Click above for high-res image gallery of the 2009 Infiniti FX50 AWD

Infiniti's FX first arrived on the scene in 2003. At the time, it looked like something transported into the showroom directly from the auto show concept car turntable. While other manufacturers were delivering boxy SUVs, Infiniti presented the world a futuristic four-door crossover that was available in vibrant "Liquid Copper" paint. Even in bland white, the FX turned every head on the road – and rightfully so. Now in its second-generation, the all-new 2009 FX arrives with a more powerful 5.0-liter V8, a new 7-speed automatic and a mouthful of electronic driving aids that are sure to stump even the team at Engadget. Is the all-new FX a worthy replacement to its predecessor? Has it turned soft to please the luxury crowd? What's up with all of that gadgetry? Find out after the jump.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Michael C. Harley / Weblogs, Inc.

With the styling of the first-gen Infiniti FX now looking rather bland among the sea of copycat CUVs, the all-new 2009 model was designed with an aggressive pen. Although the new model is only fractionally different dimensionally, the hood appears longer and the greenhouse shorter. The fenders are bulged, the door handles tapered and the headlights scalloped. The new side "gills" and thickened C-pillars add visual length and character to the sides. With its own semi-radical styling (and an injection of Infiniti-family resemblance), the FX is an interesting study that isn't exactly everyone's cup of tea.

Appearance aside, we were much more concerned with the driving dynamics of our Infiniti flagship. Yes, with the loss of the Q45 several years ago and the inability of the QX56 to step up to the plate, the FX50 AWD is the new flagship in both technology and price. Our "Blue Slate" over "Graphite" 2009 FX50 AWD stickered at $65,015 including destination charges (before you go look, a loaded 2009 QX56 arrives at around $62,000). Those with thinner wallets will likely opt for the much more reasonably priced FX35 AWD or FX35 RWD (starting at $42,150). Those two vehicles are essentially the same, except for fewer options and a smaller – but very capable – 3.5-liter V6 (VQ35HR) rated at 303 hp.

While the previous-generation FX45 wasn't a slouch by even sports car standards, Infiniti cranked up the volume on the 2009 FX50 model. The FM-platform crossover features an all-new 5.0-liter V8 (VK50VE) rated at 390 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. Even with extensive use of aluminum and lightweight materials throughout, the new FX50 tips the scales nearly 100 pounds heavier (now 4,575 pounds) than its predecessor. Even so, the extra power and a 7-speed automatic transmission help the ATTESA E-TS AWD system claw its mass to 60 mph in just over 5 seconds. (The EPA rates the 2009 FX50 AWD at 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway. On our initial stop, we pumped 16.18 gallons of premium unleaded gas into the tank after just 251.2 miles for an average of 15.52 mpg.)

Climbing inside the cabin, passengers are met with beautiful quilted leather seats, hand-stained maple wood, and real aluminum trim. Electroluminescent gauges greet the driver behind the meaty leather-wrapped steering wheel (now with dual magnesium paddle shifters). Our six-foot two-inch frame fit very comfortably in the heated/cooled front seats of the cabin. The second row is accommodating, but not overly spacious. Passengers won't complain, as they will be content watching the optional flip-down DVD player with its 9-inch display through their wireless stereo headphones. Take the headphones off, as the 13-speaker (included 2 subwoofers) BOSE premium audio stereo sounds great, and will play just about any type of audio media in existence. It seems everything inside the cabin is power-operated, including the automatic tensioning device on the front seat belts that removes the slack once you settle in – no kidding. The interior of the FX is simply plush.

There are, of course, a few gripes. Thanks to that aforementioned styling, outward visibility is hampered by both the thick C-pillar and the rearview mirror that's seemingly placed smack in the center of the windshield from our tall point of view. The sunroof is very small (especially when compared to the panoramic moonroofs found on direct competitors). The exterior mirrors don't auto-dim, and there aren't enough 12v power outlets.

With a push of the start button, however, the V8 growls to life. As expected, power is strong. Goose the throttle, and the FX quickly finds its gear and pulls strongly up to speed. The 7-speed automatic wasn't as smooth as we had wished it to be around town – it wanted to race, while we wanted to relax. In the canyons, its shifting actions were more welcomed. Downshifts with the paddles were met with aggressive-sounding rev-matching throttle blips from the all-aluminum 5.0-liter under the hood. You can throw the FX50 into a corner, but there isn't a whole lot of feedback to get your juices flowing. Back and forth through the canyons, the FX will hold the line. But, after a few minutes of the childish driving on public roads, the driver is forced to ponder what they are trying to accomplish. It's just not a sports car.

Mid-way through the week, the FX50 was called to Buttonwillow Raceway Park for race support. The drive to the track was about 150 miles each way across Southern California's expansion-joint-laden concrete freeway system, and then along several long stretches of smoother asphalt. The Continuous Damping Control (CDC) suspension did a mediocre job of keeping us comfortable. Both modes ("Auto" and "Sport") were too harsh for comfortable freeway cruising, even on the smoother sections of pavement. We can't just blame some electronic dampers – one also has to suspect the massive and heavy 21-inch wheels wrapped with meaty 265/45R21 tires. They look trick but are loud, as tons of road noise permeated into the cabin.

At the track paddock, with the second-row seats folded, the FX swallowed four brand-new race tires without complaint (even though overall cargo volume is reportedly down a few cubic feet compared to the outgoing model). The rear liftover is high, and you have to be careful not to mar the painted urethane bumper, but let's face it... hauling cargo really isn't the FX's objective either. The rear tailgate is surprisingly still manually opened and shut in a segment where nearly all of the competition is offering standard power-operated liftgates.

The long drive to Buttonwillow also gave us an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with Infiniti's latest automotive wizardry: LDW, LDP, ICC, DCA, and IBA. The automaker claims the confusing slew of acronymic technology is either part of the "lateral safety shield" or the "forward safety shield" of the FX50. Whatever the case, we are willing to bet most FX drivers don't have a clue how they work, why they exist, or what they are used for. We aren't your average car folk, so we made it a point to run through the big hitters.

The most obnoxious (see our bias coming?) is Lane Departure Warning. It sounds an alert if your car is about to move out of a detectible traffic lane. The system is turned ON by default when the FX is started (it can be defeated with a button on the lower instrument panel). In nearly every case, we forgot to shut it off at start-up. Of course, we were quickly reminded by the annoying audible alert within minutes of driving. In our experience, and on our local roads, normal safe in-lane driving was not good enough for LDW, and it constantly called us on it. The technology apparently works, but Infiniti's application is flawed by the fact that LDW needs to default to OFF with the option to active at for long road trips when you are likely to be distracted, or fall asleep.

Lane Departure Prevention (LDP) is actually a bit spooky. It defaults OFF (rightly so), so you have to activate it first. When running, LDP watches your position in the lane. If you veer slightly right or left, it will gently nudge the left or right brakes to bring the FX back into the correct position within the lane. A tone lets you know it is working (if you can't feel the ghosts tugging at the brakes through the steering wheel, you shouldn't have a driver's license in the first place). The system only works when you depart your lane at a slight angle. If you veer sharply out of your lane, it cannot help you. And yes, the driver can easily override the system with the steering wheel. Again, this technology works, but it is still a few generations from perfected.

Intelligent Cruise Control (ICC) simply rocks. It is OFF by default, but easily activated with the cruise control switches. The system uses a radar (in the grille under the front bumper) to watch the vehicles in front of the FX. Set the cruise control to 75 mph, and the FX50 will happily stay there... unless the car in front slows down. Upon realizing traffic has slowed, ICC will slow the FX accordingly to maintain the gap. It will even bring the vehicle to a complete stop! While you still have to accelerate from a standstill once again, ICC is absolutely priceless in moderate traffic situations – we can't wait until it goes mainstream at a reasonable price point.

Distance Control Assist (DCA) and Intelligent Brake Assist (IBA) work hand-in-hand to keep the FX50 from plowing into the vehicle ahead of itself. DCA (default is OFF) will push back on the accelerator and apply the brakes if your closing speed is too great, while IBA (default is ON) will apply the brakes when forward collisions are about to occur. In normal driving, they work very well. If you are racing around like a madman, or you expect it to overcome the laws of physics, get to know your body shop manager well.

Infiniti's Around View Monitor (AVM) really deserves mentioning too. Cameras have been placed on all four corners of the vehicle and the composite image is displayed on the navigation screen while the vehicle is in Reverse. The "standard" rearward camera view appears on the left of the screen, while an overhead shot is on the right. While it still isn't a substitute for looking over your shoulder, it works exactly as advertised and there are no excuses for backing into anything (or anyone) with an AVM-equipped vehicle
The list of Infiniti acronyms goes on: ASC, CHMSL, ACCS, RDS, AABS, VDC, TCS, ABS, BA, TPMS, AFS, FCW, and even LED (one has to wonder how many Infiniti salespeople can even decipher them all?). While we genuinely like the FX platform and engine, all of the previously cited technology suffocates the driving experience. During the long ride home, we kept thinking that a base Infiniti FX35, with or without the impressive ATTESA E-TS AWD system, is really the way to go.

After one week with the FX50 AWD, we had mixed emotions. Infiniti tags the FX50 AWD as the "Luxury SUV with the Heart of a Sports Car." While this may be both physically and mechanically true, the crossover seems to have lost its focus in the remake. The last-gen FX45 AWD was raw and brutal, with just enough luxury to justify the price. The new model is refined and tempered, but it works far too hard appealing to crowds on both sides of the fence. The luxury is spoiled by the harsh ride and cabin noise, while the driving passion is lost by the inundation of technology and its cumbersome weight. As a brand flagship and technology showpiece, the 2009 FX50 AWD hits the mark. As a specific vehicle that someone needs to put in their garage – we are still seeking the argument.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Michael C. Harley / Weblogs, Inc.

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