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Friday, August 1, 2008

First Drive: 2009 Infiniti FX

Quilted leather meets 390 stampeding horses.
By Evan Griffey of MSN autos

Niche vehicles are usually the result of combining two opposites to create an intriguing juxtaposition. For instance, fusing luxury and performance joins plush leather and burled wood with a heavy dose of horsepower and a stout suspension. The intrigue arrives because luxury translates into more weight while performance demands an absence of weight. The 2009 Infiniti FX is focused on this classic combination, but wraps it all in the versatile sheet metal of an SUV.

Model Lineup
The 2009 Infiniti FX takes the Luxury/Performance crossover SUV niche to new heights. The latest FX is endowed with a sleek, clean-sheet exterior, two new hard-hitting powerplants, the aforementioned plush leather and burled wood, and an array of technoid gadgetry that addresses comfort, safety and convenience. Three models anchor the FX lineup. A V6 powers the rear-wheel-drive FX35 and all-wheel-drive (AWD) FX35, and a new V8 and AWD motivates the top-of-the-line FX50.

Infiniti offers an array of option packages to help personalize the FX. The Premium package (standard on the FX50, optional on FX35), consists of climate-controlled front seats, a quilted leather interior, Bluetooth connectivity, an iPod interface, paddle shifters, and additional convenience items. The Nav package (also standard on the FX50) requires the Premium package to be eligible for use on the FX35.

Optional on both models is the Technology package, which features Infiniti’s Lane Departure Prevention system, Intelligent Cruise Control, Distance Control Assist and Intelligent Brake Assist. In-car DVD is available on FX’s outfitted with the Technology package. The FX35’s Deluxe Touring package adds 20-inch rolling stock, adaptive front lights and burled wood trim.

The FX50-specific option lineup is topped by the Sport package that delivers Infiniti’s Continuous Damping Control (CDC) suspension, rear active steering, sporty seats and a number of other goodies. The FX50 rolls on 21-inch wheels and tires, with high-performance summer tires an option to the standard all-season offerings.

Under the Hood
Even the entry-level FX35 is poised to pound the pavement. With 303 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, the FX35’s V6 is a 25-horse improvement over last year’s version. The new 3.5-liter DOHC V6 employs Infiniti’s Variable Valve Event & Lift (VVEL) system that alters timing on the intake cams, netting 16/23 (city/hwy) fuel economy , and 16/21 in AWD trim.

The 5.0-liter V8 in the FX50 pumps out a prodigious 390 horsepower and an impressive 369 lb-ft of torque. This represents a substantial 70-horsepower and 34-lb-ft gain over last year’s FX45. The V8 features a DOHC valvetrain with Infiniti’s VVEL phasing on both the intake and exhaust cams, which results in a linear power delivery and 14 city / 20 hwy fuel economy.

The FX’s smooth, sure-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission is the unheralded star in this thrilling automotive production. An all-new gearbox, the seven-speed’s Adaptive Shift Control uses detailed algorithms to initiate the proper shift at the proper moment. This translates into no sudden downshifts at critical points in a corner. For those who want to pick shift timing for themselves, the transmission can be ordered with column-mounted paddle shifters.

Inner Space
The FX provides supportive seats, wide door panels and a well-cushioned center console, allowing occupants to nestle into a comfortable position, primed for long-distance cruising. Outward visibility is good and the interior is quiet, transferring little wind, road or engine noise into the cabin.

The steering wheel is sports-car small, and the magnesium paddle shifters are mounted to the column, not the wheel. We found this placement excellent even for mid-corner shifts.

On the Road
The FX produces impressive grip by any standard. Diving into turns makes it easy to forget all the practicality that an SUV body style represents. The FX claws at corners, with no squealing tires, just a scrubbing sound that seems to say, “Bring it on.”

While carving apexes, the Lane Departure Prevention system quickly becomes annoying with its disapproving beeps. But the system is easily silenced by an on/off button, permitting the driver to focus on the next set of curves. The most surprising part of our drive came as we exited the vehicle and realized we were in a standard-suspension FX50, making us wonder what kind of madness lurks in the FX50 Sport.

Body roll was not as pronounced as we were expecting, considering the FX50’s hefty 4575-pound curb weight. Ride quality, long a performance/luxury compromise, was up to luxury specs, which is impressive considering we were rolling on the 21-inch (265/45-21) summer tires. When not running through the many gears at full throttle, the FX is an extremely competent cruiser.

Right for You?
The performance/luxury SUV segment is a narrow niche for sure, but it does bring together an intoxicating mix of ingredients. The FX puts the fun in functional. Pricing for the 2009 FX35 starts at $40,950. The FX50 sticker begins at $56,700, which is an expensive date but you will get lucky, especially if you have a twisty commute.

Evan Griffey served as an editor of Turbo & High Tech Performance, a pioneering publication about sport-compact tuning. Today Griffey freelances for Import Tuner, Sport Compact Car, Car Audio and Siphon.