Road Test: 2009 Infiniti FX50
By Michael Austin of Car and Driver
In truth, we're still a little befuddled by the whole SUV-as-sports-car notion, and we have been since the dawn of the breed, which we trace back to the GMC Typhoon. If you want a sports car, well, why not start with a car instead of a truck?
Still, this genre has flourished since the BMW X5 proved the mass-market appeal of these high-powered beasts, and the specter of $4 gas seems to be the only thing working against them in the future. In the meantime, the 2009 Infiniti FX50 is here to make its case as one of the sportiest of sport-utility vehicles.
The FX line first entered the world as a concept car in 2001, with a design brief from Infiniti that described it as a "Bionic Cheetah." That's not a phrase that immediately came to mind when we saw the production version in 2003, but the zoomy FX had style to spare compared with most of its competitors.
At first glance the new FX looks a lot like its predecessor, but upon closer inspection the first-generation version comes across as positively staid compared with the new car. The grille is bigger, with wavelike curvy bars inside its gaping maw. The headlights rake back into the bodywork more steeply, the front fender flares are more aggressive, and when's the last time you saw any vehicle with taillights protruding outside the bodywork? Granted, the vents behind the front wheels are downright tacky, but Infiniti claims they're functional, reducing front-end lift by five percent.
Underneath the skin, the new version borrows heavily from the original. The unibody is still a derivative of Nissan's FM (front midship) platform — the same one that underpins the 350Z and every Infiniti except the QX56 land yacht — with structural improvements that yield claimed increases of 60 percent in torsional stiffness and 240 percent in bending stiffness. At 4648 pounds, the new FX is about 150 pounds heavier, an increase mitigated by the use of aluminum for the doors and the suspension components. The wheelbase has been stretched 1.4 inches, to 113.6 inches. At 191.1 inches long, two inches more than the old vehicle, the FX fits between the G and M models, but it's more than six, and five, inches wider, respectively, than those sedan siblings.
The interior of the FX follows the same basic design as the G and the EX, which is a reminder that Infiniti pretty much offers five variations on the same theme. The extra width makes for a much roomier cabin. Rear-seat legroom is decent, and the seatbacks recline, but entry and exit are hampered by the small opening of the door down near the feet. The specs say cargo space behind the rear seats has dropped two cubic feet from that of the old FX, but the area underneath the cargo cover looks bigger to our eyes. Our practical-cargo-room test backs that perception: The new FX holds two more beer cases with the rear seats up than before and four more with the seats folded.
In spite of the common dashboard layout with other models, the FX50 now appears positioned as Infiniti's new flagship, especially because it has the most powerful engine in the lineup. The new and improved V-8 engine, known as VK50VE, is based on the 4.5-liter found in the old FX45 and the current M45, though Infiniti claims 80 percent of the parts are new. Variable lift has been added to the intake valves, and the output is bumped up 75 horsepower to 390. The 369 pound-feet of torque represents an increase of 40, peaking 400 rpm higher at 4400. The base FX35 V-6 comes with the familiar VQ engine making 303 horsepower in that application. Europeans get the 3.7-liter V-6 from the G37. All FX models come with a new seven-speed automatic gearbox, a first for Infiniti. Power is routed through all four wheels in the FX50, but there is a rear-wheel-drive version of the FX35. From a standing start, the torque split is 50/50, but once the vehicle is moving, the torque goes to the rear wheels unless slip is detected at the front.
On the street, the FX50S provokes our inner juvenile delinquent to repeatedly floor the gas and feel the rush of acceleration, which partly explains our 14-mpg observed fuel economy, as well as the EPA numbers of 14 city and 20 highway. Skidpad grip and 70-mph-to-standstill braking are about the same as before — still impressive at 0.87 g and 161 feet. We did experience sudden and frightening levels of brake fade at the end of our acceleration tests; keep that in mind if you're in the habit of making repeated runs from 0 to 140 mph and back on a regular basis.
Nissan tries hard to fulfill the Bionic Cheetah promise. Before you climb in, the FX puts on a "welcome lighting" show as the driver approaches, set off by the key fob's brain. The FX goes through a 12-step lighting progression, culminating with a heartbeat-like pulsing glow from the start button. We couldn't follow a lot of this, but we're happy to report that the fob's proximity sensor now allows the driver to pull the door handle and climb in rather than push a button to unlock the door.
While this "heartbeat concept" failed to make our own pulses race, the FX50 does seem about as close to alive as a car can get. Even the paint is self-healing — the top clear-coat is an elastic resin that slowly fills in minor scratches, claims Infiniti. And with the optional Technology package, the FX50 will almost, but not quite, drive down the road by itself.
There are more gadgets. Standard on the FX50 is a navigation system with real-time traffic info, a hard drive for music storage, Bluetooth phone support, and heated or cooled front seats. It also comes with an around-view monitor that gives a bird's-eye/fisheye view of the FX for tight parking situations. Opt for the Sport package (which adds a red "S" to the FX50 badge) and get adaptive self-leveling headlights, adjustable shocks, and active, electric rear-wheel steering.
Normally these systems would make us worry about a HAL-esque unilateral overthrow of the driver's authority: "I'm sorry, Dave, I can't allow you to park here." But the FX acts more like a butler than an autopilot. Plus, you can turn off each one of these systems (cruise control, when on, only works in "smart" mode), including the stability control.
Whether the stability system is on or off and whether you let the transmission choose the gears or you slap at the shift paddles, the FX50S obeys driver commands willingly, in quite a carlike manner. The front suspension has changed from struts to a control-arm design, and the ride quality is much improved. An overly stiff suspension was our No. 1 complaint about the old FX; the new one soaks up bumps better and without head toss, but it's a long way from the cushiness provided by most SUVs. Stay away from the sport setting on the adjustable shocks, though, as it worsens the ride without noticeably improving handling. Cornering attitude in the FX50S is as close to neutral as you can get with a two-ton-plus SUV, but it definitely goes down the road like the big and heavy vehicle that it is.
As with the previous generation, the FX35 is likely to feel lighter on its feet and have better fuel economy but somewhat slower performance. In other words, the lesser FX will be more carlike and thus more appealing to our tastes. Perhaps, though, we're just stuck on cars. For a sporty SUV, the FX50S is an excellent execution of a concept we still don't totally understand.