It's confession-time: I've got a fetish for multi-purpose vehicles. No, I've never been a fan of SUVs. And no, the recent spate of crossovers has left me scratching my head (give me a wagon or give me death!). But what I am interested in are vehicles that can exhilarate on-road while holding their own off-road. It's that same allure that had me pressed against the window of a Subaru dealership at midnight to fantasize about the 2.5RS ten years ago; the reason that I can't wait to drive the BMW X6; and the reason I find myself in San Diego, once again, to spend some quality time with the 2009 Infiniti FX.
All photos © 2008 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.
Truth be told, I liked the last generation FX. I even went so far as to recommend it to a friend, with the caveat that it wasn't the most refined ride in its class. Back when it was introduced, the FX stood alone among the sluggish stalwarts of the SUV set, blending a fair bit of functionality with some manner of sport. But with an interior by Playschool and a suspension made of granite, it didn't quite live up to buyer's expectations. Despite this, the FX still solidified its place as a niche vehicle in a segment that had yet to be defined. The 2009 model aims to do the same, but this time, Infiniti is attempting the same feat on a shoe-string budget with competitors that have gotten hip to the idea that a two-plus-ton beast should actually be engaging.
First things first -- the FX looks pissed. Not angry in a "you used Equal instead of Splenda in my soy vanilla latte," but more of a "if you don't give me your chocolate, your money and your first born, I'm going to channel Ghenghis Khan and get 13th century on your ass." But then again, you'd be fuming too if your ass was that size. It certainly isn't subtle, but it's not particularly purposeful, or elegant – both of which are becoming de rigueur for the segment. While we understand that Infiniti has to make its mark in the styling department, we would have preferred a headlight treatment similar to the G's and a grille that lends some cohesion to the rest of the Infiniti range. That said, at least the vents aft of the front wheel arches are functional, simultaneously reducing under-hood temps while providing down force at speed.
Exterior aesthetics aside, the 2009 FX still retains the basic shape of its predecessor, albeit with a wider track and a longer wheelbase. But more importantly, it utilizes the same FM (front-midship) architecture as the G35 sedan. That means weight distribution is some of the best in its class ( FX50 AWD 54/46, FX35 AWD 53/47, FX35 RWD 52/48) and a potent choice of powertrain options that look downright tasty on paper. The entry-level FX35 comes packing the VQ35HR, 3.5-liter V6 that we've come to know and love, shoveling out 303 hp and 262 lb.-ft. of torque to either the rear wheels or all four through a variation of the ATTESA E-TS system. If you throw caution to the wind (read: gas prices) you can option up to the FX50 with the VK50VE, 5.0-liter V8 that's pushing out 390 hp and 369 lb.-ft. of torque, and comes standard with all-wheel-drive. Both models benefit from a new, seven-speed automatic transmission with manual shift modes and downshift rev matching. Plus, Infiniti pilfered the parts bin to equip the FX with what look to be the same paddle shifters found on the Nissan GT-R. We're getting excited, but wait... there's more.
The four-wheel independent suspension has been recalibrated (double wishbones up front and a multi-link rear setup) and aluminum has been used throughout the new FX, from the suspension to the doors, to shave 200 pounds off the curb weight. To deal with the rough ride that was the bane of previous FX owners, Infiniti installed its own Continuous Damping Control (CDC) system to allow drivers to choose between "Auto" and "Sport," with the former soaking up the bumps and the latter getting things stiff in all the right places. While the standard wheels on the FX35 are 18-inch, five-spokes that looked to be pulled off the EX35, the real rollers you want are the lightweight, 21-inch Enkeis wrapped in 265/45R21 high performance summer tires (only available on the FX50). However, this is where things suddenly veer off course.
Remember that 200-pound weight savings? It's been negated by all the new standard equipment on the 2009 model. From seats to safety, the new FX is a technological tour de force, but it comes at the expense of an easy explanation. Let's start slow so we can avoid the mutual explosion of our heads.
Intelligent Cruise Control has become a de facto feature for anything with a price tag north of $50k and it's part of the FX's Technology Package. Thankfully, it works as advertised. Set the cruise control at any speed between 1 and 90 mph and the FX keeps a safe (three-second) following distance from the car ahead. It's easy, functional and could turn into a necessity for those of us in traffic-choked urban areas. The same goes for the Around View Monitor, which uses four cameras (one in the front grille, another on the hatch and two more mounted underneath the side mirrors) to provide a seamless, bird's-eye view of the vehicle's surroundings. It worked flawlessly during our drive and prevented us from scraping those delicious dubs when trying to fit into a parking space in San Diego's Gas Lamp District. With those two easily understood features out of the way, let's get stuck in.
The advanced climate control system features the same dual-zone setup you've experienced before, but that's where the similarities end. A Plasmacluster Filtration system removes mold, fungi and other unwanted particles from the cabin and partners up with the Grape Polyphenol Filter to collect dust, squelch allergens, and, according to Infiniti, the deodorizing principals of both systems can suck up all manner of nasty smells, from farts to French fries.
Also included in the Technology Package is the Distance Control Assist (DCA) system, the Intelligent Brake Assist (IBA) system and the Lane Departure Prevention (LDP) system. All of which seemingly aim to isolate and befuddle under Infiniti's branded Safety Shield system.
Let's begin with the DCA, which uses a laser detection system in front to warn drivers that they're approaching a vehicle too quickly. The system responds to the risk by providing haptic feedback in the form of a subtle push back on the accelerator. Failing that, the IBA system will alert the driver with a tone and a visual signal on the dash. If no action is taken, it begins applying the brakes in an effort to reduce the force of the impact. Too much you say? Try this on for size: The 2009 FX comes standard with a Lane Departure Warning system that utilizes a camera mounted above the inside mirror to detect if the vehicle has left its lane (more than two-degrees of steering angle and it shuts off). While the absolutely infuriating chime that sounded whenever we happened to touch a line on some of the twisting roads that made up our test route was enough to cause random button-pushing above our left knee, even more disturbing is the fact that if you enable the Lane Departure Prevention system, it will actually apply one of the rear brakes to pull you back into the lane. Scary? We thought so too, but it could prove to be a necessary evil.
For the sake of brevity, we're going to avoid giving you the blow-by-blow on the Scratch Shield Paint, Rear Active Steer, 12-point (12!) Sequential Welcome Lighting, adaptive headlamps, HDD navigation, voice recognition for everything from the HVAC to the audio system, XM Navtraffic and the 9.3 gig Music Box hard drive. We hope you're okay with that, but if not, you can expect more when we get an FX in the Autoblog Garage for a week.
Putting the acronyms aside and getting comfortable in the driver's seat, you can see why the exterior is just an evolution of the outgoing model. The interior received the lion's share of the attention. The seats are heavily padded and provide suitable bolstering; they're also heated and cooled, and come in a variety of materials. The dash is easy to read and the steering wheel is sufficiently chunky with just enough redundant controls to avoid technological overload. The center instrument panel is fitted with all the right buttons for all the right tasks. If you don't see it in physical form, a few quick clicks of the center-mounted scroll wheel that controls the display will get you what you want, sometimes in a less-than-intuitive way. Overall, the materials are a substantial step up from the last generation, and do their best to combine a bit of old-school luxury with a hint at the technological marvels that lie beneath.
On the road, both the V8-powered FX50 and V6-equipped FX35 feel like a handful of other 'utes that are attempting to emphasize the "Sport" in Sport Utility Vehicle. The ride is certainly better than the outgoing FX and even with the dampers set to Sport it's not the kidney-punishing affair we previously endured. The steering isn't what we'd call engaging, but it's what we've come to expect from vehicles of this size and weight. Power from the V6 is ample, with a linear torque band that seems to come into its own above 2,500 rpm, while the V8 produces a muted burble out back and provides plenty of motivation when you stamp down on the aluminum long pedal. Both engines have their strong points, but given the weight penalty of the V8 and the better fuel mileage of the V6 (16/21 city/highway for the V6 versus 14/20 for the V8), most buyers would be content with an FX35 optioned up to suit their own specs.
About twenty miles from our starting point, we stopped into a nursery so Infiniti could prove that the FX is both an engaging steer and an SUV with Utility. With the seats folded flat, two five-foot baby oak trees were placed in the back, along with two bags of dirt, all of which was destined for a fire recovery center set up to help victims of the wildfires that laid to waste a large part of Southern California last year. It was a nice gesture, but couldn't have been more poorly timed. The route they'd set us on involved more curves and undulations than on the pages of Playboy, and with two trees and a couple bags of topsoil behind our backs, we did our best over the next two-and-a-half hours to prevent one of the large poles from impaling the front seat occupants. To say that we never got the opportunity to push the FX beyond 5/10ths would be an understatement, but it did give us a hint of the FX's capabilities on the back roads. We were less than impressed.
For a vehicle easily classified as a heavyweight, Infiniti did its best to balance ride comfort and a taut suspension. Where the FX gives up the ghost is its lack of any quantifiable tactile feedback. Steering inputs are masked with a thin layer of Novocain; shifts are somewhat sluggish and the paddle shifters aren't nearly as immediate as they need to be. While we had no complaints with the motivation provided by either engine, there was never that sense of speed and engagement (even without the foliage occupying the rear) that would make the FX anything more than a high-dollar people mover. The FX simply does the job expected of it and little more.
That verdict isn't a huge surprise considering all the effort Infiniti put into festooning the FX with enough high-tech wizardry to keep a CES attendee occupied for years. While the advanced safety features, upgraded interior and magical gizmos are impressive enough, driver involvement obviously took a back seat to electronic sorcery, and because of that, we might have to look elsewhere for our multipurpose kicks.
All photos © 2008 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.
Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.