2004 Infiniti FX35 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The sports car of SUVs.
The Infiniti FX surprised us. Like any self-respecting, SUV-hating group of automotive journalists, we were all set to hate both the Infiniti FX35 and the more powerful FX45. Then we drove them.
The first thing we discovered is that these are exciting driver's cars, smooth, powerful, very stable. They can be driven much harder than traditional sport-utilities, with big, powerful brakes and firm, fully independent suspensions. On the highway, they feel planted and much more confident than traditional SUVs.
None of this should come as a surprise, given the Infiniti FX is based on the Nissan 350Z sports car. (A common assumption is that the Infiniti FX shares its structure with the Nissan Murano. It does not. The FX shares its rear-wheel-drive design with the 350Z and Infiniti G35, while the Murano shares its front-wheel-drive design with the Nissan Maxima and Altima.)
The second thing we discovered is that the FX35 is plenty. Its V6 engine, the same engine used in the 350Z, is powerful, giving the FX35 responsive performance. While driving the FX35, we never found ourselves wishing for the more powerful FX45.
Any way you cut it, the V6-powered FX35 and the V8-powered FX45 give Mercedes, BMW, and Porsche a run for the money, particularly your money. When it comes to acceleration, not to mention handling on twisty roads, the Infiniti gives up nothing to the Euro-luxury SUVs. The Infiniti drives more like a big sport coupe than a truck-based SUV. Better still, the FX35 and FX45 cost less than the German competition.
Infiniti built its SUV for the road. It was not designed to go off road, though the available all-wheel drive is designed for improved handling and performance in the snow. Its chassis could therefore be lighter than most other SUVs, reducing the weight its powerful engines must move. And the weight advantage was just a starting point. Infiniti equipped the FX with enormous 20-inch wheels and tires and race car-sized brakes. The inspiration for this SUV's design and performance was a 'bionic cheetah.' The goal was to make the FX as fun to drive as a sports car; Infiniti achieved that with compromises in ride comfort, space and rock-climbing ability.
The end result is a car-based crossover SUV that's full of character and exciting to drive on sports-car roads, but also one that has a stiff suspension and ride, a tighter cockpit than some of its competitors and flamboyant styling. While the BMW X5, Mercedes M-Class and Porsche Cayenne each deliver varying levels of off-road capability, all are better suited for the rough stuff than the FX. Squeezing into the cockpit and bouncing along a bumpy snow-belt back road, however, may appeal most to committed sports-car enthusiasts.
Launched for the 2003 model year, the FX nonetheless gets several improvements for 2004. On the functional side, there's a new Snow-Mode transmission program that reduces shift points to gain traction in very slippery conditions. All FX models get an eight-way adjustable passenger seat (as opposed to four-way last year) and a standard microfilter that cleans air in the cabin. For appearance, FX now offers brushed aluminum roof rails and two new wheel finishes, including chrome plating.
Infiniti offers two FX models. The FX35 ($34,350) is powered by the 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 from the Nissan 350Z sports car, and starts with rear-wheel drive. All-wheel drive ($1,500) is an option. The FX45 ($44,375) gets the 315-horsepower 4.5-liter V8 from Infiniti's Q45 luxury sedan, and all-wheel drive is standard.
Both FXs come with a 5-speed automatic transmission, dual-zone climate control with microfiltration, power front seats, split folding and reclining rear seats, tilt/telescope steering wheel and high-intensity discharge headlights.
The FX45 gets a firmer suspension, 20-inch wheels as opposed to 18-inchers, leather heated seats and trim, a power tilt/telescope steering wheel, memory for the driver's seat, mirrors and steering wheel and one-touch windows. The FX35 offers these added luxury appointments in a Premium Package ($2,900), which also includes a sunroof, a 300-watt 11-speaker stereo with steering-wheel controls and a six-disc CD changer, automatic headlights and a built-in garage door transmitter. You can add the last four items to the FX45 with its Premium Package ($2,100).
The FX 35 Sport Package ($1,500) adds the 20-inch wheels, the stiffer suspension and aluminum pedals, With the Sport and Premium packages, the FX35 is equipped identically to the FX45, without the V8, for $2,180 less.
Both FX models offer a Technology Package ($4,300) that includes a GPS navigation system, a security system that allows the owner to unlock and start the vehicle without the key, traffic-sensing cruise control, a rear-facing camera to assist backing up and a tire pressure monitor. A rear-seat DVD viewer ($1,600) is now a stand-alone option. A satellite radio receiver ($400), tow hitch ($600), aluminum roof rails ($220) and 20-inch chrome wheels ($1,600) are also offered separately.
Buyers expect extensive safety features in any luxury vehicle and the FX delivers: Standard Safety equipment includes dual-stage front airbags, front side-impact airbags, full-cabin curtain-style airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners and load limiters, active front head restraints, a sophisticated anti-lock brake system with electronic brake proportioning, and electronic stability control. Rear-seat side-impact airbags are not available.
With its unique combination of styling, size and performance, the FX has been selling at about 30,000 per year, while competitors like the BMW X5 sell closer to 45,000 per year. Buyers have been choosing the FX35 nearly two-to-one over the FX45, but nearly 85 percent choose all-wheel drive. The point? If you want to buy a rear-drive FX35 off the lot, your dealer may have to do some searching.
You might not notice the Infiniti FX's swoopy body at first because your eyes will be immediately drawn to its enormous wheels. BMW's hottest X5 also comes with 20-inch wheels, but on the curvy FX they look disproportionately larger. The FX35 comes standard with 18-inch wheels, which are larger than what you'll find on most SUVs. Once you get used to the monster wheels, Infiniti's 'bionic cheetah' styling begins to sink in.
The Infiniti design team wanted 'cool fusion,' or 'the blending of a substantial, SUV lower body with a sleek, elegant upper body more reminiscent of a classic sports car or GT.' In other words, the FX is supposed to look like a sports car from the beltline up. It does, sort of.
Its proportions are certainly striking, starting with a wide stance and long hood under the tucked-tight roof. The overhangs are short, exaggerating the distance between its front and rear wheels. An oversized grille greets oncoming traffic, and the bulging hood looks high. A peek underneath the hood shows it doesn't need to be, as the engine is tucked well below.
Aside from its appearance, the design gives FX a near optimal weight balance of 54 percent front, 46 percent rear, which in turn improves overall handling balance and reinforces the FX's road-burning feel. Even the protruding, stylized taillights have function beyond their looks. The lip of the lights that extends past the rear hatch adds aerodynamic downforce on the rear end, like a spoiler. Order the polished chrome wheels and you will, undoubtedly, have one of the most attention-grabbing SUVs on your block.
When you climb into the FX's driver's seat, you're coddled by the console and instrument panel. It's more sporting and more intimate than you might expect, but it also feels like a tighter fit than you'll find in most other SUVs. The overall feel is of a great luxury sport wagon.
The front seats are comfortably firm, like those in a good European sedan, but the adjustments may require quite a bit of fiddling before you're set (that's why they invented seat memory). The driver's seat allows three inches of vertical travel, so you can perch up high to keep tabs on the rest of the tall SUV commuters around you, or drop your hind end toward the floor for serious driving on challenging roads.
The view over the FX hood reminds us of that in a Jaguar, with the metal sloped and contoured over the headlights and grille. It's the opposite of the squared-off hood of a BMW X5 or Range Rover, as if the FX is trying to tell you you're in a car rather than a truck. The view in the mirrors is not hindered by the fat, sloping rear pillars, although Infiniti covers its bases with its optional rear-view camera. The image displays on the seven-inch dashboard monitor, with two virtual lines that correspond to the width of the FX. We didn't fully trust it when parallel parking, but it's a great aid when backing out of a driveway or shopping center parking space to help ensure there aren't any little ones in the path.
Infiniti's designers wanted three separate interior 'zones' intended to meet the needs of various FX occupants. The cockpit-style driver zone is supposed to 'maximize driving excitement.' The steering wheel and gauges remind us of those in Nissan's 350Z sports car, with a thick, squeezey rim and big gauges that move when the column tilts to optimize viewing angle. Given this sports car climate, we half expected to grip a six-speed manual shifter in the FX. For now, you'll have to settle for a five-speed automatic. The climate, stereo and navigation controls are densely arrayed in the center stack. They look cool, but you have to literally look at them to operate them. It requires a little more attention than we prefer to devote to adjusting a switch and it's our primary issue with the FX interior.
The FX's 'comfort zone' is reserved for the front passenger, who gets the same range of seat adjustments as the driver, a separate adjustable center armrest and individual climate controls.
The 'play zone' (the rear seat) has personal reading lamps, a center armrest with tray and storage, seatback pockets for storing DVDs and magazines, reclining seats and chest-level air-conditioning vents. The optional DVD player has a seven-inch screen, a remote and two sets of wireless headphones. The play zone is surprisingly comfortable. Three adults fit comfortably in the split rear seats, and the recline feature makes it much more accommodating for taller folk than the rear-sloping roof might suggest.
The FX has plenty of clever storage spots, including a lockable storage box in the center console with enough room for larger items like a purse. The door pockets flip out, and there are three hidden bins under the rear cargo floor. The rear seats fold flat easily with simple levers that are accessible from the side doors and the rear. The sculpted rear hatch pops with an electro-magnetic release.
Total cargo capacity (64.5 cubic feet with the rear seat folded) is less than many square-shaped SUVs, but larger than some others, including the class-trailing BMW X5. Infiniti says it placed a higher priority on floor space than sheer volume, and the FX has a larger load floor than the X5 or Lexus RX330. Of course, that means its floor-to-ceiling measurement is shorter, as is the size of the opening under the sculpted hatch. At 30.6 inches, the load height is higher than that in some other SUVs.
The optional 300-watt, 11-speaker Bose stereo was tuned for the mid.
The Infiniti FX must be driven to be appreciated. It shares much of its chassis architecture with the rear-drive Nissan 350Z sports car and Infiniti G35 coupe. Rather than an SUV, we'd call it a fine luxury sport wagon with a higher seating position. It's more exciting to drive than a Volvo Cross Country, and bigger than an Audi allroad.
Plant the FX45's accelerator to the floor and you'll be rewarded with a healthy hot-rod roar. As revs rise, the sound becomes a higher-pitched hum. Brisk acceleration makes the big FX feel athletic and nimble. You get the feeling you can pass anything in front of you, and Infiniti's design objectives come more clearly into focus.
The Infiniti FX45 is quicker than the Porsche Cayenne S, according to each manufacturer's statistics. The FX45 can zip from 0 to 60 mph in slightly more than 6 seconds, while the Porsche Cayenne S takes nearly 0.2 second longer. How can that be? Though Porsche's V8 engine is more powerful, the Infiniti FX is considerable lighter, so each of its 315 horses must haul fewer pounds.
Not that the V6 FX35 is a slouch. It also launches impressively from a stop, largely because it has substantially more horsepower and torque than most other six-cylinder SUVs. There's as much grunt as most owners will ever need (even those who like to get racy). Yes, the step up to the V8 is noticeable, particularly when you stab the gas at, say, 60 mph. The FX45 will rocket to 80 at a much greater rate than the FX35. Yet the V8 also chugs fuel at a much greater rate, reducing range anywhere from 25 to 75 miles per tank, according to the EPA's numbers. Both FX models are limited to a top speed of 130.
All the power is managed with sophistication. The FX all-wheel-drive system is tuned for paved roads, and it delivers all the power to the rear wheels until slip is detected. At that point, the system gradually shifts power to the front wheels until the slip is eliminated. That maintains a rearward bias, like a sports car. You can also manually lock the front and rear axles together, a good tactic for deep snow.
The electronic stability control system, which lightly applies braking force to individual wheels when entering a corner too fast, engages so gradually that we couldn't detect when it was working. That means the driver makes the big decisions, such as entry speeds into a corner, and the car decides the little things, such as the optimum braking for each wheel to keep the car doing what the driver wants. Driving an FX45 on the twisty two-lane sports car roads circling the Red and Black Mountains in Southern California, we were able to induce a slight amount of power oversteer while cornering (a satisfying fish-tail effect in the rear), although we were never able to break the mammoth rear tires completely loose.
The FX suspension reflects Infiniti's decision not to make this SUV an off-road vehicle. Off-road ability is enhanced with long travel and compliant suspension tuning, but that same ability compromises handling on winding roads. The FX is tuned for those winding roads. Despite its 7.6 inches of ground clearance, it has no skid plates or underside armor, and the up-down range of movement at its wheels is limited compared to most SUVs.
In tight and sweeping corners alike, the body stays incredibly level, which is the plus side of its stiff suspension. We drove it hard, like we would a sports sedan. Understeer, or the sliding of the front tires that is the default skid condition in most vehicles, begins very gradually when you aim the FX into a corner, and the front wheels continue to push only slightly until you get near its very high cornering limits. Like the 350Z sports car, the FX steering is quick. It doesn't feel as telepathic as a Porsche's, but it doesn't feel light and loose like that in many SUVs, either.
Infiniti claims the FX will brake shorter than rivals from Mercedes, BMW, and even Por.
The Infiniti FX is an active-participation machine, not a chamber insulating its driver from the real world. It can be driven quickly with confidence. Its acceleration and braking raise the standards of performance for SUVs. Its on-pavement handling is impressive for a vehicle of its heft, but the downside is ride quality that sometimes can be described as harsh, particularly in the case of the FX45. Other luxury SUVs offer a better balance of on-road performance and off-road capability.
To go with its advanced performance capabilities, the FX offers luxury toys such as a rear-view camera, an amazing stereo, a DVD video player for rear-seaters, cruise control that senses traffic ahead, state-of-the-art stability and braking controls and a key that can automatically unlocks the doors when you approach the car.
The FX also delivers decent towing capacity, not to mention a price advantage over similarly equipped luxury competitors. What it doesn't have is any real off-road potential. If you're among the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of SUV buyers who don't care about off-road capability, then you're doing yourself a disservice to ignore the Infiniti FX. If you're looking for a unique, road-burning, high-style luxury SUV, the Infiniti FX is one of a kind.
Infiniti FX35 RWD ($34,350); FX35 AWD ($35,850); FX45 AWD ($44,375).
Options As Tested
Touring Package ($2,900) includes leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, driver's memory seat, power lumbar support, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, heated outside mirrors, power sunroof, 300-watt Bose audio system w 6-CD in-dash and 11 speakers, HomeLink universal transceiver, black roof rails, cargo floor protector and cargo net.
Infiniti FX35 2WD ($34,350).
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