When Infiniti invited us to come to Big Sky, Montana for a winter driving experience, they didn’t have to ask twice. A big snow and ice gymkhana is always one of the best driving days of any year. This time, our chariot was the Infiniti QX60 SUV.
Now in its second year since a full redesign, the QX60 served as the showcase for the company’s Intelligent All-Wheel Drive system, and the course was laid out at the expansive West Yellowstone Airport.
Sliding around in someone else’s car is always a treat, but there was more to this day than just hooning and showing off for our friends. It was an opportunity to learn a bit more about Infiniti’s AWD technology as well as refresh our winter driving skills.
One of the best reasons to take a snow day is to experience a vehicle’s AWD system in an environment that ensures it’ll be working hard. Most AWD systems are so smooth that you never really know when it’s activating. The system in the Infiniti QX60 is advanced enough that the only time we could definitely feel it activate was at launch in the snow.
The QX60 is a midsize three-row crossover SUV, powered by Infiniti’s well-developed 3.5-liter direct-injected V-6 engine. It’s rated at 295 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. Paired with a 9-speed automatic transmission, the QX60 features paddle shifters to allow the driver to select gears, or you can let the transmission do the work.
One critical feature for snow driving is the QX60 drive mode selector. This SUV offers five settings, including Snow, Sport, Automatic, Eco and a configurable Personal mode. We tested the QX60 in Snow mode as well as Sport and Automatic. The driving modes work in concert with the AWD system and the vehicle’s stability control to keep you pointed where you want to go, even in the most challenging conditions.
The QX60 was designed as a front-wheel drive vehicle, so the first choice of the intelligent system is to use the front wheels to move. When the front wheels slip, Infiniti’s system can instantly transfer up to 50% of engine torque to the rear wheels.
In the snow and ice, that happens from a standing start. The Infiniti also uses the braking system to selectively apply a little resistance to free-spinning wheels to send engine power to the wheels with some grip.
OK, what does that mean when you’re driving?
The exercises we did at the airport included getting started, turning at speed, a slalom, and trying to stop in a short distance. Starting out with the QX60 in Snow Mode, the first thing you notice is that the vehicle won’t let you overpower the wheels with the throttle. The V-6 engine has plenty of power to spin all four wheels on the frozen surface, but the traction control modulates that power to deliver a smooth sendoff.
Then when you’re turning or accelerating, Snow Mode keeps the engine under control so nothing surprising can happen. When you have the Vehicle Dynamics Control (stability control) working for you, that system also helps keep the vehicle from sliding sideways. For most people under most conditions, this is a very good thing.
To understand exactly what the systems were doing for us, we ran the same exercises in Snow Mode with the VDC on, then with VDC off, and finally we put the QX60 into Sport mode to allow us to use all the engine power. Or at least, we tried to use all the power. Hilarity ensues when you try to drive fast on slippery snow and ice with no assistance from the electronic safety systems.
After much practice, we settled on Automatic mode with the VDC active as the quickest way to get around the driving courses. However, it’s important to note that there was nothing that we were going to hit if we made a mistake, and we made plenty of those.
Piloting the QX60 in winter conditions was remarkably easy. In Snow Mode, it’s pretty hard to get this SUV to do anything wrong, even if it’s not the quickest setup you could choose. Switching off the VDC gave us more familiarity with sliding around, but even then the QX60 recovers quickly and you can stay out of trouble if you’re careful. Putting the SUV into summertime Sport mode with the VDC turned off requires a light touch on the gas pedal and gentle use of the steering wheel, or you’ll find yourself out of control on the ice.
Believe in the Blizzaks
One reason we all felt like expert snow and ice drivers on this training day is that all the QX60s were equipped with Bridgestone Blizzak studless winter tires. Bridgestone has been developing the Blizzak line for decades, and it shows.
The tires use embedded silica for friction and a special compound that leaves millions of microscopic bubbles in the tread. Those perform a special function by providing a place for water to go.
To explain that a little better, there is always a very light sheen of liquid water on top of ice on any roadway. It’s that sheen that really makes your tires slip. By providing a place for that water to go, the Blizzak tire keeps more of its rubber in contact with the surface.
Blizzaks also use a technique called siping, which involves cutting very fine slices into the tread block of the tire. That allows the tire to use those slices to get a grip on ice crystals and improve traction.
If you’re not riding on good winter tires, all the traction technology in the world won’t help you very much. That’s because traction is always based on keeping the tire in its best possible contact with the road surface, especially when that surface is snow or ice.
So what’s the bottom line? Just to note that a modern SUV such as the 2023 Infiniti QX60 is packed with technology that helps you get where you’re going in any kind of weather with a minimum of drama. In addition to our parkour on the ice, we drove over 50 miles in winter conditions on public roads in the same QX60, and it never gave us a moment’s concern. When you pair a modern premium SUV with the latest in winter tires, you’re ready for anything the weather can throw at you.