four-model battle between its new QX and the Cadillac Escalade, the Mercedes-Benz GL450 and the Lexus LX570. Nissan thinks it can capture a significant number of those customers with its new luxe truck, and based on the few hours we spent behind the wheel, we’d be willing to agree, at least in theory. While the previous version of the QX, the 2004-2010 model, was nice enough, it was merely that. The old QX still felt like a Nissan Armada that had been tarted up with luxury amenities -- which it was. But the 2011 QX56 stands up to deeper scrutiny, and it feels like a luxury vehicle from the inside out.

New From The Ground Up

There’s a good reason for the upgrade in authenticity, and that’s that the 2011 QX56 now shares its platform with the Nissan Patrol, a vehicle that’s currently not sold in North America. The Patrol is a body-on-frame SUV, so the QX remains truck-based, but Nissan tells us that the Patrol has a stiffer structure than the Armada, which laid the foundation for improvements to the QX56’s handling. Stiffness aside, the new QX56 is three inches shorter in height, a bit longer, and an inch wider, while shedding over 150 pounds -- dimensional changes that all inherently enhance handling.

The styling of this new, lower, wider and longer body works on two levels. First, it firmly identifies the QX56 as a member of the Infiniti family, with smooth, flowing curves. Drawn back headlights and the largest “double-arch” Infiniti grille we’ve yet seen will help the QX seem entirely at home on an Infiniti dealer lot stocked with plenty of M and G sedans. The second point on the new styling is that it makes the new QX seem at once smaller and less intimidating than the old model, while still conveying a sense of grandness. This is pretty amazing trick, to make something look essentially big and small at the same time, but Nissan’s sheet metal artists have done it. This is accomplished in large part through an upsweep in the beltline chrome at the “d-pillar,” as the rearmost supporting structure for the roof is called.

There are two more key points on the exterior styling, and how it’s improved from the previous Armada-based QX. First, the Armada’s silly rear door handles -- the ones that were “hidden” in the window frame -- are gone. Second, Nissan went to great length to conceal the tow hitch in the QX56, which makes it seem less like a mass market truck. Too bad they couldn’t have made the gaudy engine portholes disappear, as well.

Inside The QX

Inside, the QX has been upgraded in an even more dramatic manner, kind of like the difference between shopping at Target and then heading into Neiman Marcus. Nissan spokespeople spent altogether too much time blathering on about executive jets when describing the 2011 QX’s interior appointments, and could have saved the breath by merely saying that the inside of the QX56 is now a dead-ringer for the brand’s flagship sedan, the M56. This is a good thing, as the QX now has a nicely padded instrument panel with a stitched, soft covering and wood-grain inserts; the look extends to the door panels, as well.

Infiniti offers the QX56 in either seven- or eight-passenger configurations, with an optional, split-folding second-row bench seat giving it its “plus one.” The seating is universally plush and comfortable from front to back. Semi-aniline seating surfaces -- a fancy way of saying extra soft leather -- are optional, as are cooled front seats and under-seat mood lighting. The second row can be ordered with heated seats, and the third row has a power folding and reclining feature. Nissan is particularly pleased to report that the second row in the QX has 41 inches of legroom, which it describes as “class-leading.”

The Infiniti QX56 offers plenty of interior features that have become part of the standard fare for any large SUV, from dual seven-inch LCD monitors imbedded in the seatbacks to a cavernous second-row console and a multi-zone climate control system. Beyond this “soft” equipment, the QX order sheet contains a whole host of available safety technology: Lane Departure Warning, Lane Departure Prevention, Blind Spot Warning, Intelligent Cruise Control, Distance Control Assist, Intelligent Brake Assist, and Forward Collision Warning. Order up the whole lot as part of the $2,850 Technology Package and your QX will come terribly close to driving itself.

Better Behind The Wheel

Ironically enough, the 2011 QX56 may be the first QX that’s actually engaging to drive. We’re not suggesting that you’ll take your 5,590-pound SUV (that’s for the two-wheel-drive version; the four-wheel-drive model tips the scales at 5,850) canyon carving, but the new model is considerably more refined on the road.

We’ve already mentioned the handling improvements inherent to the new platform and body, but Infiniti has also improved the suspension by virtue of an updated double-wishbone independent suspension with twin tube shock absorbers similar to what’s used in the rest of the Infiniti line. Further augmenting the new shocks is an optional Hydraulic Body Motion Control System that minimizes how much the vehicle can lean when cornering, as well as reducing the inevitable bouncing motion of such a large vehicle when it travels over rough pavement. This system is available as part of the Deluxe Touring Package, a whopping $5,800 option that also includes massive 22-inch wheels and some other interior equipment. Whether this high-tech anti-sway gear is worth such a premium is difficult to say without more seat time to evaluate its merits, but even without it the QX has good road manners.

While the 2011 QX56 carries the same numerical designation as its predecessor -- the “56” standing for the 5.6 liters of displacement of its V8 engine -- the new model is powered by a different engine. This new V8 is shared with the M56, and makes 400 horsepower, a sizeable 20-percent improvement over the old model. Its 413 lb-ft of torque is also more than the old engine, an additional 20 lb-ft, which helps make the QX good for towing 8,500 pounds. The new engine makes more power, in part, because it uses direct injection, a technology that can both improve power and fuel economy. In the latter case, the QX now rates at 16 miles per gallon combined, compared to 14 for the old model.

Those two extra mpg’s aren’t solely provided by the new engine, however, as the QX also features a new seven-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode. (A snow mode, tow mode, and a hill-holder function area also part of the package.) Unlike some of the newer automatics we’ve driven with more than five speeds that seem to always be in the wrong gear, this one seems to be smarter. Its shifts are flawless and seamless, as you would expect in a luxury vehicle.

Not necessarily expected is a new four-wheel-drive system. It works in an automatic mode most of the time, where all the power gets sent rearwards, however in slippery conditions up to half of the power can be sent to the front wheels. The surprising quality here is that the QX still offers a locking center differential with both a high and low four-wheel-drive mode. The numbers of QX buyers who are going to take their rig off-road can probably be counted on one hand, so it seems like Nissan figured that since the technology was already developed for the Patrol, it didn’t make any sense to change it.

Will Bigger Get Better?

The luxury SUV marketplace has seen its bubble burst in the past few years, as the larger economic catastrophe has killed off the majority of its customers -- wannabes who had neither the means nor the motivation to drive one of these monsters. Those that are left, the “real customers,” as Infiniti calls them, have a surprisingly competent class of vehicles from which to choose, even if the QX’s competitors are all older vehicles.

That the QX is the nicest and newest works in its favor. Even so, the QX is one of those vehicles that seems, on the surface, to be an old story, a body-on-frame dinosaur that’s been redesigned for a small cadre of loyal customers that still care. In a way that’s an accurate assessment, but looking more closely at the vehicle, it’s clear that Nissan tried to make the QX special.

Take, for instance, the Around View Monitor. This is a camera system that displays a 360-degree view of the vehicle on the navigation system screen, kind of like the Elvis version of a back-up camera. It’s standard on the QX, and while it’s not exactly on par with antilock brakes as far as safety innovations go, it’s evidence that Nissan didn’t take a cynical view towards developing the QX.

Whether any of Nissan’s competitors will be as earnest in developing their successors remains to be seen. Until then, the 2011 QX56 rates highly, with our initial impressions indicating that it’s at the top of its class in almost every category. It could well be that the QX is last of these large luxury utes to follow the “more is more” philosophy.