SANTA MONICA, California - Crossover models are the big automotive story these days, even if there's no agreement as to what they are. In principle, crossovers are said to combine the characteristics of an SUV, a passenger sedan, and a station wagon. Yet, many observers will call one model a crossover, while declaring a similar example to be an SUV. Buying guides are inconsistent, so a given model is a crossover in one respected publication and an SUV in another. Some buying guides simply shun the crossover label entirely, declaring everything to be a sport-utility vehicle of some sort.
One factor that tends to differentiate crossovers from SUVs, however, is the lack of low-range gearing in the former. Crossovers, even when equipped with all-wheel drive, are intended for light off-road operation, at best. Full-scale SUVs with four-wheel drive and low-range gearing are the ones that can blaze their way through harsh terrain.
Definitions aside, Infiniti - Nissan's luxury division - has joined the compact crossover race for 2008 with a brand-new EX35 model. It joins the company's larger FX35 and FX45 premium crossovers, as well as the full-size QX56 sport-utility vehicle.
Larry Dominique, Infiniti's vice-president for product planning, notes that crossover growth is now second only to that of sedans in the U.S. market. No wonder, then, that nearly every automakers has been clamoring to climb aboard.
Crossover buyers "want design and performance," Dominique said, along wiht utility. Crossovers also need to be "more gender-neutral" than SUVs, which skew toward male buyers.
Infiniti calls the new EX35 "right size," with a long hood and short overhangs, as well as "coupelike roof design. This is "pretty much the most aspirations design we've done to date," Dominique said, referring especially to the EX's interior.
Offered with either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, the EX35 continas a 3.5-liter V-6 that generates 297 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque. Dominique advises that the EX's horsepower-to-weight ratio is cloer to coupes and sedans than to SUVs.
Rock-solid feel heads the list of EX attributes, coupled with a taut suspension. Highly refined, smooth powertrain behavior also appeals. Although the EX is very quiet on the road, you can discern a hearty exhaust note at times when accelerating.
Steering is almost as precise as that of Infiniti's larger FX, with only an occasional slight shortage of full confidence. The EX also delivers the same solid overall feel as an FX. An easy car to drive, the EX35 comports itself quite well on twisting mountain two-lane roads, producing no cause for alarm regardless of conditions.
Pass/merge acceleration from 60 mph or so isn't a strong point. Response is acceptable if the transmission downshifts, but otherwise quite meager. Acceleration is considerably swifter at low speeds and for takeoffs from a standing start–where rapidity is substantially less essential. Manual mode in the automatic transmission performs quite expertly, making it appealing to use, especially for slowing down in hilly terrain.
Easy to enter into front seats, an EX35 feels compact inside, but certainly not oppressive. Head and elbow room suffice, but don't qualify as ample. Snug seat bolstering could be a little too much for those of excess girth. Easy-to-see gauges contain white numerals and a red pointer
Backseat leg space meager is unless the front seat is moved well forward. Headroom is okay but not huge by any means. The center rear position is impossible, marred by an extra-hard bottom, unpleasant seatback, and a huge hump to straddle. Cargo space is rather sizable, but Infiniti should have used some of it for second-row leg space.
Infiniti's new Around View Monitor produces an image that isn't as helpful as expected: unclear as to what is near the vehicle, and if the proportions of each object are correct.
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