Power Drive

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2008

Today’s car-buying public has little sympathy for auto executives who failed to foresee high fuel prices, disdained diesel engine development, didn't think of hybrid vehicles, didn't follow up on the electric car they pioneered then threw away, and who still wonder what a hydrogen car is.

With red-ink awareness of a changing market, automakers are heading in two directions for the near future: fuel efficiency by 2010 and the hope they return brand-loyal buyers; and retro generation of high-performance vehicles in hopes baby boomer retirees will have the money to fulfill their youthful fantasies.

So we see warm-fuzzy commercials for a Chevy Volt electric car that will sell for $30,000 in a few years, and we have mine-is-faster-than-yours commercials for the retro-inspired Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro. You can have fuel efficiency or performance, they tell us, not both in the same vehicle.

With its Infiniti luxury line of vehicles, Nissan doesn't pretend fuel efficiency is the goal. Performance is. You want fuel efficiency? Buy a Nissan Versa. With an Infiniti, you get world-class performance and luxury. That's what was found in our tested 2009 Infiniti FX50.

The FX50 has a 390-horsepower V-8 engine driving 21-inch wheels from 0-to-60 in 5.2 seconds. And it can do it while hauling five people and a week's worth of groceries inside its “crossover” styling.

This is the second generation of the FX, and every panel on the 2009 model is new. The engine grew from 4.5 to 5 liters, adding 70 more horsepower. The power flows through a seven-speed automatic transmission, where shifts can be controlled by paddles on each side of the steering wheel. It's all-wheel-drive, all the time. Infiniti did manage a slight improvement in fuel efficiency, but at 14 city/20 highway, it's nothing to brag about.

Options sent our tester over $60,000, but the base price of the FX50 is $57,565.

I found only one thing not to like, so let's get that out of the way now. The performance tires mounted on the massive 21-inch wheels are sufficiently hard to create loud thumping heard inside the vehicle with a pass over every highway joint. U.S. 41 proved very noisy. The tires slapped the joint strips so loudly that conversation was disrupted. Frankly, I have no use for the FX50’s extreme performance, but I love the vehicle enough that I'd exchange those tires for quieter models.

By other measures, this vehicle is Buck Rogers incredible. Begin with a laser cruise control system that works from 0 to 90 mph. Most such systems work only within a narrow range of highway speeds. This one was flawless in numerous highway/interstate tests. Set it and the FX50 does the rest, maintaining proper distance and speed in traffic.

Once it even shut itself off when I drove into a heavy rainstorm. Apparently, the system is smart enough to know that cruise control should be disengaged in poor weather conditions. I took comfort that the FX50 has traction and stability control as standard items.

The navigation system and display cameras in the FX50 are unique. Not only does its navigation screen show what is behind a driver when reverse gear is selected, but it can simultaneously show a surround view from above. It does this by combining several cameras into a single view, with the straight-down image of the FX50 centered in its surroundings. It can also show a right-side view when backing out of a parking space and the forward view when drive is initially engaged. There is not a more complete system available.

The interior leather and wood befits the finest luxury car. High-intensity discharge headlights and LED taillights make the FX50 a standout for night driving.

A word must be said about the paint. Yes, the paint. It's a special formulation called Scratch Shield. Sunlight heats the clear coat so that it "melts" and flows into fine scratches on a body panel, effectively removing them.

The audio system is Bose-designed, with 11 speakers to deliver AM/FM, CD or XM satellite radio. The tester also had an optional real-time traffic information system that displayed on the nav screen every accident or bit of road construction within about 25 miles. If that wasn't enough, it also had a 9.3 gb digital "juke box,” an iPod interface, a CF card slot and a voice recognition system to control climate settings, the audio system, the navigation screen and a built-in phone.

Yes, there's a remote garage door opener, a Bluetooth phone and a climate control system that is the first in the world to sniff incoming air. If you pull up behind a belching diesel truck, the indignant climate control sniffs the foul air and changes air intake from "outside" to "recirculation" of clean interior air.

In several highway trips, the FX50 almost drove itself. It maintained the proper speed and distance from cars ahead in my lane of traffic, it turned on, slowed down or speeded up the windshield wipers in spotty rains, it turned on the headlights, it warned me every time I changed lanes. Opt for the sport package and you get rear active steer for even faster cornering (it's like four-wheel steering; the rear wheels turn one degree in the direction of your turn), an adaptive front lighting system where the headlights turn with the front wheels and auto-leveling headlights.

A feature called "distance control assist" works with the brakes; brake slowly in traffic and the automatic transmission downshifts as speed decreases, much as it would with downshifts in a manual transmission vehicle. Very impressive technology.

Now, about that fuel economy.

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