Some vehicles turn heads. The Infiniti EX35 tries to prevent you from doing just that.
Not an easy task.
Even in the middle of a Manhattan rush hour, the sound of an EX35 dicing its way through traffic is unmistakable.
Or maybe it's a G35, or an M35, or even an FX35. You can never be sure, because they all use the same engine, a 3.5-liter V6 that puts out one of the most glorious sounds in the automotive world. A raspy yet muffled buzz that cuts through the background noise and makes you think "Maserati" or "Ferrari" when you first hear it.
Fitting that Infiniti ends with an "I."
When you do turn to look, the EX appears to be an impossibly sporty SUV like its big sister, the FX, or even the Mazda CX7. Approach it, and like walking into one of those optical illusion rooms with the checkerboard floor and the door on the far wall, the EX shrinks down to the size of a compact car.
So small and short in stature that you can actually see over the roof and carry on a face-to-face conversation with a person standing on the other side.
In size and functionality, the EX is more of a tall hatchback than an SUV. Since the dreaded "H" word has fallen out of favor with American shoppers, Infiniti has disguised its latest offering as a "personal luxury crossover," while the U.S. government prefers to call it a "small wagon." Any of these descriptions will suffice, as long as the adjective "big" doesn’t get anywhere near it.
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Of all of the "crossover" and "segment-busting" designs coming out these days, the EX may be the first that actually crosses or busts anything. Built on the same basic platform as the racy Nissan 350Z, it's much more of a car than the truck it sort of looks like, and a rear-wheel-drive one at that. Most small SUVs are based on front-wheel-drive platforms.
The EX is available with all-wheel drive, as was our test vehicle (base price $36,250), but like a runway model in knee-high riding boots, it shows no interest in actually going off road. The curvaceous body is too lithe, the details far too elegant to be subjected to anything as sloppy as a muddy trail while hauling you and your buddies on some bucolic adventure.
The EX is strictly for the street, enhanced by all-weather traction that can handle the worst that cover girl can throw at it while she’s working at her day job as weather reporter. With the V6 tuned to deliver 297 horsepower it’s powerful and quick for its class, so the all-wheel drive will serve you well. Once you get used to being the couple of inches higher than you would be in a typical sedan, you’ll be forgiven if you start trying to drive it like a sports car.
Inside, the EX gets the same distinctive design as all vehicles from Infiniti these days, one of the few automakers that have managed to come up with a truly unique look for their cabins. From the swooping dashboard covered in wood and creased leather to seats Infiniti claims are based on the cut and fit of a kimono, it looks and feels like one of those hip cigar bars for people who don't smoke. No doubt the EX’s target market.
You’ll need to keep the guest list short, though, because with the front seats in a comfortable position for someone over 6 feet tall, the rear ones become cramped for anyone over 5 (feet or years, it doesn’t matter). The cargo compartment is a healthy 18.6 cubic feet, and power folding rear seats make it easy to access even more space when no one is sitting in them.
Unfortunately, the sloping roofline of the EX’s backside cuts into its utility, compared to the boxier offerings from the competition.
At night, the groovy environment is illuminated by the purest of white lights, set off by shocking indigo circles on the speedometer and tachometer. The only real missteps are wood caps that surround the window switches on the doors that are a different grain than rest of the trim. It’s either a poor choice or a glaring oversight in an otherwise swank interior.
Prominently placed atop the center console is the screen for the multimedia/navigation system, and this is the conversation piece that the EX uses to make the transition from eye candy to interesting companion.
First, the whole shebang is convenient to use, with touchscreen controls that are supplemented by buttons surrounding the monitor, a control dial below it, even more buttons on the steering wheel, and optional voice recognition. Some functions can be operated in all five ways.
Is there a word for "redundant" in Japanese?
The stereo can be had with an iPod connection and, to be even more yojou* (they do!), a hard drive for the rest of your tunes. You’ll enjoy filling the interior with thumping bass from the dual subwoofers backing up the other 11 speakers, but the really remarkable quality about the EX is how much it can tell you about what is going on outside of it.
First, there is the navigation system that offers a flyover view of the map with 3D buildings that looks a lot like "Flight Simulator" and minimizes the need for windows as you drive through a vertical city like New York. Neat, but press the button marked "camera" and you can forget about the windows all together, though I’m certain Infiniti’s lawyers wouldn’t recommend that.
The EX is the first Infiniti to offer the company's Around View Monitor, or AVM. Taking the backup camera concept three further, Infiniti stuck a lens into the logo on the front grill, one under each of the side-view mirrors, and brings all of the video feeds together in a virtual bird’s-eye view on the monitor. It’s like having a guardian angel everywhere you go, or at least someone with a copy of the Patriot Act.
AVM is great for parking and creeping through tight spaces between double-parked cars and delivery trucks. I emphasize "creeping" because the EX can only accelerate up to 6 mph before the chaperones in the computer decide you’re being naughty and shut it off, forcing you to direct your eyes toward the windshield.
Backing up, speed isn’t an issue, and AVM even superimposes handy lines onto the image to help you direct the car into perpendicular parking spaces. I tried it out in a dark, self-parking garage, and it worked so well that I fully expect DMVs to ban the EX from driver’s license exams the way casinos don’t allow calculators at the gaming tables.
The decision to introduce this feature in the diminutive EX is an odd choice, though, as AVM would be much more useful on the elephantine QX SUV, or even the full-size M sedan. You can easily live without it on the EX, but you will find yourself using it all of the time, for kicks if nothing else.
Hopefully that won’t be the case with the even more impressive option that comes bundled with it.
Not satisfied with installing four cameras on the EX, Infiniti tossed in one more for good measure. From its position behind the rearview mirror (does it even need one of those at this point?) the all-seeing eye of the Lane Departure Prevention System scans the lines on the road, making sure you are staying between them. If it decides that you aren’t, the EX will begin applying the brakes on either side of the car to nudge it back on course, the same way a kayaker sticks an oar into the water to steer.
The system changes the EX’s direction slowly, more like the Titanic than a kayak, but it does work, most of the time. Around curves it doesn’t always kick in, and it won’t turn the car fast enough to save you from bumping into your neighbor in traffic. Fall asleep at the wheel on an empty road, however, and it could keep you from rolling into a ditch, as long as the accompanying high-pitched beep wakes you up before too long.
If it doesn’t, the EX also has Intelligent Cruise Control that uses a laser to modulate the distance between you and the car in front, which could buy you a little extra time. In normal driving, this allows you to relax and concentrate on that model your friend set you up on a date with. You know, the one who does the weather on cable.
Just remember to keep your eyes on the road.
(*Japanese for "redundant")
2008 INFINITI EX35 AWD JOURNEY
Base Price: $36,250
As Tested: $45,415
Engine: 3.5L V6
Power: 297hp, 253 lb-ft torque
Drivetrain: All-wheel drive w/5-Speed automatic transmission
MPG: 16 city/23 hwy
What do you think of the Infiniti EX35?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.