ALTON, Ill. -- On a winding road that hugs the Illinois bank of the Mississippi River, a 2011 FX50 crossover utility vehicle (CUV) from Infiniti behaves itself superbly with all wheels throwing huge torque muscle into each turn as the speed-rated tires claw for traction.
Stretching almost 16 feet long and decorated with a raked face flashing a chrome-ringed double-arch grille and speed-strafed projector-type headlamps on front corners plus curvaceous fender blisters bulging over massive multi-spoke alloy wheels, Infiniti's deluxe and powerful wagon looks and functions like a sport utility vehicle (SUV) but it drives and handles more like a pavement-hugging sports car.
The lower body seems substantial and strong like a SUV yet the upper section including a narrow wrap of windows with a broad windshield cocked back at an extreme angle and the trailing tapered roofline seems more akin to a rakish GT-style sports coupe.
Infiniti rolled out the original FX wagons as 2004 models, but in 2009 new versions emerged to mark a second generation for FX riding on a stiff rear-wheel-drive (RWD) platform with either RWD or all-wheel-drive (AWD) organization for a pair of powertrain variations which tied two models -- FX35 and FX50 -- to nomenclature describing engine displacement.
For 2011, a number of refinements have been applied, plus there's a new Deluxe Touring Package available for top-model FX50.
FX35 packs Nissan's VQ-series 3.5-liter V6 with options for RWD or AWD traction.
FX50 goes further with a 5.0-liter V8 and stocks AWD equipment exclusively plus optional 21-inch alloy wheels ringed by 265/45R21/104V all-season tires.
The VQ35HR V6 engine in FX35, with dual overhead cams (DOHC) and four valves in every cylinder plus an electronically controlled drive-by-wire throttle, produces 303 hp at 6800 rpm, with torque pumping up to 262 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.
It also packs a special valve controller -- dubbed VVEL (Variable Valve Event and Lift).
The VQ50VE V8 for FX50 also comes with twin cams, four valves per cylinder and VVEL controls. Output reaches 390 hp at 6500 rpm as the torque soars to 369 lb-ft at 4400 rpm.
Both V6 and V8 engines link exclusively to a seven-speed electronic automatic transmission featuring downshift rev matching and adaptive shift control (ASC) with manual shift mode and optional solid magnesium paddle shifters perched on the steering wheel for hands-on-wheel shifting manipulations.
The opportunity to drive all three FX wagons occurs in various venues including pancake flats of the Anza Borrego Desert in California, wiggly Illinois route 100 along the Mississippi River, and the multi-lane I-40 freeway pointing westwardly from Memphis across the Arkansas Grand Prairie.
From this seat-time experience we find that the FX35 feels absolutely fine with its frisky acceleration and sure-footed agility, yet the FX50 seems like a step beyond the necessary and into the realm of adrenal-spiked thrill-on-wheels which makes an aggressive driver look for excuses to push the pedal to the floor and hang on tightly.
FX's electronically controlled AWD equipment carries an obtuse moniker of "Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All Electronic Torque Split." It sounds better when crimped to the run-on acronym of ATTESA E-TS.
The smart equipment is able to distribute the engine's torque in amounts which vary with the pavement conditions (smooth or rough, wet or dry) and a particular driver's intensity. That torque division could be 50:50 (front/rear) to assure good tire grip on dirt or slippery snow, or a split of 0:100 (front/rear) for optimum acceleration on dry pavement from a standing start.
FX's rigid platform is called FM, for Front Midship, which describes the engine's position on the chassis. The front wheels sit way forward and the engine is positioned so that its center of gravity falls behind the front axles. This placement results in a weight distribution biased slightly in favor of front wheels.
Yet the front wheels are slightly heavier by design of the suspension geometry to pre-load them with more weight when the car turns into a curve. Add acceleration coming out of that curve and the result translates into optimum weight balance which enables the driver to carve one corner after another in the FX with keen confidence.
The suspension is totally independent with lightweight aluminum components employed up front in a double wishbone design featuring high camber stiffness and in the rear is a multi-link arrangement forged in steel.
Steering, through a quick-to-respond rack and pinion mechanism, feels firm despite the assist from a vehicle-speed-sensitive power boost.
A vented disc brake stands at every wheel and all tie by computerized links to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake assist (EBA) and electronic brake force distribution (EBD). Further, all FX models carry Infiniti's vehicle dynamic control (VDC) device with a traction control system (TCS) which automatically checks lateral skidding on slippery pavement.
FX50 lists more electronic controls optionally, such as continuous damping control (CDC), rear active steer (RCS), intelligent brake assist (IBA), intelligent cruise control (ICC)), distance control assist (DCA), lane departure warning (LDW) and lane departure prevention (LDP), and the amazing Around View Monitor (AVM) which provides a virtual 360-degree view of objects around the vehicle using four small superwide-angle cameras mounted on front, side and rear of the FX body.
FX's cabin turns into a creative exercise of form following function in an innovative design with form-fitting seats and a wagonload of high-tech electronic gizmos.
There are three zones tailored to the person using it. The driver's zone is cockpit space with all of the right controls plus power-everything. A comfort zone maximizes cushy fittings for the front passenger, while a play zone for backseat riders brings reclining seats, a center armrest with tray and storage space plus optional entertainment equipment like a DVD player with wireless headphones and a ceiling-mounted video screen.
For 2011 FX models, five option packages are offered.
FX35 lists a Premium Package, Deluxe Touring Package and Technology Package, while FX50 shows a Deluxe Touring Package and Technology Package. The Deluxe Touring Package applies aluminum pedal accents, maple wood interior accents, a tonneau cover in the cargo bay, and larger-than-standard wheels and tires.
Infiniti's price chart for 2011 FX models begins at $41,600 for the FX35 2WD, with the FX35 AWD version listing for $43,050. Top-tier FX50 AWD goes for $56,400.