Everything Infiniti has done in the past decade would have you believe the Japanese luxury brand is pursuing Germany's sportiest automobiles. The compact G and mid-size M target BMW's legendary sports sedans. The FX50 is aimed squarely at the Porsche Cayenne. The new IPL trim is the first step toward a full-bore performance sub-brand like Mercedes-Benz's AMG.
With the launch of its all-new JX35, however, Infiniti sets its sights on a very different target. Rather than a BMW or a Porsche, this seven-passenger crossover compares more closely to a Lincoln or a Lexus. It prioritizes practicality and comfort over driving dynamics and performance. That makes a lot of sense for a family hauler, but several of the concessions made by the JX35 aren't the conscious decisions of the Infiniti brand keepers; they're the result of questionable parts sharing with mainstream Nissan.
Not the Infiniti we've come to know
Infiniti needed a three-row family crossover to fill the wide gap between its stylish, less practical crossovers and its capable-but-thirsty QX56, but it was Nissan that made such a vehicle possible. That's because the JX is a reskinned 2013 Nissan Pathfinder. Until the JX came along, the entire Infiniti lineup shared a snappy seven-speed automatic and a rear-wheel-drive configuration, so this newcomer seems a touch out of place with its continuously variable transmission and front-wheel-drive layout. Product planners tell us that the JX35 will differ from the Pathfinder through the tuning of the dampers, steering, and brakes. In other words, the difference between how the Infiniti and Nissan drive will be a matter of nuance, not substance.
But an Infiniti we recognize
The Infiniti JX35 doesn't look familiar beneath the bodywork, but it's an unmistakable Infiniti both inside and out. The brand's polarizing design language is fully intact, with a bulging grille and curvaceous bodylines that work quite well on this crossover's proportions. The crescent-shaped kink in the D-pillar is a treatment seen on several recent concept cars that will soon make its way to more production models.
Sumptuous, stylish interiors have been an Infiniti specialty for some time now, and the JX35 does nothing to break that trend. The front seats are wide, supportive, and nicely cushioned and the cabin has a spacious and airy feel. A small sunroof over the front seats is standard while a fixed-glass roof over the second and third rows is optional. Radio and navigation controls are well placed, but Infiniti's method that relies on both a touch screen and physical buttons does have a steeper learning curve than the best systems from BMW and Audi. The only touch points that in need of attention are the unconvincing aluminum-look trim (it's plastic) and the steering wheel that is wrapped in a lower grade of leather.
The second row slides to juggle legroom between the two rows of rear seats, and there's enough space in the JX35 to give reasonable amounts to passengers in each. A single lever on the side of the second-row seats kicks the seat cushion up, tips the seat back forward, and slides the whole seat forward for easy access to the rear. The real innovation, though, is that the access mechanism works even with a child seat strapped into the second row. The opening to the third row isn't quite as large as without the safety seat in place but it still leaves enough room for a child to clamber into the back.
A different driving experience
We typically bemoan the soggy responses and buzzy nature of cars saddled with continuously variable transmissions, but Nissan's V-6 engines have previously proven to make the best of these gearboxes and that continues to be the case with the JX35. The 3.5-liter V-6's 265 hp makes for modest acceleration, but under moderate pedal application the JX builds speed linearly and with minimal moaning. Full-throttle acceleration exacerbates the CVT's behavior, though, and brings out the signature moo. Sport mode is meant to mimic a six-speed automatic, but it won't fool anybody. No automaker has ever made a six-speed with such sloppy shifts.
Accept the fact that you're driving a people mover, and the JX35 will feel its element. It boasts a nicely controlled and isolated ride, respectable handling, and a quiet cabin. While front-wheel drive is the standard, all-wheel drive can be had for $1100. The steering is light at all speeds and lacks on-center precision. While JX35 drivers are unlikely to be steering fetishists, it won't take one to notice the fluctuations in the assist from the electro-hydraulic power steering system.
Moving closer to robotic cars
The JX35 adds to Infiniti's arsenal of safety technologies that move the motoring public ever closer to a self-driving car. On top of adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, and blind-spot monitoring, Infiniti has introduced a backup collision intervention system. It detects both moving cars (as long as they're not driving faster than parking-lot speeds) and small objects like trash cans, toys, or people and provides an audible warning. If the computer determines a crash is imminent, it can also apply the brakes to bring the car to a stop.
There are also a handful of new convenience features. Infiniti Connection is an OnStar-like service that includes Google calendar integration and can warn parents via text message when the car exceeds a set speed or leaves a pre-defined area. The JX also introduces Infiniti Personal Assistant, a call-center that's accessible from a cell phone anytime and anywhere. Vehicle purchase includes four years of free service where representatives can book event tickets, find local restaurants, or even look up general-knowledge facts.
Balancing the brand
Infiniti execs anticipate that the JX will quickly become the second best-selling vehicle in the company's product portfolio, behind the G sedan and we have no doubt that this spacious, luxurious seven-seater will find plenty of takers. Starting at $41,400, the JX35 is a competitive alternative not only to luxury players like the Acura MDX and Audi Q7, but also to pricey mainstream crossovers like the Ford Flex.
At the same time, the JX35 has broader implications for the brand. Lexus has struggled to promote its sportiest cars with a reputation for staid, upscale transportation and Lincoln has exemplified the perils of building luxury cars on mainstream mechanicals. Infiniti won't just need to sell a lot of JXes to call this new crossover a success. It will also need to prove that it can maintain its focus on premium, sporty cars while doing so.
2013 Infiniti JX35
Base price: $41,400
Engine: 3.5L V-6, 265 hp, 248 lb-ft
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Drive: Front- or 4-wheel
EPA mileage: 18/24, 18/23 mpg (FWD, 4WD)