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Old January 27th, 2003, 07:45 AM   #1
Magic Mtn Dan
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Something for the Cayenne crowd to consider?

2003 Infiniti FX45

Finally, the premium SUV buyers really want?
by Bengt Halvorson 1/24/2003

Infinitiís FX45 is a vehicle to get excited about. Why? Because for much of the past decade, automakers have been pushing premium truck-based SUVs, when what many buyers really want are luxurious, sporty ó and sporty looking ó car-like vehicles that also have lot of utility and versatility. The FX45 (and the V-6-powered FX35) is based on a sport sedan, not a minivan or truck; itís a spot-on product thatís exclusive to the Infiniti brand; and itís a sure-fire hit in a hot, high-profile market segment dominated by both the BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne.

An Infiniti official openly conceded that, until recently, Infiniti has only produced luxury knockoffs of Nissan vehicles. But now, with the recently announced discontinuation of the (Nissan) Pathfinder-based QX4, the entire lineósave the carryover I35óis unique to Infiniti.

As part of this new image, the FX ďpremium crossover SUVĒ was designed from the start as a performance-oriented vehicle, a car-like companion to a truck-like, full-size SUV (based on the Nissan Titan pickup) that will join the lineup next year. A product-planning representative admitted that, since the beginning of the modelís four-year development program, the X5 was the target competitor to beat. At first check, everything from its sexy shape and its aggressive stance, to its raw performance and raucous sound, to its driving position, to its small and substantial steering wheel, no-nonsense, cockpit-style controls supports that. Engineers targeted all-around performance ó including handling and braking ó to be on par with European sports sedans and better than virtually all SUVs.

Curb appeal

Designers wanted the FX45 to ďlook fast while standing still,Ē so they matched an sports car upper body to an SUV lower body, eliminating the boxy styling and getting rid of overhangs.

The design cues are a mix of the conservative and the flamboyant. All together, inside and outside, the styling comes across as classy but edgy, with the sparing use of chrome outside, plus highly sculpted front and back ends, xenon headlights, and LED taillights. And would you believe that the taillights ó which extend out from the body ó actually produce a teeny bit of downforce?

The FX is making its debut shortly after Nissanís new Murano, and given the similar size of the two vehicles, some might think that the two vehicles are on the same platform. But, read: they are not. To clear up the confusion, the Murano is built on Nissanís corporate FF-M platform, a primarily front-wheel-drive platform that the Altima, Maxima, and next-generation Quest are based on, and the engine is mounted transversely (side-to-side). The FX, on the other hand, is built on Nissanís corporate FM (Front Midship) platform, a primarily rear-wheel-drive (and all-wheel-drive) performance-oriented platform also used by the Nissan Z350 and Infiniti G35, and the engines are mounted longitudinally (front-to-back).

To handle the increased weight and potential cargo demands of the FX, Infiniti increased the plate thickness of some critical body pieces, effectively also increasing the rigidity of the platform.

Sport-sedan aficionados will find the FXís underpinnings familiar: heavy duty struts in front, and a multi-link setup in the rear. Many of the suspension components are aluminum for weight savings.

Powering up

A 315-hp, 4.5-liter V-8 powers the FX45, while a 280-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 moves the FX35. The FX45 is available only with all-wheel drive, while the FX35 offers either all-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive. Though the power ratings are quite close, the difference between the engines is more apparent in torque ratings: 329 lb-ft for the V-8, versus 270 lb-ft for the V-6. Running the numbers, the FX45 boasts a better power-to-weight and torque-to-weight ratio than both the BMW X5 4.6i and Porsche Cayenne S, and the FX35 tops the X5 3.0i in both power and torque, by a wide margin.

The V-8 is from the Q45 sedan, while the V-6 is the latest and most powerful version of the acclaimed 3.5-liter engine that powers much of the Nissan lineup. Off the line, the V-8 has a bit more grunt than the V-6 but unless you normally haul heavy loads or plan to travel in triple-digit speeds, the V-6 provides more than enough thrust to get you in trouble with Officer Friendly.

Infiniti boasts that the FX45 will out-accelerate both the Mercedes-Benz AMG ML55 and the BMW X5 4.6i.

Exhaust note was an important consideration during development. Developers wanted an aggressive, raucous sound during performance driving.

Well, it doesnít exactly sound like a bitchiní Camaro, and thatís probably for the better. But if youíre running with the windows down and an FX45 passes, thereís no mistaking its tuned-up V-8 sound. And the V-6 sounds pretty darned good, too.

Both engines for the FX produce more than adequate power, and both pair well with the five-speed automatic. The transmissionís manual-select mode stays in each gear and unlike some other systems doesnít force an upshift as you near the redline or force a downshift up you floor throttle up while in a higher gear.

Skyline source

The all-wheel-drive system is described as the newest generation of the same system thatís been employed in the Nissan Skyline in Japan, and in the U.S. market in the now-discontinued QX4, but the system is now actuated with electromagnetic clutch packs, rather than hydraulics. It defaults to a 50/50 torque split for normal driving conditions, and can put all of the power to the back, depending on conditions, or for the best efficiency while cruising.

In a daylong drive up and down the mountain roads above Palm Springs, my favorite FX was clearly the ďbaseĒ model, with the V-6 and rear-wheel drive. It felt extremely well balanced in handling, a bit more nimble at low speeds, and itís almost as fast as the V-8 with all-wheel drive, which weighs about 250 pounds more (though only 95 pounds more than the all-wheel-drive FX35). Through a series of tight hairpin curves that would leave drivers of most other SUVs white-knuckled, we found the 4000-pound-plus body to be well controlled ó with no surprises ó even right near the limit of adhesion.

The FX45ís super-sized 20-inch wheels look great, but my passenger/co-driver and I agreed that we were satisfied (if not more so) with the ride and handling offered by the FX35ís 18-inchers.

For those who are accustomed to an SUV, the steering is very un-SUV-like. Though it numbs a bit on center, off center it has a very direct feel of the road. Itís great at relaying the road surface back through the wheel, but not pulling off to the side with each change in road curvature so much that itís exhausting on long drives - like some unnamed high-performance German vehicles.

Standard on all FX models is VDC (Vehicle Dynamics Control), which in the case of this vehicle is a performance-oriented, ďguiding handĒ type system that enables driving very close to the limits of adhesion before it will intercede by subtly backing off the throttle or applying one or more of the brakes. When we encountered some road debris mid-corner, the system briefly interceded but it did its job unobtrusively.

The suspension is performance-oriented, so itís very firm, if not a little too firm for most driversí wants. You pay for the high level of control, relatively, with a little more ride harshness than expected. Although it seemed ideally tuned for the curvy, fine-surfaced highways of Southern California, impact harshness in the frost heaves, expansion strips, and potholes that plague areas with colder climes could be an issue.

And the FXís suspension seems a bit unhappy when going off the pavement. Infiniti lists approach and departure angles, and the FX45 has a decent ground clearance of 7.6 inches, but a quick foray onto a gravel pullout area was enough to remind us that this is not a vehicle with off-roading in mind, let alone traveling long stretches of unpaved road. The FXís ground clearance might permit you to take on bumpy back roads, and maybe even some forest service trails (and be capable of it), but beware, its tires, wheels, and suspension are quite opposed to the idea and youíll feel like youíre in a cocktail shaker.

Fashionable considerations

The interior makes the best of wherever youíre trying to go, though. The seats are extremely comfortable and supportive. Theyíre height-adjustable by three inches, and itís easy to find a good driving position. As can be expected, the details have not been ignored. Doors close with a tight, satisfying clunk. Matte aluminum surfaces and classy materials complemented the dark interior of our test vehicles well. The driverís position has a serious, straightforward cockpit feel, and Infiniti wisely decided against the somewhat complicated climate-control and audio interface of the Q45 and M45.

The optional 300-watt Bose sound system has eleven speakers and an in-dash six-disc changer, and itís been designed especially for rock music, giving the bass and treble a considerable boost even when the levels are set to zero.

While the back endís tapered, in-the-name-of-fashion shape means that cargo space isnít great, Infiniti officials boasted that it does offer a quite vast load floor, and thatís what people are most likely to use ó much more than stackable space.

Buyers can forego the smooth, uninterrupted roof design, if they wish, in the favor of function with an optional 100-pound-capacity roof rack. Towing capacity is 3500 pounds ó typical for this vehicle class.

So who is the FX supposed to appeal to? In a product presentation, Infiniti said that itís aimed primarily at adventurous, 40-year-old male go-getters, termed ďmodern mavericks.Ē Infiniti conservatively estimates yearly sales for both FX models combined at 30,000. We have a feeling theyíll be nearly doubling those numbers after the first year.

Oddly, company officials said that this is viewed as a vehicle exclusive to North America: There are no plans to sell it ó even badged as a Nissan ó in Europe, Japan, or elsewhere.

The FX35 and FX45 are indeed such satisfying drives that we can see them eating away at sales from sport sedans, including Infinitiís own G35. When the outward dimensions (or at least the footprint) are so similar, why would you want the more staid-looking, less roomy sport sedan when you can have the extra utility and near the same performance? The only apparent drawbacks are a higher sticker price and ó take note ó embarrassingly poor gas mileage for a non-truck-based vehicle (estimated 15 mpg city with the V-8; 16 with the V-6).

Safety-wise, brake Assist, Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), the aforementioned VDC, roof-mounted side curtain airbags, side supplemental airbags, and front-seat active head restraints are all standard, and a direct tire pressure monitoring system is optional.

Pricing for the FX is extremely competitive. The V-6 model starts at $34,200 for rear-wheel drive and $35,700 for all-wheel drive, and the V-8 starts at $44,200. The bottom-line price of a fully loaded FX45 is about $53,000, nearly $3000 less than the base price for a Porsche Cayenne.

Unboubtedly, the FX45 is a hot package and itís going to give the controversial Cayenne some steep competition. And, in its premium crossover segment, itís perhaps the closest product yet to deliver what buyers really want.

2003 Infiniti FX45
Price: $44,225 base, $52,370 as tested
Engine: 4.5-liter V-8, 315 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Length: 189.1 in
Width: 64.6 in
Height: 65.0 in
Curb Weight: 4299 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 15/19 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, side curtain airbags, stability control, electronic brake force distribution, and Brake Assist
Major standard features: Automatic climate control, HID xenon headlamps, LCD display screen, heated power memory front seats w/ power lumbar, heated mirrors, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, cruise control, AM/FM/cassette sound system with six-CD changer
Warranty: Four years/60,000 miles

Source: The Car Connection

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