The all-new 2013 Infiniti JX35 is the long-awaited SUV that will fill the yawning chasm between the five-seat FX and the king-sized QX. Priced at $41,400 ($54,800 as tested), the JX emphasizes space, practicality and economy (18 mpg city, 23-24 mpg highway) over raw thrills -- but is that the right move for a brand that built its reputation on performance? Let's drive it and find out.
I am a big fan of Infiniti's crossovers, specifically the EX and FX. With their slick wagon-like bodies and absurdly powerful engines, they are basically sports cars dressed up as SUVs. So when I heard that the next Infiniti CUV was going to be a conventionally-designed 7-seater built on a front-wheel-drive platform, I was concerned that my favorite luxury brand was going to dilute its image, like Metallica recording a children's album.
Infiniti has good reason to add the JX to their lineup: They've been losing a steady stream of buyers who need something bigger than the 5-seat FX, but don't want a behemoth like the boat-towing QX56. Finding nothing to suit their needs in the Infiniti showroom, most of them end up buying either an Acura MDX or an Audi Q7. Filling this hole in the lineup is the JX35's raison d'etre.
Rather than stretch the front engine/rear drive FM platform, which underpins the EX and FX (as well as Infiniti's G-series and M-series sedans), Nissan decided to base the JX on the upcoming Pathfinder, which uses a transverse (sideways) engine and front- or all-wheel-drive. That means a less Infiniti-like driving demeanor, although they have done a great job applying Infiniti-like styling. The JX has an angry, bulging hood up front and taillights narrowed down to slits in the back. This is a tall vehicle, but its proportions make it look long and low and very pleasing to the eye.
In the Driver's Seat
I have high standards for luxury interiors, and the JX meets them, with rich leather upholstery and a beautifully finished cabin. The focal point is the bulging center stack, similar to the design in the M-series sedan, which flows down through a brushed-metal stereo fascia to a gently rounded center console. A crisp color touch-screen comes standard, used for the menu-driven stereo, climate and (optional) navigation systems. If you don't want to get fingerprints on the screen, you can use the dial controller or redundant buttons for the stereo and air conditioner. It's an excellent setup that lets each driver adopt a control method that is most comfortable for them.
Second-row seats are adjustable fore and aft. I found the seats themselves roomy enough, but I thought they were a bit too close to the floor and didn't provide enough thigh support. Access to the third row is excellent; the second-row seats slide and collapse, similar to those in the GMC Acadia. The seat itself is marginally better than that of the Acura MDX, but it's still cramped and uncomfortable, and the only way adults in the third row can get adequate legroom is if the folks in the second row slide forward and give up most of theirs. Infiniti has provided A/C vents for all three rows, so at least the people stuck in the back will be cool, if cramped.
With all three seats in place, cargo room is a useful 15.8 cubic feet, enough for a big grocery run or a couple of bulky suitcases. Dropping the third-row seat opens up over 40 cubic feet of space; there's a thoughtfully-placed strap to pull the seats back into place, although stowing and deployment took a bit more muscle than I would have liked.
On the Road
The JX35 is powered by Infiniti's venerable 3.5 liter V6, here tuned for 265 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. Most Infinitis use rear-wheel-drive, but not the JX; the engine is installed sideways and drives the front wheels, with an all-wheel-drive system as an option. The JX is the first Infiniti to use a continuously-variable transmission (CVT), which uses belts and pulleys instead of regular gears, allowing the transmission to vary engine speed as needed. Some people object to the slithery feel of a CVT, so the JX has a "Sport" mode that emulates a stepped transmission. I personally like the smooth shift-free driving experience, so I drove in either "Eco" or "Normal" modes. Acceleration is more than adequate, even if the JX isn't a muscle car like other Infiniti SUVs. EPA fuel economy estimates are a reasonable 18 MPG city and 24 MPG with front-wheel-drive, 18/23 with AWD.
Unfortunately, handling isn't quite up to Infiniti standards. The ride is quiet and pleasingly taut, and the JX35 is happier in the curves than you'd expect given its size, but when pushed hard -- as Infiniti owners seem wont to do -- it responds like any other big front-drive CUV, plowing into steady understeer. The fun-to-drive factor of the FX and EX just isn't there.
The JX is available with a plethora of high-tech driver assistance features, including dynamic cruse control, which matches the speed of the car in front, and an active lane departure system, which is supposed to warn you if you drift out of your lane and apply mild corrective steering action. (In the two JXs I tested, the warnings came too late and the corrective feature didn't work.) There's also a function called Distance Control Assist, which, when activated, will ease off the throttle and apply the brakes if you get too close to the car in front. In theory this sounds terribly intrusive, but in reality it's actually a very intuitive system that acts as a sort of invisible co-driver -- in fact, in slow traffic, I actually let the JX do most of the braking for me.
Pricing for the JX35 starts at $41,400 with front-wheel-drive and $42,500 with all-wheel-drive, including leather and heated power-adjustable front seats. Options are grouped into packages: Premium (navigation with Internet-connected apps, 13-speaker Bose stereo, driver's seat memory, Around View parking cameras, $4,950); Theater (DVD player with dual screens, wireless headphones, 120V power outlet, $1,700); Driver Assistance (blind spot warning, active cruise, Distance Control Assist, $2,200); Deluxe Touring (15-speaker surround-sound Bose, 20" wheels, rear sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, cooled front seats and heated rear seats, $2,550); and Technology (everything in the Driver Assistance package plus lane departure and blind-spot intervention systems, $3,100). That puts a top-of-the-line JX35 at $54,800, although Infiniti predicts that the average JX will list for around $48,000, roughly a grand less than a comparably-equipped Acura MDX.
So Infiniti has the hole in their lineup nicely plugged. They've got a competitively equipped and competitively priced vehicle that can plug the leak of buyers defecting to Acura and Audi.
That said, I'm still not convinced. Two reasons: First, JX35 isn't a great seven-seater. Yes, it does the job better than the Acura MDX and cheaper than the Audi Q7. But there are plenty of vehicles that provide more space and comfort, including the Ford Flex, GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse. If you want real room for seven real people, all of these are better choices.
Second, the JX35 isn't a great Infiniti. It comes close; the styling is beautiful and the interior is properly luxurious. But the performance and agility just aren't there. This isn't a thinly-veiled sports car in the vein of the EX and FX.
I don't think the JX will dilute the Infiniti brand (although more vehicles in this vein surely will). I think it will satisfy buyers who have a need for seven seats and an Infiniti badge. But a proper Infiniti this isn't, and if you have a big family to haul -- or if you want true Infiniti performance -- I suggest you look elsewhere.