2009 Infiniti FX50 AWD Review
By Chris Haak
Infiniti’s new FX (available with a new 5.0 liter V8 as in my test vehicle, called the FX50, or with a 3.5 liter V6, called the FX35) is an all-new vehicle for the 2009 model year. The FX is a crossover, sort of, but in reality is a tall car. Also, its price, features, and performance put it clearly at the top of the Infiniti model lineup, so it also has to carry on as Infiniti’s flagship. My objective in driving a new FX50 that Infiniti loaned to me for a week was to see how well the FX held up in its position as a flagship, and whether it was a $20,000 better vehicle than the similar-looking, but smaller, EX35.
The FX carries an interesting shape; although the latest model carries many of the styling cues of the first generation, Infiniti has also blinged it up a bit, with even larger wheels (21 inchers on my test vehicle), chrome fender vents and some interesting surfacing on the grille and headlights. The roofline was copied over from the original FX to the 2009 model nearly intact. On the original FX, I always felt that it looked like the metal part of the roof was a tarp that was stretched tightly over the top of the car, anchored at the D-pillars, but for some reason – in spite of the rooflines and door shapes looking nearly identical between the 2008 and 2009 models – the shape looks better to me in the 2009 model. Overall, the proportions are very up-to-date, affirmed as I drove past storefront windows and cast admiring glances at my own reflection. The front overhang, thanks to the FX’s rear-wheel drive roots (though FX50s are all AWD-equipped), is fashionably short, as is the height of the windows, with the commensurate high door sills. It’s interesting to note that as I drive modern cars, I can’t recall the last time I was in a vehicle where the top of the door panel was at a comfortable height for resting my elbow there as many people did years ago; glass area is just too small and beltlines are just too high to allow for that nowadays.
As mentioned, my tester was equipped with 21 inch aluminum wheels, which did a fantastic job of filling the FX50’s ample wheel openings. As a bonus, the brake rotors were reasonably large, which is good not only for stopping a fast, heavy performance vehicle, but nearly as importantly, for avoiding the ridiculous appearance that huge wheels would have with brakes that are merely pedestrian in size. Another styling detail worth mentioning is the elaborate shape of the backswept headlamps; they angled downward from the car’s corners toward the grille, had scallops on the bottom, several lenses and projectors inside, and were capable of swiveling when the vehicle was turning. If you’re in the wild and spotting Infiniti FXs, look for the more elaborate headlamp shape, plus the chrome fender vents, to differentiate a 2009 model from older ones. Generally, the FX has an organic shape that is very much in line with not only earlier FX35/FX45 models, but also the organic theme that recent Infiniti products such as the EX35 and G35 carry, not to mention Nissan’s 2009 Maxima. It clearly looks like an Asian vehicle, which may be a good thing, because for years Asian brands struggled to find their styling niche without doing obvious knockoffs of European brands’ cues.
Inside, the FX50 is a little nicer inside than the smaller EX35, with a diamond pattern on the seats and better-feeling, better-smelling leather on the seats, as well as more technology inside than the EX buyer can hope to order. A quick anecdote on the leather: hours after exiting the vehicle, I could still smell the scent of the seat leather on my shirt, and my test vehicle had almost 15,000 miles on the odometer and had been abused driven by journalists for nearly a year before falling into my hands. While the leather was very good, one thing that particularly impressed me about the interior was the fact that literally everything that I touched had some “give” to it. In other words, true hollow, hard plastic was all but impossible to find. Infiniti has certainly come a long way in terms of interior design and materials over the past few years.
Being the technological flagship that the FX50 represents for Infiniti, it had the full roster of electronic goodies. The bottom line was that in spite of some confusing alphabet soup of acronyms (DCA, IBA, LDW, FCW, VDC), I felt very safe and coddled in the FX’s cockpit. Of course, having buttons labeled with nothing more than three-letter acronyms doesn’t provide much in the way of explanation or clarity behind their purpose, but a little research helped me decipher their meanings. DCA is Distance Control Assist, which provides accelerator pedal feedback (pushing upward on the accelerator pedal) when the FX is getting too close to the car in front of it. If you release the gas, IBA (Intelligent Brake Assist) makes the FX capable of braking itself and can come to a complete stop on its own, as long as a panic stop is not required (it will only apply a maximum of about a half of maximum braking, and beeps furiously at you without braking if it needs more than that to avoid a crash). The pair of three-letter acronyms work particularly well with the laser cruise control, where it does not deactivate in the 25-28 mph range, meaning that you can theoretically drive the FX in bumper to bumper traffic without touching the pedals – ever.
FCW stands for Forward Collision Warning, which does just what it says it will do – warns of an imminent frontal impact. VDC stands for Vehicle Dynamic Control – and is the FX’s stability control system. Finally LDW is easily the most irritating electronic nanny on the FX; the system turns on every time you start the FX (though I believe there is a way to change a setting to turn it off by default – however, I didn’t find that setting). LDW emits three loud beeps every time the FX crosses the lines on either side of the road you’re traveling on. I never realized how often I crossed the line when driving until driving the FX50 (and the EX35 a few months ago), but I do so often enough that LDW beeped for the first time – and last time, because I always turned it off right away – within the first half mile of any trip I was beginning. All of these electronic safety features, as well as the lane departure prevention feature activated by a button on the right side of the steering wheel, which applies opposite wheel braking to bring the FX back into its lane when it deviates a bit, are present solely in the interest of the FX’s self-preservation. Aside from the benefits of easier stop-and-go traffic driving, none of them enhance the driving experience, but do form an impressive array of flagship-worthy technology in the crossover.
Depressing the brake pedal and pressing the dash-mounted start button to bring the big 5.0 liter (390 horsepower, 365 lb-ft) V8 to life resulted in a very nice, muscular burble from the twin rear tailpipes. It’s always nice to begin a trip to the office with the burble of a V8 underhood. Driven gently, the FX is a big pussycat, with the metaphor no doubt assisted by both the purring underhood and the feline-like exterior profile. The seven-speed automatic upshifts seemingly every half-second when driven gently. During the first day or two I had the FX50 under my care, it just didn’t feel all that fast to me, though quantitatively I knew that it had a lot of power and torque, plus a transmission that had enough ratios to capitalize on that. It seemed like every day that passed, the FX50 felt quicker and quicker to me, until I was damn near whooping and hollering when I’d hammer the go pedal and rocket past a slowpoke on a two-lane road. The auto kicked down quickly, though I often suspected that it was skipping gears here and there during full-throttle acceleration, as the tach would drop further down with each shift than I would have expected (closer to 2,000 RPMs, while a six-speed automatic in something like a Chrysler Town & Country drops about 1,000 RPMs when at full boil).
The transmission also has a DS (Drive Sport) mode, that holds low gears far longer so it’s possible to blast out of corners without waiting for a downshift, and can be paddle shifted. I found that the paddle shift feature was nearly useless when accelerating from a stop, because the engine ran out of revs so quickly with the ratios as close together as they were, so I’d generally only use it when I felt the engine was spinning too fast at highway speeds, where occasionally I’d catch it in fifth gear, so I’d knock it down to seventh. Seventy five miles per hour on the highway, even in seventh gear, has the engine running a little faster than I’d expect with the opportunity for such a wide ratio spread, which of course is at the expense of highway fuel economy.
Like so many modern vehicles, especially crossovers with all wheel drive hardware underneath, the FX50 tips the scales at a higher number than I’d like to see. However, like the [completely unrelated] Dodge Challenger SRT8, it does a fairly decent job of hiding its considerable mass when attacking curvy roads (and accelerating – it’s amazing how nearly 400 horsepower can make almost anything feel fast, regardless of how heavy it is). While braking felt generally surefooted, helped by the large tires and a perfectly-weighted pedal (not too hard, not too soft), there are some gripes worth mentioning. Applying the brakes with gusto so that the FX thinks you’re actually doing a panic stop in an emergency situation will cause the motorized seatbelt pretensioners to cinch you snugly against the seatback and seat cushion. Oh, and it won’t release its death grip, unless you unbuckle the belt, retract it, and re-buckle it. I suppose it’s good to be held fast to the seat for spirited driving, but after the fun is over, it’s nice to have the ability to move again, and be able to reach the dashboard, etc. The second braking gripe is that on the third full-pedal deceleration within about 60 seconds, I detected noticeable fade, at least to the point that pressing the brake as hard as possible did not give me the braking power that I was expecting. Under normal circumstances, an owner would likely never subject their vehicle to either track testing or three panic-type stops within a short timeframe, but it’s something that did happen.
While I never had the opportunity to drive a previous-generation FX45, the knock on the old FX was that it rode too harshly, particularly with the large diameter wheels. I tend to favor vehicles with firmer suspension tuning, but I didn’t feel that the FX was particularly harsh. The shocks’ damping level is (no surprise) adjustable with a switch on the center console, but the only choices are “auto” and “sport.” I spent 98% of my time in the FX50 with the shocks set to “auto,” and never felt as if the ride was either punishing or wallowy.
In terms of fuel economy, there wasn’t any economy, just consumption. My observed economy, which admittedly consisted of very few highway miles, some stop-and-go traffic, and a lot of time with the pedal to the metal, was an embarrassing 13.8 miles per gallon. As is my typical experience, that is in line with the EPA’s city rating (the EPA says the AWD FX50 – which is the only kind of FX50 sold – will get 14 mpg city and 20 mpg on the highway). Surprisingly, as bad as that is, I’d probably get an even worse number from a BMW X6, which is an obvious competitor to the FX. The twin turbocharged V8 in the BMW X6 xDrive 50i is rated at 12 mpg city and 18 mpg on the highway. Having spent a limited amount of seat time in the X6 in that spec on a racetrack, the X6 didn’t feel any faster or more comfortable than the FX, costs more money, and gulps more gas. But it’s also a BMW and not an Infiniti, and I’m sure there are plenty of brand snobs who would happily pay the BMW premium to own an X6 over an FX.
Speaking of pricing, the FX50 is expensive, but not against its closest competition, which I’d consider to be the BMW X6 and Porsche Cayenne GTS. The FX50 that I tested carried a base price of $59,265 including destination, and included just a few options: Tech Package ($2,900), Sport Package ($3,000), Roof Rails ($325), and Cargo Cover ($225). The total MSRP was $65,715. Both the X6 and Cayenne GTS roll out the door for a minimum of $10,000 more money, when equipped with similar comfort features and similar capabilities.
So, if Full Metal Autos paid a lot better, and I was in a different tax bracket – such as the one that President-elect Obama is targeting to roll back the Bush tax cuts on, that of families earning $250,000 and above – would I buy an FX with my own money? Probably not, because as great of a drive as it is, the small cargo area and thirsty fuel consumption leave the FX as little more than a tall sedan with a hatchback, that is at least a little bigger than the EX35 that I felt was far too small inside. If I had 65 grand to spend on a car that sucked gas at 14 miles per gallon and was particularly adept at passing on two-lane roads, I think I’d head to the local Cadillac dealer and buy a 2009 CTS-V. On a rainy day with a CTS-V, however, I’d be a sitting duck for an all wheel drive FX50 in a stoplight drag race.
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