2011 Infiniti FX50

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Infiniti had a bold idea when it created the FX – a macho combo of mid-sized luxury-sport sedan, one-off custom and honky tonk high-end SUV.

A “crossover” it ain’t.

Its RWD-based chassis – and a suspension that’s very similar to what you’d find under Infiniti’s M45 and G35 sport sedans – means it has about as much in common with a front-wheel-drive-based, minivan-in-drag crossover as Chuck Zito has with Ryan Seacrest.

WHAT IT IS

The FX is a highly stylized, high-performance sportwagon with two rows of seats and room for five people. It differs from the typical crossover SUV in offering a V-8 engine (most crossovers have V-6s … at the most) and because it is based on a rear-wheel-drive layout, designed for max-effort performance and handling.

The next-closest thing to it is a Porsche’s Cayenne – or a BMW X5.

Prices begin at $42,600 for the V-6 powered RWD FX35 and top out at $57,600 for the V-8 powered, AWD-equipped FX50.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

Last year, Infiniti pared the FX model lineup to two: the V-6 powered FX35 and the V-8 powered FX50. The previous mid-range FX45 has been dropped.

The FX50’s exterior panels were also worked on to produce a more ferocious look in keeping with the not-crossover concept.

WHAT’S GOOD

Almost the same power as Porsche Cayenne S and BMW X5 for about $6-7k less.

Looks wild – and like nothing else on the road.

Handles like the RWD sport sedan it’s based on.

Several inches more front seat head and legroom than competitors.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Scary gas mileage in the FX50 (14 city – hello!)

Less roomy second row than chief rivals.

No third row.

So-so towing capability (3,500 lbs. max)

UNDER THE HOOD

The ’11 FX35 comes standard with a 303 hp 3.5 liter V-6 paired with a seven speed automatic and either RWD or AWD.

Last year, the FX35 was easily the dominant player in this category of vehicle – packing 43 more hp than the 2010 BMW X5’s standard V-6 and even outmuscling the Porsche Cayenne’s standard V-6 by 13 hp. It’s still the big chief – but the braves are closing in. Porsche has just updated the Cayenne, which now comes standard with a 300 hp V-6; the BMW X5 has also upped its underhood ante to 300 hp – and both offer eight speed transmissions, one-upping the FX (and probably explaining why these two deliver 2-3 MPG better gas mileage, too). You can also get a manual six-speed in the Porsche – while the FX is automatic-only.

Still, the FX35 delivers the goods: 0-60 in about 6.5-6.6 seconds, depending on whether you go with RWD or the slightly heavier AWD model. This is quicker than the ’11 Cayenne (about 7 seconds flat) and also the six-cylinder BMW X5 (about 6.7-6.8 seconds). It’s understandable why the Infiniti is quicker than the BMW (the X5 is heavier by a fairly shocking 833 lbs.) but Porsche’s excuse is harder to figure because the Cayenne weighs about the same – sightly more, actually – than the FX35: 4,553 lbs. vs. 4546 lbs.

Maybe Infiniti is under-rating its 3.5 liter V-6?

The FX50, meanwhile, comes with a 390 hp, 5 liter V-8. AWD is standard equipment with the V-8 and so is the seven-speed automatic.

Just like the FX’s 3.5 liter V-6, last year the 390 hp V-8 was Duke of New York, A Number One. It’s still a player, but you can now get 400 hp in the Cayenne (or 500 in the Turbo, if you find that insufficient) and the new, also-just-updated BMW X5 makes things even-Steven with its new 400 hp 5 liter V-8.

The FX50’s still very quick: 0-60 in about 5.4 seconds. But so are the others. Things have tightened up.

You can also get a diesel engine in the BMW – and a hybrid version of the Cayenne is available. Neither are gas-sippers, but they’re not as startlingly consumptive as the FX50’s 1969 Chrysler Newport-like 14 MPGs city, 20 MPGs highway.

Also: Like the Cayenne and the X5, the FX’s V-8 requires premium fuel. At the current $4 and change per gallon, the FX is not a cheap date.

The Infiniti’s maximum tow rating of 3,500 lbs. is way behind the Porsche Cayenne’s rugged 7,700 lbs. max and the BMW X5’s 5,000 lbs. max.

ON THE ROAD

The FX may technically be a crossover SUV but functionally, it’s a high-riding sports sedan built around a RWD sport sedan platform, with a longitudinally (rather than transversely) mounted engine, the transmission bolted behind it instead of beside it – feeding into a driveshaft and from there to a rear axle – vs. the typical FWD car-based crossover’s sideways-mounted engine/transaxle combo, with most of the drivetrain’s weight hanging over the front wheels. The front engine-RWD layout gives the FX the innate handling advantage that comes with a closer to 50-50 weight split, front to rear.

The FX’s suspension system is fully independent, all around – with a double wishbone front and a multi-link rear, each featuring extensive use of lightweight forged aluminum pieces to reduce both weight and unsprung mass. It is very similar to what you’d find underneath Infinit’s M45 and G-Series sedans – and so not surprisingly, a similar overall feel to it, just you’re riding much higher off the ground courtesy of the super-tall 21 inch mags built specifically for this vehicle.

Once you get over the initial fear that comes with pushing a vehicle that looks a little top-heavy into a corner at not-quite-legal speeds, you’ll find this is a very capable machine, even on those super tall 21 inch rims.

You can order up active rear steering and continuous real-time damping (CDC) adjustable shocks to further improve (and fine-tune) the FX’s handling abilities.

AT THE CURB

If you want to make an impression, the FX won’t let you down. The front end may be a bit nurse shark-looking, but as Capt. Quint from “Jaws” might put it, “she’ll swallow you whole, chief.” New (and fully functional) side gills add to the sea beast countenance. These work by allowing hot underhood air to vent, lowering the build up of high-pressure air – and front end lift. (My ’70s-era Trans-Am has something similar.)

The exterior styling differences between the three majors in this category – the FX, the Porsche Cayenne and the BMW X5 – are huge. None look anything like the others – quite unlike the sea of look-alike crossovers out there. It’s like the Good Old Days when you could tell a Dodge from a Ford and a Ford from a Chevy from as little as a quick glance at the fender. No mistaking the FX for anything else on the road, either. It’s a wild thing.

THE REST

The center console controls for the audio/climate control/GPS systems are a little fussy – but that’s par for the course in luxury brand cars these days. At least some of the key controls are of the instantly understandable “turn a knob” type – such as the rotary controls for the driver/passenger seat heater (and bun cooler). I also liked the retro-looking but classy analog clock.

The FX does not offer third row seating, like the new X5 does. Both the Infiniti and the Porsche are two-row, five-occupants-only machines. But in their defense on this score, the BMW’s flip-up third row seats are functionally not much more than kiddie jump seats anyhow. However, they do give you the option – and you can use them for carrying more stuff.

Speaking of which: With its second row up, the FX has about 35 cubic feet of cargo capacity; with the second row folded flat, 62 cubic feet. This is not much less total capacity than the three-row (and longer, overall) X5, which maxes out at 75.2 cubic feet of cargo space. And it’s almost exactly the same cargo space as the Porsche provides (62.9 cubic feet).

The space is tall and wide, too – so you can use the FX to cart home not just a lot of stuff but also a lot of big/wide/tall stuff that would never fit in a conventional sport sedan.

Space for occupants is also a plus in the FX – which has several inches more front seat head and legroom (39.3 inches and 44.7 inches, respectively) than the X5 (36.6 inches and 40 inches, respectively). That is a huge difference – and now you know how BMW owners pay for that third row.

The BMW does give second-row occupants about an inch more headroom (due to the FX’s swoopier roofline) as well as about two inches more backseat legroom. In the Porsche, the second row seats recline as well as slide forward and back, so you can increase backseat legroom at will.

But if you want the most room for the driver and front seat passenger, the FX is hard to top.

Another neat feature: “self-healing” paint. Minor scratches are absorbed by a semi-flexible clearcoat that expands as it warms – preserving the new car look that much longer. There’s also an air ionizer system integrated with the automatic climate control that emits a low concentration of negatively and positively charged ions that attach to airborne contaminants such as pollen and mold so they don’t float around in the cabin’s airspace – and get sucked into your lungs. In “Ion Mode,” the system creates a high concentration of negative ions to impart a crispness to the cabin’s air similar to the way air tastes after a thunderstorm.

The FX also offers cutting-edge techno features such as laser-guided cruise control that automatically adjusts your following speed in relation to the ebb and flow of traffic and something Infiniti calls Distance Control Assist (DCA), which anticipates the need to slow and brake by backing off the throttle and beginning to apply the brakes as traffic ahead of you slows. And there’s an electronic Lane Departure Warning system that beeps at you if you wander over the double yellow – and will actually use the brakes to shepherd you back into your slot, too.

None of these safety systems are obnoxiously intrusive as they can be in some other vehicles with similar technology. No jarring claxons – or startling flashing lights. And you can turn stuff off if you want it off.

And the back-up camera is like no other back-up camera you’ve ever seen. In addition to providing a closed-circuit view of the area behind the vehicle when you back up, it can also give you a bird’s-eye view of the entire vehicle from the vantage point of what looks to be about 20-30 feet up in the air – and will follow your progress at speeds of up to about 5 mph or so.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The FX finally has some real competition but it’s still a unique and exotic beast that stands out from the herd of “crossovers” whose chief virtue is they don’t look like minivans – even though that’s basically what they are.

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