Big, bold and wickedly beautiful
By Jim Kenzie
There's a reason why concept cars have dramatic profiles, huge wheels and ultra-low-profile tires.
They look cool.
There's a reason why production cars don't.
They tend to be impractical.
But every once in a while, a car maker figures, "What the heck, maybe there's a market for a vehicle that sacrifices a little day-to-day usability for style.''
Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky come to mind. And so does the Infiniti FX.
It answers the question, "What if we actually built an SUV that looks as wicked as the show car?''
The FX is available in two flavours, differing largely in engine. The FX35 uses Nissan's well-regarded 3.5-litre V6, shared with several vehicles in the Nissan/Infiniti family.
The FX45 — today's subject — employs Nissan's 4.5-litre V8. Ditto on "well-regarded" and "shared."
FX has been on the market for a few years now, but it still strikes a remarkable figure on the road. A facelift for 2006 — new grille, new bumper, new wheels, new colours — doesn't hurt.
My initial thought when I first saw one of these sport utilities: How did they crash-test this thing with a rear-end barrier blow, given the almost complete absence of rear overhang? Obviously they did and it passed.
The second question: How big are those wheels and tires anyway? Answer: 20-inch rims on the FX45 (that's like something off a big pickup), shod with P260/50 rubber.
So, the vehicle looks terrific. Does that style compromise the vehicle's usefulness?
Yes, it does, it must be said.
Enough to render it unworthy of your attention? As usual, it all depends on what you want from a vehicle.
This isn't a typical SUV into which you can toss massive amounts of stuff. It isn't huge inside, although the cargo area is sizable. A couple of large suitcases fit behind the upright rear seat, hidden from sight by a sliding cargo cover.
The FX is certainly better than the BMW X5 in this regard, although it's not as spacious as the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
The rear seatbacks fold individually for added cargo room and adjust for angle when used for carrying people (likely only two, as the centre tunnel is intrusive).
Legroom is greater than expected. Another back-seat plus: the tester had a flip-down screen and two pairs of headphones for the DVD movie player.
There's a bit of compromise extracted from front-seat riders, too. The steeply raked windshield brings the windshield posts well back; you have to watch your head getting in.
Once inside, I found it difficult to arrange the highly adjustable power seat and power tilt-and-telescope steering column to get a proper driving position, partly because the steering wheel doesn't seem to be centred with the seat.
The instrument cluster adjusts with the tilting wheel, yet in the best position I could find, the critical lower quarter of the fuel gauge and the low-fuel warning light were largely obscured by the steering column shroud.
Visibility to the rear is also problematical, although when reversing, a camera displays a view of exactly where you are going in the satellite navigation screen.
This is major-league cool, by the way — a sure hit for your passengers.
Finally, the shoulder belt for the middle rear-seat rider dangles from the roof, rather than being engineered into the seat back itself.
But if you want a vehicle with looks like this, you have to pay the price. The interior is otherwise accommodating, the seats comfortable, the Bose sound system excellent.
Infiniti's multi-function rotating controller for audio, sat nav and other functions (the answer to BMW's dreaded iDrive) is much more user-friendly than those of most competitors.
Actually, there is one more price to pay, maybe the biggest of all. It stems from those massive wheels and tires, which weigh a lot. When they start bouncing up and down, you need firm springs and shocks to keep all that weight under control.
On the FX45, Infiniti has also specified a sport suspension: still-firmer settings all around.
The result is ride quality that, frankly, is harsh over bumps big and small. A major bump (eastbound 401 at Yonge St., anyone?), especially when hit by one of the rear wheels, can cause the FX to jump sideways. Not nearly enough to throw you into the next lane, but enough to cause a bit of alarm.
Other aspects of the FX performance are better. The V8 is strong, smooth and silent; its fuel consumption is no surprise. The five-speed automatic transmission with manual override is so silky as to virtually disappear from your consciousness.
The stiff suspension at least delivers decent cornering capability.
Nissan's full-time four-wheel-drive system is one of the most sophisticated in the business and stability control is standard, so you'd have to be pretty dense to fall off the road in an FX.
If you do, there are airbags all over the place. But I want to emphasize a much more important safety feature: the active front-seat headrests, which dramatically reduce the risk and severity of whiplash injuries in rear-end collisions.
Nissan has been a leader in this field; more companies should follow suit.
The FX was, I believe, the first production vehicle in North America to employ a lane-departure warning system. (Infiniti's mid-size M sports sedan also has it now.) A camera behind the rear-view mirror monitors highway lane markings. If the vehicle crosses over one of those and the turn signal is not being used, the system assumes you're inadvertently drifting out of the lane and a warning beep sounds.
It's a clever solution to a widespread, yet underestimated, safety issue.
Sadly, the system is so annoying — especially to us country folk who tend to ride the crown of the road to avoid ditches — that the first thing most drivers will likely do is shut it off. I sure did.
The lane monitor is part of a technology package that includes the sat-nav system (while largely intuitive in operation, it ironically does not recognize some mature roads within sight of Nissan Canada's Mississauga head office).
Other assets in the bundle: intelligent cruise control (it automatically brakes the car if you get too close to the vehicle in front), the DVD player and a new brake preview feature that senses if you're closing too quickly on the vehicle ahead and automatically readies the brake system for a quicker response when you hit the pedal.
If you want any of these features, you have to get them all.
While the FX is big and heavy (1,964 kg) and you might think it needs the V8 to shove it around with authority, you really should try the excellent V6 before laying out the additional $7,900.
You lose 35 hp but also 104 kg. As well, the wheels are smaller — hence lighter — and there's no sport suspension, so the ride is markedly better.
But if all-singing, all-dancing is your motto, and the FX is on your radar screen, well, what's wrong with big, bold and beautiful?