The Good: Speed, handling, cash rebates
The Bad: Steroidal exterior styling, busy interior design, low towing capacity
The Bottom Line: A weird-looking crossover SUV that drives wonderfully
What's the ugliest vehicle on the market today? For my money, the new V6-powered Infiniti FX35 and its sibling, the V8-powered FX50, both from Nissan's (NSANY) luxury division, rank right up there near the top of the list.
Obviously, aesthetic judgments are subjective and some readers may like the FX's radical looks. But I was shocked the first time I saw the FX sitting in my driveway, and not in a good way. The FX35's grille looks like a futuristic plastic egg carton. Its headlamp casings bulge, as if the headlights have contracted glaucoma. The front end is elongated, with humps over the front wheels that are hard to see over. The rear windows are oddly shaped and split at the backs of the rear doors so that when you open one of the doors it seems as if part of the window is pulling open while the rest remains shut. From some angles, it looked like a reflection in a funhouse mirror.
I first drove the '09 FX on the track at a press event at the Pocono Raceway, where journalists would jump into a vehicle and drive off onto the track without ever looking at it very closely. That's an ideal way to get acquainted with this vehicle, because—whatever you think of its looks—the FX is a blast to drive. Factoring in its lower price, I much prefer the FX to BMW's (BMWG) new X6, an equally radical-looking crossover SUV.
After a price hike in September to cover the rising cost of materials, the '09 FX35 starts at $43,015 with rear-wheel drive and $44,465 with all-wheel drive. That version of the FX is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that generates 303 horsepower and 262 ft.-lb. of torque. The all-wheel-drive-only FX50, also redesigned for '09, starts at $59,265, and has a muscular 5.0-liter V8 under its hood that generates 390 horsepower (70 more horses than the outgoing FX45) and 369 ft.-lb. of torque.
However, the price looks more reasonable if you're eligible for rebates for buyers who already own an Infiniti vehicle. Even if you aren't eligible, dealers are bargaining on price. The average buyer of the '09 FX35 has gotten a $3,166 rebate, according to the Power Information Network (PIN).
The FX35 comes in a single, well-loaded trim that includes 18-inch alloy wheels, a power liftgate, xenon headlights, full power accessories, leather upholstery, power front seats, cruise control, a backup camera, an 11-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system, and satellite radio. It also comes standard with Nissan's self-healing paint, which uses sunlight to heat the clear-coat surface and fill in small scratches.
Loading up on optional equipment can make the FX one of the most technologically advanced vehicles on the road—but at a steep price. You start out with a $2,350 Premium Package that includes Bluetooth capability, an iPod connection, and heated and cooled front seats. The $2,850 Navigation Package (which requires the Premium Package) adds a new hard-drive-based touchscreen navigation system with voice recognition, real-time traffic information, a parking system, and a four-camera, 360-degree system to monitor the outside of the vehicle.
The $2,900 Technology Package (which requires the Navigation Package, which—remember?—requires the Premium Package) includes adaptive cruise control, a lane-departure warning system, rain-sensitive wipers, and intelligent brake assist. If you spring for the Tech Package, you can also get a $1,600 rear-seat entertainment system. (For those without a calculator, the total cost of all three packages plus the entertainment system is $9,700.)
Mileage is mediocre. The FX35 is rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway, vs. 14 city and 20 highway for the FX50. In 244 miles of mixed driving in the FX35, I averaged 17.6 mpg. Needless to say, the FX uses premium gasoline.
Infiniti is faring relatively well in the financial crisis compared with most automakers, including corporate parent Nissan. U.S. Infiniti sales were only off 8.5% in the first 11 months of 2008, to 104,717. The two FX models combined did much worse, with sales dropping 36.9%, to 11,813, during the period. In November, FX sales plunged a staggering 62.5%, to just 683. However, my guess is that sales will recover somewhat now that gasoline prices have dropped so low.
Behind the Wheel
Only a few SUVs can match the FX's performance, models such as BMW's X6 and X5, and the $87,000 Mercedes ML63 AMG. And only the X6 can rival the FX's combination of radical styling and performance.
I drove the Infiniti around town, as well as back-to-back on the track with several sport sedans, including the BMW M3 and the new Acura TL. The FX doesn't really drive like a sport sedan—it's too tall and heavy for that—but it comes close. The speed-sensitive steering is tight and responsive at cruising speed, yet light and easy-to-maneuver during parking. The suspension is stiff—maybe too stiff for many commuter-types. But the FX sticks to the pavement when you throw it into a curve with very little body roll.
It's also one of the fastest SUVs in existence. Car and Driver has clocked the FX50 at five seconds in zero-to-60 runs, slightly faster than the 5.3-second rated speed of the X6 xDrive50i. I clocked the FX35 at around 6.6 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60, though Automobile magazine and others clocked it at 6.1 seconds, only two-tenths of a second slower than the BMW X6 xDrive35i.
The FX's cabin is as distinctive as its exterior. The dash juts out over the speedometer, and juts out again in the middle. There's a curvy recess over the glove box, along with a seemingly gratuitous strip of brushed aluminum trim on the top side of the glove-box door that makes the design seem even busier. There are odd curvy formations in the doors lined with lacquered wood, and big bulky aluminum foot pedals. The steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters are large magnesium contraptions designed to be squeezed with all four fingers. About the only understated design element in the whole interior is the oval analog clock in the middle of the center stack.
The FX's radical styling has drawbacks. The narrow windows and high waistline make using ATMs and fast-food drive-throughs a chore. During inclement weather, the curvy design allows an unusual amount of snow and ice to fall onto the seats when you open the doors or windows. Rear visibility is very poor, especially over the driver's right shoulder. You can hardly see anything when backing up. Luckily, Infiniti's backup camera is excellent, with a high-resolution image and graphic indicators to show you where you're headed when you're backing up.
The big advantage of the FX over the X6 is that it has a bench-style rear seat, which raises maximum seating to five, vs. only four for the Bimmer. As in the BMW, rear head and legroom is somewhat tight, but not overly so if you're under six feet tall. The FX's leather seats are so plush and comfortable they could have been lifted from the Harvard Club.
This is a city vehicle, not meant for off-road driving. You really bounce around on bumpy back roads. Only the all-wheel-drive versions of the FX can be used for towing, and maximum towing capacity is just 2,000 lb. (vs. 6,000 for the BMW X6). On the other hand, I drove the FX extensively in snow and ice, and it handled amazingly well. One reason is that the transmission has a "snow" setting that minimizes wheel spin.
Buy It or Bag It?
The 2009 FX35 sells for an average of $46,071 after rebates, which is only a few hundred dollars above average for the premium crossover vehicle segment, according to PIN. If the FX's looks appeal to you and practicality isn't a priority, it's worth it. The high-performance FX50 sells for an average of $59,985, or about $14,000 less than the average price of the '09 BMW X6, PIN figures. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)
If you prefer the less radical styling of the '08 FX, by the way, you can still get a great deal on the '08 FX35, which is selling for an average of $39,312, according to PIN.
Among more conventionally styled SUVs, my favorite is the Acura MDX from Honda (HMC), which sells for an average of $41,951. The VW Touareg ($41,246) and the popular Lexus RX 350 ($40,141) are priced in the same range. I doubt I would ever buy one, but I have to admit the FX grew on me. I don't like its looks but I love the way it drives.
Click here to see more of the 2009 Infiniti FX35.