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2003 Infiniti FX45 Review

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SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide

2003 Infiniti FX45
Base price: $44,225
EPA mileage: 15 city/19 highway

By Des Toups

The Infiniti FX45 is all sport, no utility, and it works so well precisely because it does not pretend to be both.

This bobtailed wagon fails woefully at mainstream sport-ute tasks: It seats just four comfortably, has less cargo room than almost all rivals, can tow just 3,500 pounds, offers a marginal 7.6 inches of ground clearance and has no low-range four-wheel-drive gearing. But the FX45 is relatively light, perched on 20-inch wheels and powered by a thumping 315-horsepower V-8, making it an awe-inspiring all-weather tourer that more than holds its own on a curving mountain road.

Other powerful, expensive SUVs such as the Lincoln Aviator and Mercedes ML may be cushy and leather-lined, but at heart they are drab family haulers aiming to soothe suburbanites who have boats and skis and a passel of kids. The FX45 pegs the needle in the direction of style and speed, damn the consequences.

If you were already shopping a BMW X5 4.4i, the concept probably works for you. If you wrinkle your brow and wonder who'd want to drive what is, in essence, a jacked-up and gas-sucking luxury sedan, it doesn't.

The Infiniti, judged against its comparably equipped German competition, is $5,000-$10,000 cheaper, 700 pounds lighter, slightly faster and vastly more daring. It fares less well in the places you might expect: the textures in the interior, the overly heavy steering, the less rigid chassis. The FX45 feels more athletic than the X5, but not as solid.

The Infiniti is derived from the corporate rear-drive platform that also serves up such gems as the Nissan 350Z and Infiniti G35. The FX45 is all-wheel-drive (power goes only to the rear wheels unless the fronts begin to slip), with traction control and electronic stability control standard. Saddled with an extra half-ton of sheetmetal and leather and chrome, the FX45 isn't as nimble as its platform siblings -- but it's close, with almost zero body roll. And it attacks corners in the same eager way: no scrubbing, no tail-wagging, no fuss. Too-heavy steering and a too-sensitive throttle make smoothness difficult, but the Infiniti can be driven as aggressively as the G35 -- and more aggressively than an X5, which feels comparatively tippy and heavy.

And it can more than keep up in the power department, too. The FX45 borrows the silky 4.5-liter V8 from the big Infiniti Q45. It's lightly detuned differently here, developing 25 fewer horsepower and a marginally reduced 329-pound-feet of torque. That's enough to haul this crossover to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, well into sports-car territory. Fat, 50-series Goodyears provide tons of grip for braking, too (They should: They're 30 inches tall.) With lighter, more communicative steering and a less twitchy gas pedal, the FX45 would be dangerously easy to drive fast.

Such serious go-fast hardware has its downside: Gas mileage is abysmal (11 mpg for us), and the ride is jiggly and overly stiff. One good speed bump at low speed puts air underneath the driver's butt.

The $10,000 cheaper, V6-powered FX35 is only slightly less powerful -- down about 35 horsepower -- and it's a few hundred pounds lighter, so it's likely to be almost as fast and certain to be lighter on its feet. Shod in 18-inch wheels and less aggressive 60-series tires, it should be able to handle bumps and potholes without beating its passengers the way the FX45 does.

Plus the FX35 shares its sibling's chief asset: head-swiveling looks, an astoundingly original blend of curves and swagger like nothing else on the road. Infiniti has been daring enough to make everybody choose sides: You love it or you hate it. Either way, the Infiniti makes even the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne look positively frumpy.

It's no less utilitarian than either, though rearward visibility is truly abysmal, with rear-seat headrests neatly blocking the view through the rear-quarter windows. Large side mirrors help somewhat. Cargo space is a very modest 27 cubic feet with the seats up -- but still more than the X5 offers.

The rest of the interior takes as many chances as the exterior. The combination of light leather seats, black padding and brushed aluminum in our tester was striking, the seats themselves grippy and firm. Though the FX45's $44,000 base price includes most of the luxuries anybody could want, an all-inclusive, $7,600 "technology package" shoots the works: navigation up front, flip-down DVD player in back; rear-view camera that's displayed on the nav screen; intelligent cruise control that can maintain distance as well as speed; true keyless entry and starting; plus the usual high-end stereo, etc.

It's an intriguing set of toys, but an FX45 stripped of all of them is no less appealing -- as athletic and stylish as any SUV can be.

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has crash-tested an FX45 or FX35.

Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in the Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide, AutoWorld and Driving Sports magazines and on MSN Money.