The already impressive handling offered by Infiniti's FX45 gets even better with the 2006 models.

This midsize SUV -- which debuted in 2003 along with its less-powerful FX35 sibling -- improves more than just its eye-catching looks in a makeover this year. Its four-wheel independent suspension includes new shock-absorber dampers for improved handling. The FX45 also comes with new 20-inch wheels and tires.

The FX45 rides on a modified version of parent company Nissan's FM (Front Midship) chassis and comes standard with all-wheel drive and a stiffer suspension than the FX35. Because the engine is directly behind the front axle, the vehicle has nearly an ideal 50/50 percent front-to-rear weight ratio. This helps contribute to sporty handling characteristics that surpass virtually all truck-based SUVs in terms of maneuverability.

Infiniti envisioned the FX45 (which has a V8 engine) and the FX35 (which has a V6) as appealing alternatives for luxury buyers who eschew traditional upscale SUVs for being too big, boxy and unwieldy. The two FX vehicles are sleeker and more nimble than those larger, truck-based models.

The styling, lower ride height and car-like demeanor of these Infiniti SUVs proved so successful that other automakers began introducing equally expressive models of their own, like the Subaru B9 Tribeca.

Now Infiniti is freshening up those trendsetting looks. The 2006 update for the FX45 brings exterior changes, such as a new grille, bumper, wheel designs and polished aluminum roof rails. Changes inside include a new center console and updated dashboard gauges.

Added exterior colors are Liquid Platinum, Serengeti Sand and Autumn Copper, while the interior comes in a newly available Wheat color scheme.

Many features have been made standard. Among those are last year's Premium Package contents, which include a power sunroof, automatic headlamps, cargo net and cover and a garage door opener. Also added are a 300-watt Bose audio system with an in-dash CD changer and MP3-file playback, and an advanced airbag system that deploys at different rates according to the size and weight of the front passengers. Front, front-side and side-curtain airbags with rollover protection for both rows of seats are standard, as well.

A newly added RearView backup system displays a video image recorded by a back-bumper-mounted camera. Its seven-inch color dashboard display comes on when the vehicle's transmission is shifted into reverse. This not only helps the driver avoid inadvertently backing into someone or something, it also makes parallel parking easier.

The vehicle borrows its smooth and powerful 320-hp 4.5-liter V8 engine in a modified form from Infiniti's Q45 luxury sedan. The only gearbox offered is a smooth-shifting five-speed automatic that includes manual-shift capability and a Snow-Mode function for enhanced traction at low speeds on slippery roads. The FX45 can tow up to 3,500 pounds with an optional tow hitch ($600).

Its standard AWD system automatically varies power to all four wheels, according to road and driving conditions. Because the AWD system lacks low-range gearing, however, the FX is not suited for serious off-roading.

Standard chassis-control systems include four-wheel antilock disc brakes with Brake Assist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution for secure stopping abilities. Vehicle Dynamic Control helps prevent a loss of control during extreme handling maneuvers; this automated system intervenes with brake pressure and throttle control if it detects wheel slippage.

As befits its status as a luxury SUV, the FX45 comes well equipped, with an array of standard and optional high-tech features. An Intelligent Key keyless entry/start system and Bluetooth hands-free telephone interface are standard, for example.

Noteworthy options include intelligent laser-guided cruise control with preview braking (bundled with the $4,200 Technology Package). This system identifies emergency braking situations (by sensing the distance from the vehicle ahead in the same lane and its relative speed) and pre-pressurizes the Brake Assist function, even before the driver is able to depress the brake pedal.

The Lane Departure Warning system that is also part of the Technology Package looks for highway lane markings and generates an audible signal if it determines the vehicle is about to inadvertently cross them.

The Infiniti FX45 has better than average reliability, according to Consumer Reports. It received five out of five stars on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's front and rear side-impact tests and has not yet been rated for rollovers or front impacts.

Is the FX45 for You?

Buy this Vehicle if - You want one of the sportiest-looking and handling V8-powered luxury SUVs; you need seating for five; fuel economy isn't a concern.

Keep Looking if - You need seating for seven or something more rugged that can handle serious off-roading and towing.

Who Fits? - Four adults will fit with no trouble and a fifth can squeeze into the rear seat for short trips; its lower-than-average height from the ground makes getting in and out easier for shorter riders, who might struggle climbing into larger SUVs.

Options Worth Splurging on - The safety-conscious and tech-heads will want the $4,200 Technology Package, which includes a navigation system, intelligent cruise control with brake assist, lane departure warning and satellite radio functionality; tow receiver hitch ($600).

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