In the past, many of us have been guilty of approaching the crossover segment with the same zeal a toddler typically reserves for mashed peas. Equal parts revulsion, befuddlement and betrayal have danced across our faces as we've struggled to comprehend why anyone would willingly put their hard-earned money towards a vehicle saddled with inherently poorer driving dynamics and fuel economy. As lovers of curve-conquering wagons and hatchbacks everywhere, throwing a couple of extra inches of ride height into the recipe has rarely done us any favors. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves in familiar territory once again: far removed from even the outskirts of popular opinion.
Last year, Honda sold a dizzying 218,373 CR-V crossovers, and despite fuel prices determined to bend us over and give us something to cry about, other automakers have fleshed out their lines with a wide array of high-riding vehicles. Ford boasts a total of five crossovers and SUVs in its stable, and it isn't alone. With vehicles like the Juke, Rogue and Murano, Nissan offers buyers a total of seven different models that fit into the segment. The news doesn't bode well for those of us who prefer a vehicle with superior handling mixed with the ability to haul people and cargo.
And there's virtually no refuge in the suede-lined halls of our favorite luxury manufacturers, either. Brands from every corner of the globe are cashing in on the CUV/SUV craze with unabashed ferocity. So when the 2012 Infiniti EX35 showed up in the driveway, we braced ourselves for a week of eating our vegetables, now fortified with doctor-recommended understeer and an extra helping of body roll. But this isn't your typical CUV. With a 3.5-liter V6 pumping nearly 300 horsepower to the rear wheels and a lower-than-it-looks stance, this is a sport hatch masquerading in crossover clothing.
We can hardly be blamed for mistaking the EX35 as another member of the faceless CUV horde. From the outside looking in, the five-door presents itself as the awkward duckling of the Infiniti flock. Up front, the EX greets onlookers with a familiar face lifted from the likes of the G37 line. The company's rounded, chrome-plated grille and wraparound projector headlights help identify the model as a member of the family, but step to the crossover's side and the story shifts dramatically. In profile, the EX35 looks both small and somewhat strangely proportioned. With a rear hatch that leans far forward, a C-pillar defined by a sharp upkick and a tallish greenhouse offset by a long nose, the design seems caught somewhere between a baby beluga and a crosstrainer.
Pronounced haunches out back hint to the rear-wheel-drive goodness lurking undernearth the rounded wrapper, and the stylish 19-inch split-spoke wheels of our tester also helped lend the design a little sportiness. Unfortunately, dark black plastic trim traces the vehicle's lower hemisphere, eroding some of the EX35's premium presence.
Regardless of what you think of the offbeat exterior, it's easy to forget the car's looks once you climb indoors. Infiniti has graced the EX with a beautifully appointed cabin. Handsome dark brown leather covers nearly every surface, from the scalloped dash and door panels to the often-neglected waterfall and center console. Lay a hand anywhere inside the EX35 and chances are you'll find your fingers tracing well-stitched hide. Attractive polished wood accents make up the difference, with splashes of brushed aluminum trimming the shift knob and shifter gate.
Buyers who know the Infiniti line will recognize the climate and infotainment controls as familiar hardware. The elements are common throughout a fair majority of the Infiniti stable and offer the same level of functionality. The plastic switchgear looks a bit out of place amidst the leather, wood and metal of the rest of the cabin, but the dials and buttons are easy to locate and operate. Likewise, the high-resolution, seven-inch display is coupled to a quick hard drive-based navigation system. The driver benefits from an eight-way adjustable power seat with heating and cooling, and our Journey-trimmed test vehicle offered up optional niceties like power lumbar support as well. The front passenger, meanwhile, gets a four-way power throne.
The EX delivers a mere 107.1 cubic feet of total passenger volume.
While the EX35 can technically seat five, with a 110.2-inch wheel base and just 182.3 inches from stem to stern, it isn't overly spacious indoors. With full-size adults in the front seats, rear legroom can turn cramped. Infiniti says rear passengers are left to contend with just 28.5 inches of rear legroom, which is far less than competitors like the Acura RDX at 38.3 inches and the Mercedes-Benz GLK350 at 35.1 inches. In fact, the baby Infiniti delivers a mere 107.1 cubic feet of total passenger volume. Throw open the back hatch, and the rear cargo area offers a modest 18.6 cubes with the back bench in place.
So, the EX35 offers polarizing styling and a cabin more cozy than capacious. If this were an '80s fast food commercial, an endearing elderly woman would be barking, "Where's the beef?" by now. Well, dear purveyors of pressed patties, it's under the hood.
Like most Nissan and Infiniti products worth their salt, the EX35 makes use of a version of the company's excellent VQ V6 engine. In this iteration, the 3.5-liter unit delivers 295 horsepower at a lofty 6,800 rpm and 253 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm and is mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. Power is dumped to either an optional all-wheel drive system or, as in our tester, to the rear wheels alone. The combination is good for 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, which isn't great for the segment. At 3,782 pounds, the EX is quick enough on its feet, belting out an estimated 0-60 mph run of around six seconds. What's more, Infiniti has split those pounds 52/48 between the front and the rear, which means this strange-looking little crossover has a better weight balance than some sports cars.
This strange-looking little crossover has a better weight balance than some sports cars.
As a result, this is one of the most poised CUVs on the road. Hallmarks of the segment like excess body roll and stumbling understeer are nowhere to be found despite the poundage on hand. Acceleration is more than adequate for this kind of machine, and the rear-wheel-drive playfulness adds a level of driver enjoyment that simply shouldn't be possible from a vehicle defined by compromise. If you've been pleading with the stars to send you a hatchback version of the delicious G37, consider your demands satiated.
The seven-speed automatic is smart enough about shifting gears for you, though the knuckle-dragger in us can't help but wonder how much fun this thing would be with a legitimate third pedal. We can wonder all we want but Infiniti isn't likely to throw dollar bills away on such a folly. Instead, we should simply content ourselves with the knowledge that CUVs need not be a stand in for the miserable shackles of domestication.
The 2012 Infiniti EX35 starts at $35,800, though our Journey-trim tester walks through the door starting at $37,900, including goodies like maple interior accents, heated rear seats, a seven-inch LCD display and Bluetooth hands free calling among other niceties. Our option sheet came ticked with $7,600 worth of extras, proving the Germans aren't the only ones who can do extensive add-ons. The $2,700 Technology Package included all of the annoyances we sample then typically turn off, including Lane Departure Warning and Lane Departure Prevention, while the Deluxe Touring Package throws in 19-inch five-spoke wheels and adaptive HID headlights. Of all the options thrown at this particular vehicle, the only group we felt worth the coin was the $2,700 Premium Package. With the excellent Infiniti Around View monitor, a solid 11-speaker Bose sound system and streaming Bluetooth audio, this option grouping throws in all sorts of actually useful tech into an already nicely-loaded cabin.
By the time all was said and done, our vehicle carried a bloated $46,395 price tag, including an $895 destination fee. That figure is downright absurd given how small the EX35 is indoors. Show some restraint on the order sheet, however, and the bottom line finds itself in line with machines like the Acura RDX at $34,320 and the Mercedes-Benz GLK at $35,880.
If we're comparing 2012 apples to 2012 apples, The EX35 bests those two in terms of horsepower, with the front-wheel-drive RDX taking the bronze in that shootout. But for 2013, Mercedes has bumped up the available grunt from 268 to 302 hp in the GLK, making that model best fit to parry the Infiniti thrust.
Sadly, this may be a model crippled by marketing run amok. With zero off-road capability and deeply limited human and cargo capability, the truth is that the EX35 is merely a very nice G hatchback. Tired wisdom tells us Americans simply don't get luxury hatches, and Infiniti may have attempted to skirt that fact by branding the five-door as outside of the G line. Buyers aren't so easily fooled, however. Last month, Nissan sold just 378 EX units, down from 603 in March 2011. In fact, the company only sold 6,030 EX models in all of 2011, putting it at the very bottom of the Infiniti sales barrel by a wide margin. Even the company's second-worst selling model, the FX, bested the EX by 3,909 units last year.
The truth is that the EX35 is merely a very nice G hatchback.
Despite its excellent on-road manners, the EX35 is ultimately undone by a dearth of cabin and cargo space – it's a crossover utility vehicle without the utility. More to the point, it's a luxury hatchback. Single buyers and those with no kids may find this fun-to-drive, leather-lined runabout a fine choice, especially given how well-equipped the model is from the start, but those who need a comfortable back seat for more than quick hops around town or additional cargo area will undoubtedly be better served by other options on the market.