Jason Harper

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Infiniti FX50 Sleek, Fun Crossover

BLOOMBERG NEWS

Nov. 19 (Bloomberg) — Funny how quickly the language of design changes. When the Infiniti FX first hit the roads in 2003 as a so-called “crossover,” many thought it was a strange beast. It was as big as an SUV, yet its lines and proportions were like a sports sedan’s.

Today the Infiniti’s oversized athleticism seems modern if not cutting-edge, and we see crossovers like the hefty Ford Flex and odd duck from BMW, the X6. Still, I liked the look of the FX from the beginning, and today I’d likely opt for the second- generation model over more ungainly competitors.  

To understand why the FX isn’t considered an SUV, you should know that it rides on the same Nissan-developed car platform as the Infiniti G coupe and M sedan, so there will be no truck-like rolling over rocks or rollicking up mountains.

Even with its athletic stance and swooping lines, the FX is 5 1/2 feet tall and able to accommodate five passengers and 24.9 cubic feet of cargo simultaneously. It also has a rear hatch and is available with ostentatious 21-inch tires.

The FX comes in three flavors. Both the $42,150 plain- vanilla FX35 and the $43,600 FX35 with all-wheel-drive have V-6 engines.

My test model was a double-dutch chocolate model, the $58,400 FX50 with AWD and a gas-guzzling V-8. Loaded with options, the sticker hit $65,000.

In these times, the V-6 models are perhaps more attractive, and the rear-wheel-drive FX35 gets 23 mpg on the highway, versus 20 in the luxe model. (At 16 and 14 mpg in the city, I can’t help but think the FX would make a fine candidate for a diesel or hybrid system.)

Lots of Horses

If you’re going for it, though, the FX50 is a heck of a nice ride. The 5.0-liter engine has a startling 390 horsepower, and the optional sport package comes with continuous damping control and rear active steering, which means the rear suspension also reacts to steering-wheel inputs. The result is a sporty ride that feels more akin to the G coupe than a cumbersome SUV.

I was impressed with the steering, which is tight and pleasingly firm at highway speeds, though pliant when parallel parking. The seven-speed automatic transmission is highly intuitive — no need to play with the behind-the-wheels paddles unless you’re bored.

The FX50’s suspension is tuned toward the sporty side, which means it feels jarring over bumps and choppy pavement and isn’t nearly as accommodating as many SUV owners might expect — another reason the lesser FX is a better choice for many.

I took the FX50 out on a very wet day, with rain hurling down and a thick fog overhead. Challenging conditions, yet it still handled with confidence at highway speeds.

Slick Roads

Still, a wise driver should note that the combination of power, weight and height means it can be easy to find yourself barreling along too fast for the conditions. This was especially true on slick roads that had blind crests and off-camber curves. I could feel the suspension go light as I came over the hills at speed, which would have made sudden evasive turns a challenge.

Though the FX has fairly compelling sports-car pretensions, there’s no getting around its height and heft. Even good electronics can’t completely defy Mr. Newton.

And, boy, are there a lot of electronics in this Inspector Gadget-worthy vehicle. The $2,900 technology package is aimed at distracted drivers with features like a lane-departure system, which beeps when you stray out of your lane without turning on the blinker. The prevention system will then brake a wheel to pull you back into that lane.

I understand the thinking behind it, but the system drove me nutty until I figured out how to turn it off. (I’d like to retain control of my own vehicle, thank you.)

Nissan Knobs

The FX interior is a pleasant place, with a quilted leather driver’s seat that electronically conforms to most any whim. Maple wood inserts relieve the otherwise dull expanses of plastic, and many of the switches and knobs are found on lesser Nissans. My test model also had an odd color combo of black and brown, an aesthetic no-no.

The Bose stereo with 11 speakers and two subwoofers is one of the best I’ve heard, with absolutely no distortion, and the iPod interface is lovely. Similarly, the navigation system, which shows directions in three dimensions, is easy to figure out and available with real-time traffic info.

It’s good that smaller, lighter vehicles are gaining in popularity again, yet many drivers have little choice. They need to haul things and people. Crossovers like the FX lose the pretension of running over logging roads and stick closer to the fundamentals of a fun, pleasant and capable ride. And they look a lot cooler than minivans.

That’s a design language a lot of us can get behind.

The 2009 FX50 AWD at a Glance

Engine: 5.0-liter V-8 with 390 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: 7-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 14 city; 20 highway.

Price as tested: $65,015.

Best features: Handsome, aerodynamic looks with a firm and spirited ride.

Worst feature: That 14 mpg in the city.

Target buyer: The driver who wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan but needs its utility.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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