2003 Infinti FX45 Four Seasons Test

It is Michigan, it is March, and an all-wheel-drive Infiniti FX45 has landed for a year at 120 East Liberty. If there is a time to herald the general concept of the sport-utility vehicle, it’s during a raging blizzard. Out of the way! Snowplow coming through! Or so we thought. Unfortunately, the twenty-inch tires that add so much to the radical look of Infiniti’s sportiest sport-ute, the FX45, also make it ill prepared for serious winter duty. The very first logbook entry for the FX45, which arrived on our slippery doorstep smack-dab in the middle of the worst weather of 2003, was recorded by our design director, Darin Johnson, caught unprepared in northern Michigan, thinking he’d been smart to use the family ski weekend to break in the FX45: “Tires are awful! Do they make snow tires this big?”

Yes, they do, and eventually we got them. But this was the winter of 2003’s last frigid gasp, and Johnson managed to slide home safely and directly into a lovely Michigan spring.

Which was just in time for the crappy, winter-ravaged roads to rear up. Count your blessings if you live in a state with roads that don’t heave and buckle with the wild temperature swings of Midwest winters and summers. Driving on the rubble of Interstate 94 through downtown Detroit in the FX45 was like being in a popcorn popper-no surprise when you consider its monster rubber (those giant tires again!), the hunkered-down body, and the general dynamics of a suspension tuned for high-speed thrills. “Sport-ute Ride: Should It or Shouldn’t It Suck?” was a constant and heated topic of debate during the entire year the FX45 was in our possession. Variations included “Sport-ute: Sport or Utility?” and “Porsche Cayenne and BMW X5: Are They Just Wrong?”

Clearly, the 315-horsepower, V-8-engined FX45 veers to the side of the X5 and the Cayenne-vehicles designed as tall-wagon hot rods. We love them, we hate them. They are six of one, half a dozen of another, neither fish nor fowl. We live with them to see if their mission becomes clearer as the competition multiplies and gets more sophisticated. Because this magazine was founded on the principle that no cars should be boring, we are sucked in by power, and the FX45’s logbook was an ode to its screaming demon within. It is lacking in space and lacking in ground clearance but hot on the trail-if that trail happens to be the local racetrack.

The FX45 passed its 7500-mile service with nothing but an oil change. And it did that after two short months. It was now nearly summertime, and the living was easy. The sound and fury of the V-8 were duly noted, once it was warm enough to open the windows and we could hear them; the cabin is that quiet. On unbroken pavement, the FX45’s ride was smoother than the Q45 sedan’s, wrote road test coordinator Tony Quiroga. Its steering was “Porsche-like in its weighting,” our in-house hotshoe, executive editor Mark Gillies, noted. Gillies got so giddy he even suggested that the ride quality wasn’t any worse than that of the Mitsubishi Evo or the MINI Cooper S. As if it should be. We had to put the kibosh on a youthful plan to take it “ramping,” a clandestine sort of drifting exercise involving freeway interchanges.

Production editor Jennifer Misaros, who drives to Chicago once a month to get the final proofs of the magazine ready for press, chose the FX45 (from a typical pool of eleven vehicles) six times in nine months. She thinks we don’t know how fast she was making that 500-mile round trip. We do.

On the other side of the office, moms and dads were thinking the FX45 was just the ticket for a family vacation, decked out as it was with a CD-based navigation system and a DVD player for the cheap seats (there was a complaint that the screen sits too low for older kids). The seats may be cheap, but those options were not, bundled as they were in a $4300 Technology package. Yikes, yikes, yikes! Lots of tech came along for the ride, including a rearview camera (the shorties liked it a lot, though it tended to go all psychedelic in extreme cold and snow), keyless entry and start (the fob just needs to be in your pocket for the doors to unlock and for the ignition to fire up when you turn a switch), tire-pressure monitors, and so on. Did I say that the DVD costs an extra $1600 but you have to have the tech package for the privilege? But to have the tech pack, you have to have the $2500 Premium package (power sunroof, automatic headlights, and a rocking eleven-speaker Bose sound system, among other such amenities). It boggles the wallet. But we needed all $8400 worth of it. For sure.

Oh, our FX45 was a party on wheels, all right, with something for every age. And we liked everything about all those options except the “must have” clause. That and the adaptive cruise control, which had the disconcerting habit of seeing vehicles in the oncoming lane and letting off the gas. We parked that switch at off. We racked up more than 20,000 miles in six months, foot on the gas the whole way. And we still managed 17 mpg, except for the trip to Rockford, Illinois, towing a vintage trailer, which averaged an ugly 11 mpg.

Although not commodious by any means, the FX45 could manage a family of four with basic luggage and a dog or two in relative comfort. That comfort went to hell as the passengers got larger and the luggage tried to cover more than a week. We improved the situation by adding crossbars to the roof rack for $406.80 (why don’t they come with the car?), and a trailer hitch and wiring cost $1054.08. (Cost-cutter tip number 1: Order the hitch and wiring with the car. It’s $349 for the hitch, plus installation.) The number and variety of little bins and door pockets were praised by all, although the push-button lids were beginning to take their sweet time opening after a year of heavy use. The one-lever folding rear seat worked like a charm, and at the end of our heavy use, the interior looks great, and neither squeak nor rattle has been heard, although the great four-way adjustable steering column and instrument binnacle has developed some irritating free play.

Sometime during our special FX summer, the rear wiper assembly was ripped off. Don’t let that happen to you. It cost $99.91 to replace. The good news is that our 22,500-mile service cost a measly $31.42. Our three services to that point cost a total of $305.72. (This is the right place to mention the white-glove treatment we received at Suburban Infiniti in nearby Novi.)

We were ready for the winter of 2004 before it hit, putting in a call to the Tire Rack in Indiana for four Bridgestone Blizzak Winter Dueler DMZ3 265/65QR-17 tires mounted on more reasonable seventeen-inch Moda rims. The fix wasn’t cheap at $1292, but it was brilliant. The FX became almost unstoppable in the snow. (Cost-cutter tip number 2: Infiniti tire-pressure sensors seem ridiculously expensive at $200 per tire, compared with the competition’s average cost of about $50. We scavenged the originals, which we really find useful, to use with the new Blizzaks. It cost $132.75 to install them and mount the tires on the wheels.)

With the onset of winter, the odometer stopped spinning so furiously, passing the 30,000 mark after ten months. At that point, Suburban Infiniti did a thorough go-through for $528.82 and replaced a squeaking (and, it turns out, leaking) steering rack under warranty. They also changed a bolt in a brake caliper and reprogrammed the emissions control unit, both under recall.

Its looks didn’t kill everyone (“puffed-up PT Cruiser,” “military contract gone wrong,” and “bulbous and goofy” were among its descriptors), but there were more raves than rants for the hopped-up show-car look of the FX45-from editors, from toll takers, from fellow drivers and gawking pedestrians. Not all of Nissan’s new age designs are this successful, but taking a risk on the design front has gone a long way toward saving this once-foundering ship. As we wound down our year, we were pleased that the pretty packaging wasn’t hiding an inferior gift. The quality held up, our service experience was exemplary, and once the latest dump of snow stops, we’ll use the FX45 to plow out of the driveway and make our way to town.

Cost-cutter tip number 3: It took senior editor Joe Lorio, our Voice of Reason, to suggest that the FX35, with less radical, eighteen-inch tires, a V-6 (“only 35 horsepower less”), and a $9000 cheaper sticker price was “easily the better overall version of this most interesting SUV.”

But maybe you don’t live in the Snow Belt.