Story and photos
by Laurance Yap
Los Angeles, California – It must be something in the air. Whatever it is about the entertainment business that drives every waitress or waiter to be an aspiring actor – that has otherwise-normal human beings on constant lookout for celebrity faces – that has even the working poor lusting after a hot car and a set of big chrome wheels for their next rap video – it’s endemic
to Los Angeles, and I caught the bug bad when I hit the ground.
Okay, so maybe it was something about the temperature, what with twenty-degrees-C being “cold” enough for the locals to put hardtops on their convertibles, but which had me breezing around town in an Infiniti SUV with its windows and sunroof wide open. Here suddenly I was remembering that sitting on my laptop’s hard drive was my very own Hollywood dream, a 129-page high-concept movie script: a romantic comedy that isn’t actually very funny. There it was, burning a hole through my iBook’s case, willing me to the nearest Kinko’s to make a copy, begging to be shopped around town in at least a perfunctory manner during the two-day press preview.
Fine then, because what better way to test the mettle of Infiniti’s new FX45 than in the environment in which it is likely to be most used – Californian urban sprawl, winding canyon roads, cell phone glued to driver’s ear – and what better vehicle than the hottest SUV on the market as a way to potentially open a couple of doors, get people talking to me before they realized just what a fraud I was. “You may have read my columns in Autos,” I would tell the guards at the gates.
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See, in L.A., star power has as much to do with cars as it does real people, and judging from an evening and a day with the FX45, it’s very much the ‘it’ car of the moment, sort of the automotive equivalent of, oh, Ben Affleck with Vin Diesel’s gravelly voice. And no wonder: just check out those lines – the aggressive, bluff nose with its slanted eyes, the tensely arched roofline, the big-bore exhaust pipes and the massive twenty-inch tires – and no, they’re not optional.
I stopped to photograph the FX in an alley behind Rodeo drive and those tires were the source of much discussion. The manager of the Giorgio Armani store swore up and down that the orange Infiniti was the most gorgeous thing that he’d ever seen and that he’d order one for the wheels alone. A jewelry-store owner in a BMW X5 said his brother had one on order, and that he would, too. The parking valets at the Ralph Lauren store declared it absolutely cool and gave it pride of place in the cul-de-sac. Among the famously fickle glitterati, the FX45 is a hit.
It was not, however, with the security guard at the Paramount lot. “Who are you?” the old guy asked again before waving me back out onto the suburban back roads behind the big Hollywood sign. “No, I won’t pass your script along to someone who matters.” Across town at Universal the response was even more chilled: just a glare and a pointed finger to get the hell out of the lot, please.
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Never mind then. With 315 horses underfoot, there were better things to do, anyway. The FX45 has the guts to back up its extreme looks. The 4.5-litre V8 is the same as in the Q45, retuned for more low-end torque. It’s hooked to a swift-shifting five-speed automatic that powers all four wheels (in steady-state driving it’s almost completely rear-drive, but the split can go to 50/50 during acceleration). Brakes are predictably huge, and there’s also a full array of active-safety systems, including ABS with electronic force distribution, brake assist (which applies full stopping power in a panic stop), and an aggressively-calibrated Vehicle Dynamics Control system.
That the FX is based on the exceptional-handling G35 platform (which itself shares its underpinnings, including a multilink rear suspension, with the extra-hot Nissan 350Z) should give you some clue as to the way it drives. The heavy steering levers the FX accurately into corners; body roll is minimal and grip from those huge tires is predictably prodigious. With a fantastic V8 soundtrack as backbeat, I pounded up the Pacific Coast Highway, strafed the curves of Topanga Canyon
Boulevard, and roared down Mulholland Drive, and the FX just got better and better.
Among SUVs I’ve driven, only the $94,000 BMW X5 4.6iS comes close to this level of roadholding and general driver involvement. There’s plenty of feedback about the road surface coming up through the steering and the seats, and the brakes have a firm, confident feel. The ride is unabashedly sporty, too – maybe too sporty, as it felt stiff on billiard-smooth California roads, the steamroller tires bumping and bashing over every bump.
With a few more hours to kill before my red-eye flight back home, I decided to drop in on my friend Alex Tobias, a grad student at CalTech and a crazy-driving enthusiast I’ve known since grade school. Like any (adopted or native) Californian, his 1983 model-year beater has 18-inch tires and a brand-new paint job, and was suitably impressed with the FX45’s menacing, muscular looks both inside and out.
FX has the intimate feel of a two-seater in front, with high sills, a tall dashboard, and deeply hooded instruments. Big sports buckets wrap around you, and the bluff aluminum-finished console pushes surprisingly close – a bit tight-feeling, but also putting the majority of the audio, climate and navigation controls within easier reach. The rear seats (there is no third row) feel tighter than they actually are, because of the small glass area and thick pillars. Because of the curving rear clamshell hatch and tight rear overhang, cargo space isn’t huge, though, and the liftover is high.
As has been Infiniti’s practice, the FX will come with a full complement of standard features, including leather, a thumping six-disc Bose stereo, and power assists for everything. The optional DVD-based navigation system is simply the best such system out there, with impressively quick responses to keystrokes, and a unique bird’s-eye view of the map which makes reading it a lot easier. Save for a few cheap touches – hard plastic pieces on the dash, and some switchgear from lowlier Nissans – the finish is up to luxury-car standards.
Such foibles are easy to forgive when you take into account the FX’s value pricing. 280 horsepower V6 FX35 models (with 18-inch tires but similar equipment) start at $52,500, and the V8 FX45 stickers at $59,900. A single $7500 package for each model adds navigation, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, intelligent cruise control, tire pressure monitor, backup camera, brake preview (which works with the cruise control to pre-pressurize the brake system for panic stops) and various other enhancements, meaning that even with a full load, the FX45 still undercuts competitive German models by thousands of dollars.
Needless to say, my Hollywood dreams had kind of fizzled by the time I left for home – all I had to show for my misadventures was a tattered copy of Variety and a few photographs – but by that time I was having too much fun behind the FX’s wheel to care. It’s a surprisingly focused machine, the current sportiest of the sport-utes (we can’t wait to get an FX45 alongside the upcoming Porsche Cayenne S, which costs almost twice as much) and the best-looking one too.
In L.A., as anywhere else, that counts for a lot. Just ask the Kim Basinger look-alike working the front desk at the Hotel Bel Air.