Four Threes: 2013 Infiniti JX35, 2012 BMW X5, 2013 Lincoln MKT, 2012 Acura MDX
The decision to purchase a minivan is a pragmatic one. Drive a minivan and you admit to the world that you have children and a Costco membership, and that you want one vehicle that can transport your offspring and multi-packs of toilet paper.
The decision to not purchase a minivan is different. An entire subset of car buyers with children wants a vehicle with seven seats, but would as soon pile their children into a minivan as the bed of a pickup truck. For these people, the crossover is an amenable alternative that blends usability and distinctive exterior design. They buy cars like Mazda's CX-9, Buick's Enclave, and Ford's Flex.
But there are buyers who want more: they crave the convenience of a crossover but want a top-shelf brand name, a sportier driving experience, and a more sumptuous interior. Infiniti aims to please these people with its newest vehicle, the JX35. To see if the JX35's blend of luxury and sport was up to snuff, we pitted it against three close competitors: the Lincoln MKT, Acura MDX, and BMW X5.
Powertrains: Old School, Meet New School
All four of our crossovers were equipped with six-cylinder engines and all-wheel drive. The JX35 is the least powerful of the group, and has a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that produces 265 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. The MDX and X5 are both rated at 300 hp; the X5 uses a turbocharged 3.0-liter in-line-six-cylinder engine that makes 300 lb-ft of torque, and the MDX uses a naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V-6 that turns out 270 lb-ft. The Lincoln scores the power trophy with its EcoBoost twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 engine, which makes 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. While the MDX and MKT both use six-speed automatic transmissions, the BMW has an eight-speed auto, and the JX35 employs a continuously variable unit.
From behind the wheel, the difference in powertrains is palpable. The JX's V-6 provides adequate grunt and sounds good in the upper register, but it still lags behind its competitors. This is partially due to the JX's power deficit, but it's mostly the fault of the JX's transmission. The CVT was effective at keeping engine noise at bay around town, but revs build slowly and the engine drones once you step on the gas pedal.
The BMW's powertrain, comparatively, is a frenetic beast: the engine revs quickly and has a laser-level flat torque curve. The transmission's sport automatic mode remaps the shift points to near-redline, allowing drivers to savor the gorgeous engine note even more.
The MDX may be down 30 lb-ft on the X5, but it doesn't want for power. Revs build slowly but the engine pulls adeptly, and the note it produces is guttural and strong as the tach needle passes 4000 rpm. Crucially, the MDX's transmission is snappier when pulling away from a stop than the X5's.
The MKT is the unlikely hero here: it hustles down back roads and attacks highway on-ramps, and it has enough torque to make highway downshifts a rarity. The speedometer needle rises quicker than you thought possible in a 4942-pound car.
Winner: Lincoln MKT
Ride and Handling: The Great Compromise
These sporty luxury crossovers face high expectations for both handling and ride quality, and striking the right balance is a tall task. The JX's steering is pleasantly light in parking lots but limp and overboosted nearly everywhere else. The ride shows plenty of poise on the highway, but it's only so-so on bumpy roads.
Again, the BMW X5 proves to be the JX's polar opposite. The X5 is easily the handling champion thanks to its firm suspension and heavy, precise steering, a great asset on back roads. But the X5 only shines with enthusiastic driving; around town the suspension is stiff and harsh at times and the steering is unnecessarily heavy. The only way we would recommend this car for the school run is if your children go to school on the Nürburgring.
Getting out of the Infiniti JX and into the Lincoln MKT, deputy editor Joe DeMatio remarked that the Lincoln's steering was "a revelation," and we agreed that it offers the best blend of low- and high-speed weight. The MKT exhibits decent handling, especially for a 17.3-foot-long people carrier, but the MKT's strength is in its soft, compliant ride, not its handling.
The best compromise was the MDX. Its steering is pleasantly firm at low speeds, but just a little bit too light on the highway. The ride is comfortable but not pillowy, thanks to optional magnetorheological dampers, and its handling is superb. For that you can thank Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system, which shifts torque to the outside rear wheel in the corners. The system's digital readout between the gauges shows where the torque is going at any moment, adding a neat video game-like touch to the driving experience.
Winner: Acura MDX
Interior: Luxuriously Quiet, Quietly Luxurious
Having tested our luxury crossovers' ability to get our hearts pounding, we looked at how they keep us comfortable and entertained.
The X5 is the most expensive car of the bunch and its interior materials are obviously of high quality, but there's little visual flair. Some of the blame goes to our particular color combination -- brown wood over an inky, graphite-colored leather -- but the available sand and creamy brown leather colors can only go so far to dress up the bland interior. At least the seats are comfortable and the controls are straightforward.
The MDX's interior is somewhat better. Our tester had both the Advance and Entertainment packages, which meant the center stack was littered in buttons for the front and rear entertainment systems, navigation, and automatic climate control. On either side of the controls, there are two sweeping swaths of wood trim, which add just enough visual drama to keep the interior from being boring.
The MKT's interior surprised us with its materials quality, including gorgeous hazelnut-colored leather, brown wood, and a deep gray center stack. The MyLincoln Touch system may be unloved for how it works, but its visual simplicity (i.e. lack of knobs and buttons) is a stark contrast to the MDX. The windows and panoramic glass roof let in plenty of light, and the glass is well-laminated to keep wind noise to a minimum.
The clear winner is the JX, because Infiniti's designers made an interior that was functional and beautiful. The car's distinctive exterior design continues on the inside with interestingly shaped door handles and trim strips, and an organic, double-bubble dashboard. Our only gripe was the steering wheel, which was obviously of a lower grade than other Infinitis.
Winner: Infiniti JX
Curb Appeal: Looks Expensive, Is Expensive
A luxury crossover that costs $10,000 more than a Buick Enclave must also look better than a Buick Enclave, and must come with more brand-name cachet. With that gauntlet set, our cars had mixed results.
The Lincoln MKT's design hearkens back to the brand's halcyon days before World War II, with low sills, a high roofline, and a bustle-back reminiscent of 1940's Lincoln limousines. Noble as designer Peter Horbury's quest may have been, the challenge of fitting 1940s design within a 1990s sedan footprint (it's based on an old Volvo platform) and adding 21st-century functionality proved too much. The front end is low, which is a good start, but the rear doors and windows look overly stretched, and the original MKT Concept's curves and creases have been flattened. The liftgate is a wide, nearly flat sheet of metal topped by a plasticky light bar and a small, rectangular rear window. The MKT is a valiant attempt at reinventing an icon, but it's ultimately let down by its baroque styling.
If the MKT was styled to make a statement, the MDX was styled to speak softly. The car is chiseled and neatly creased, but flared wheel arches add a nice curvy touch. Even Acura's unloved "razor grille" blends well into the MDX's front end and its geometric headlights. We especially like how the triangular rear window gives this three-row SUV a two-row crossover's greenhouse.
The Infiniti JX has a boldly shaped body with a long, curving character line and Infiniti's new hourglass grille. Too bad that your eyes are drawn to its low door handles, stretched rear door, and rear windows, which make the JX look a little bit like a minivan.
Even without flashy chrome trim or dazzling wheels, the BMW makes a bold statement on the road. Its wheel arches bulge out from the side panels and the hood creases to hint at the powerful engine underneath. Unlike the Infiniti, the X5's door handles are located on the character line, which maintains a crisp look, and the rear end is folded and creased to keep the liftgate from becoming a flat sheet of metal, like the MKT's. It looks expensive -- and it is.
Winner: BMW X5
Features and Usability: Techno Overload
Aside from radar-guided cruise control, a head-up display, and a set of cameras that provide a simulated aerial view while parking and an easier look at blind intersections, there's little in the way of technological wizardry in the X5. Technologically speaking, the X5 was out-gunned by the less expensive Infiniti JX. The X5's third row doesn't win any awards, either. The BMW's second row folds and slides to allow passengers in and out of the third row, but the third-row seats themselves are cramped and difficult to fold. It doesn't help that the third-row seat is an expensive option that isn't included in any packages or trim levels. The BMW does score points for its trick tailgate (75 percent folds up, 25 percent folds down), and the best cargo area opening of the four cars.
For nearly the same price as the BMW, the MKT offered numerous technological features. Our heavily optioned MKT had a THX-certified surround sound stereo, MyLincoln Touch, and Active Park Assist, which will parallel park the luxo-truck at the press of a button. The MKT's standard second row is a bench seat, but our car featured optional bucket seats, as well as a rear-seat center console with an optional refrigerator. Both the second and third-row seats fold at the press of a button. The third row had little headroom, thanks to a high seating position and a low headliner that also stores the rear sunroof's sunshade. The door and trunk openings are also quite deep, which means there's more distance to load passengers or cargo into the car.
The MDX's technology is less flashy than its competitors', but there's also less of it. The MDX has a radar-based automatic braking system, and a climate control system that uses GPS to compensate for the position of the sun relative to the car, but it doesn't park itself or chill your beverages, and it's the only car of the four without keyless entry/ignition. The optional ELS stereo boasts Dolby ProLogic II surround sound, and the rear-seat entertainment system is nearly identical to the much-loved unit in the Honda Odyssey. The MDX is about 16 inches shorter than the MKT, and its short stature handicaps the third-row seat. Only the passenger's side of the 60/40-split second row slides forward to let third-row passengers in or out, and there's little third-row legroom. There is plenty of headroom, however: "we stuffed two six-foot-plus editors back there," DeMatio said, "and I think they could both ride back there for a while without killing each other." The MDX's lower driving position also requires less passenger climbing or cargo lifting than the X5.
Despite being the least expensive, the Infiniti JX offers the most technological features, including the ability to drive itself: the optional Driver Assistance and Technology Packages include Intelligent Brake Assist and Lane Departure Prevention, which automatically brake and steer the car (through the brakes) to avoid collisions. The color screen between the JX's gauges tracks these features in real-time, projecting the image that you're driving an electronic nanny on wheels.
Our takeaway from the JX is that its powertrain and handling might leave something to be desired, but its convenience features won't. The JX's second-row seats fold and slide forward with one press to allow third row passengers in or out, and they can still slide if a baby seat is strapped in. As for the third row seat, senior editor Eric Tingwall proclaimed it the best of the four. "At 6'3" I fit comfortably and there's tons of light flowing in to keep things from feeling claustrophobic," he said.
Winner: Infiniti JX
The Takeaway: Compromise Isn't Bad After All
A luxury crossover must be better than a crossover, and all four delivered luxury, sporting character, and convenience to levels neither the minivan nor the basic sport utility vehicle can reach. But the best luxury crossover must offer the greatest compromise of all three.
The Lincoln MKT is arguably the best car here for passengers, especially second-row passengers who can relax and enjoy the car's entertainment tech and soft ride. It's also an unsightly creature, and neither Lincoln's meager brand cachet nor the MKT's chic interior can outweigh the MKT's baroque styling.
The BMW X5 is a sports car with a cargo cover, and the driving experience gets better the harder you push it. It also has the best badge of the group, by a large margin. But the BMW's third-row seat is an expensive option, its low-speed ride is busy, and its steering is heavy. It is a fantastic sport utility vehicle, but it's not a good three-row luxury crossover.
Stepping out of the X5 and into the Infiniti JX is a journey from one school of thought to another. The X5's purchase price is an investment in enthusiastic driving and a blue-chip brand name; with the Infiniti you purchase top-tier technology and innovative design. But Infiniti clearly invested more capital in safety features and creature comforts than the driving experience, and the JX's techno-wizardry doesn't make up for an unengaging drive.
Our choice of the four is the Acura MDX. It doesn't boast the prettiest exterior or the classiest interior, and isn't the quickest of the bunch, but it competes well in all categories and blends sportiness, usability, and panache. And that's what defines the three-row luxury crossover.