2003 Infiniti FX45 Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Infiniti FX45 SUV

(4.5L V8 AWD 5-speed Automatic)

Thinking Outside the Box

The Infiniti FX45 looks like a concept car that has escaped from an auto show. Besides its love-it-or-hate-it styling, huge alloy wheels make it look like something that jumped off a designer's drawing board, a vehicle we were always being told would be available in the not-too-distant future.

Well, folks, the future is here. It comes roaring in on 20-inch wheels, powered by a 315-horsepower V8 with all-wheel drive and crossover applications out the wazoo. Its wide-grain cowhide interior and brushed-aluminum accents make it elegant enough to take it to the finest restaurant and set the valets fighting over who will park it. But it's also tough enough to occasionally venture off-road or wade through snow over a high pass when the chain law is in effect. In short, Infiniti has tried to cover all the bases for its buyers and has succeeded on most accounts.

The only serious problem with the FX45 (and its younger sibling, the FX35, with the VQ Series 3.5-liter V6) is that its looks will lead to long parking lot discussions with car nuts who either gush over the cutting-edge sheet metal or lecture you on how Infiniti screwed up the design of the back end. Our thinking seemed to fall into two camps:

  1. Traditionalists said "interesting" and "nice try," but it's too unusual.
  2. Free thinkers said they didn't know why, but they thought it was "really cool."

In short, there is no way to settle this debate on paper. Take a look at the FX45 and listen to what your gut says. This reviewer thought it was striking, bold, refreshing and innovative. His only reservation was that, knowing how fickle the appeal of cars can be, the styling might not age gracefully. In a year or two it could look just, well, kinda odd.

But for now, this all-new offering from Infiniti (no, it doesn't share a platform with the Nissan Murano) remains an eye-catching source of attention. Picture the other drivers craning their necks with a "what the heck is that?" look on their faces as the FX growls past them on the freeway. Our test vehicle came in Liquid Copper, a color that offset the lines beautifully. Open the driver door and the gasping continues as you take in the almost-orange wide-grain cowhide seats and the sweeping dash and brushed-aluminum center console.

And we haven't even begun to talk about the performance, yet. But before we get to that, you have to understand that the feeling of sitting behind the FX's wheel is different than the ordinary car or even an SUV. First of all, you are higher than the vast sea of cars but not quite eye to eye with traditional sport-ute drivers. Despite the tall stance of the FX, the door sills are raised giving the seating position an almost sports car feel. To put it another way, you sit high but feel low-slung. This creates an anticipation of performance, the urge to throw it into the curves. And when you do, you are not disappointed.

First and foremost, there is power. Power anywhere you want it — low end, midrange and high end. The 4.5-liter V8, which gives the FX45 its name, makes 329 pound-feet of torque while getting 15 miles per gallon of premium gas in the city (the EPA estimates 19 mpg for highway driving). But, as we all know, there are the specs and then there is how the car actually feels. The acceleration in the FX, coupled with a silky-smooth five-speed transmission propels this chunky 4,300-pounder from zero to 60 miles per hour in just 6.5 seconds. In most cases the engine noise is elegantly muted. But if you step into it, you get a pleasingly responsive growl from the twin chrome-tipped exhausts, a reminder that this is indeed a crossover vehicle.

In keeping with the FX45's sporting image, the all-wheel-drive system routes all power to the rear wheels — unless they spin, in which case up to 50 percent of the power can be sent to the front wheels as well. A traction control feature comes standard for those drivers prone to tapping the power too often on slippery surfaces.

The handling of the FX was similarly impressive. After threading it through the slalom, our test-driver commented that it handled much like Infiniti's G35 sedan, with which it shares its FM platform. The steering feels quick and body roll is well controlled. However, there is little warning when the tires break loose and the vehicle tends to rotate more quickly than expected. Add in the super-sensitive throttle, along with the quick — but not very communicative — steering feel and being smooth through tight turns isn't as easy as you'd think. Despite these issues, however, the FX offers impressive cornering for a high-profile utility vehicle.

Braking figures were very strong with some stops from 60 mph being recorded in only 109 feet (subsequent runs couldn't duplicate this distance but did record only 115 feet — much better than most SUVs). Only slight fade was noted from the front and rear ventilated disc brakes. Front-end dive was minimal and the vehicle remained straight even under panic stops. It takes a hefty press on the pedal to activate the antilock braking system (ABS comes standard, of course), but overall braking action is progressive and easy to modulate.

The first time this reviewer sat in the driver seat, he thought, "Bring me my pipe and slippers, I'm going to stay awhile." The front seats, with adjustable lumbar support, were among the most comfortable we had ever experienced, with aggressive lateral and ample thigh support, sure to be pleasing to all types of drivers. To facilitate entry, the seat and steering wheel automatically retract.

While the handling is exceptional, at highway speeds the ride was a touch on the firm side for a luxury vehicle. We wondered if some people who purchase it for the creature comforts and styling might find themselves spilling their lattes as they shudder over expansion joints on freeways. Again, a personal choice but something to monitor carefully on an extended test-drive before deciding to buy it.

One of our few complaints about the cabin relates to the busy secondary control panel with the in-dash six-disc CD changer. While the horizontal plate surrounding the shift lever sets a nice tone of simplicity, the center stack is lit up like Times Square on New Year's Eve. A teenage passenger commented, "This thing has more gadgets than a Swiss Army knife." The layout is fine but the small buttons require too much attention at freeway speeds.

Another minor gripe is the window switches which are hidden behind the door grab handle making them harder to reach than they should be. The gauges look like they've come out of another Infiniti and don't really fit the cutting-edge style. Our preproduction vehicle had the navigation screen but the system was not yet set up so it was annoyingly blank much of the time. The split center armrest and dual climate control are nice features for front passengers, and a rear vent keeps backseat occupants comfortable. Rear passengers will also enjoy the generous legroom thanks, in part, to notched front seat backs. Infiniti says the FX can carry five people but we think that might make passengers a bit crowded.

Side visibility is acceptable in the FX but the view out the back is like looking out the wrong end of a telescope — the field of vision is narrow and limited. The generously sized mirrors compensate for this to some degree but it's always a nagging problem. High-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps and foglights provide exceptional illumination, and a switch on the dash adjusts the throw angle.

The tailgate opens to reveal a wide-open cargo area. However, with the FX45's tapered roofline, the storage space is compromised. To expand the carrying area, the second-row seats can be folded by pulling a conveniently located lever. Another nice touch is how the rear tailgate is counterbalanced so it pulls down easily without the typical shoulder-dislocating effort.

The FX comes with a hefty, though competitive, price tag. The FX45 stickers at $44,770 (including destination) but to outfit it generously would send the total over $50,000. A reasonably equipped FX35 is priced at about $36,000. People shopping for the FX might also want to look at competing vehicles such as the Porsche Cayenne, Acura MDX, BMW X5 and the Audi allroad.

Besides adrenaline-charged acceleration and sports car handling, the FX45 offers another strong reason to own it — there's really nothing else quite like it on the road. It's enough to make you believe that concept cars really do come to the market and that, finally, a true crossover vehicle has arrived.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 9.0

Components: The optional premium Bose audio system comes with all the ingredients needed for plenty of great sound. Six discs or a cassette tape can be loaded into the dash and played through 11 speakers with the help of 300 watts. There are three midrange/tweeters in the dash, 6.5-inch drivers in the front doors, 5.25-inch speakers in the back doors, a pair of 2-inch tweets in the D-pillar near the rear window and, believe it or not, two woofers in a tuned enclosure inside the spare wheel hub. Steering wheel-mounted controls, a large orange display placed high in the dash and a mute button are all nice touches.

Performance: Let's get the gripes out of the way. It takes a long time to load CDs and the woofers in the trunk are a waste. Other than that, there's a lot to love about this stereo system. Vocals and guitars are strong and clear at all volumes. Higher tones, such as cymbals, are very loud, but tend to splinter at the edges when the amplifier is pushed. Bass is very punchy and accurate, but lacks the full-bodied feel that comes with large subwoofers (insert "size matters" joke here). The multiple speaker locations include a driver in the middle of the dash that helps create a wonderful soundstage. The sign of a good setup, the sound envelops the driver and front passenger without any particular speakers standing out. The controls are large and easy to use and include an uncommon feature for a factory system: a mute button.

Best Feature: It won't work on backseat drivers, but the mute button is very handy.

Worst Feature: Tiny woofers mounted in a wheel. Why?

Conclusion: Great sound and all the features you expect in a luxury automobile, but a few steps behind the Mark Levinson systems found in many Lexus models. — Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
As manufacturers continue to zero in on what Americans want in a multipurpose luxury/performance/utility vehicle, the results become more of a collision between formerly distinct types.

For instance, we now know that everyone wants to sit up high, but they don't want to feel unstable around corners. They also want a sleek shape, but they need adequate interior space. Finally, they want to appear rugged and adventuresome, but they still want automatic climate control, heated seats and DVD entertainment. In other words, they want an SUV that looks and drives like a luxurious sport sedan.

Infiniti's response to these mixed consumer messages is the FX45. More so than even the BMW X5 4.6is, the FX45 melds the characteristics of a performance car and utility vehicle into a relatively cohesive package. Yeah, the small greenhouse and 20-inch wheels make it look like the automotive equivalent of Jabba the Hutt, but Infiniti calls it the "bionic cheetah," and we won't argue.

One question remains, however. If you're the "glass is half full" type you can look at the FX45 as a roomy sports car or a sporty SUV. But if you're the "half empty" type, you might just label it a sports car that isn't particularly fast or an SUV without much interior space. After all, at some point doesn't the term "crossover" really mean "compromise"?

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I give kudos to Infiniti for having such an out-of-the-box (literally) style for the FX45. This is not to say I care for its looks, as I find some details, such as the rearmost roof pillars that are pinched at their lower edges, awkward. On the other hand, you can't go wrong with big wheels on an SUV nowadays, even though they make no sense from a functional standpoint (if one were to actually venture off-road, that is), and the 20-inch alloys that are standard on this model fill out the wheel wells nicely. The cabin is likewise a mixed bag for me. I dug the leather that looked like elephant hide but found the seating position (even with the seat height adjusted upwards) like sitting in a bathtub due to the high door sills and short windows. And the cargo area doesn't look all that spacious for a 4,300-pound SUV.

OK, enough design analysis you say. Howz it drive? Well, there's plenty of thrust on tap, as you'd expect from an over-300-horse V8 matched to a cooperative automatic tranny. But what knocked my socks off was how agile the FX45 felt — cornering is dead flat and the Infiniti just seems to hunker down on those 20s when sailing through sweeping curves. The ride quality might be too stiff for some folks, but I admire Infiniti for sticking to its goal of making the FX45 a fine handler.

But when all is said and done, the FX45 just doesn't do it for me. The styling is just too bizarre and there doesn't seem to be any advantage to choosing it over a more (space and fuel) efficient sport wagon. To me, it's an example of catering to the buying public's whims and fancies, no matter how quirky those might be.

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