Many cars look and drive much like any number of other cars. They’re simply not special in any way. You might as well toss a coin to choose among them. The EX35 is not one of these cars. Infiniti’s compact crossover is unlike anything else in the U.S. market. And you’re either going to love it or, more likely, hate it.
Before the EX arrived for the 2008 model year Infiniti already had one five-seat crossover, the FX. Though the second-generation FX is something of a cartoon compared to the cleaner, future-classic original, it retains a distinctive, coherent, round-yet-macho exterior. Credit the long hood and huge wheels. Compared to the FX, the EX is nine inches less lengthy, five inches narrower, and three inches less tall–all sizable differences. The EX’s largest available wheels are 18s—huge a decade ago, almost small today—and its proportions and lines are a not fully resolved blend between the FX and the G sedan. The EX is not a bad-looking vehicle, but it lacks the FX’s bold stance, coherence, and striking originality.
The interior design is more successful. While other manufacturers seek a futuristic, high-tech ambiance, the EX’s interior has a warmer, more traditional vibe that owes much to the British. The materials are soft to the touch, the curvy surfaces flow smoothly into one another, and both the instrument cluster hood and the door panels are nicely upholstered. Wood rather than some sort of faux metal covers much of the center stack and center console. Logically designed and arranged controls avoid the overwhelming sea of buttons found in too many competitors. Knobs for the primary HVAC and audio system functions are relatively small and have a smooth, quality feel. Everything is close at hand.
Too close, perhaps? Well, it depends. Many, especially the big and the tall, will find the EX35 an overly tight fit. The cabin is quite narrow, the center console is tall, and the center stack is unusually close. Those not so big and not so tall will still find it cozy, but perhaps in a custom-tailored, cosseting way. After stretching to reach the controls in the majority of cars these days, and finding that many fit me about as well as shoes a couple sizes too large, I found the EX35 a welcome relief. This is the way Jaguars used to feel before they bowed to market pressure to provide as much interior room as everyone else. Generously sized windows and a seating position that is high relative to the instrument panel keep claustrophobia at bay.
Thanks to these windows and its tidy exterior dimensions, the EX35 is an inherently easy vehicle to park. You’ll want the optional “around view camera” anyway. By digitally combining the images from four cameras, this system shows a top-down image of the EX and its surroundings on the nav screen. Reversing down a curving driveway or perfectly backing into a parking space is not only easy with this system—it’s flat out fun. Every car needs this. And, with the prices of these camera falling as volumes increase, perhaps every car will eventually get it. But the EX35 had the around view camera system first, and the FX remains the only other vehicle to offer it. Oddly the gadget-laden new M sedan didn’t get it.
The front seats are comfortable, though I prefer the larger, plusher seats in the FX. They provide only a modest amount of lateral support, but no doubt this modest amount is all most crossover drivers will ever need. The rear seat is the most limiting aspect of the EX. Forget cozy—it’s tight for all but the smallest people. Even sitting behind my 5-9 self, my knees graze the backs of the front seats. Larger adults simply won’t fit unless the front seats are nearly all the way forward, and three across would be a very tight squeeze. If the front seats are nearly all the way back, only children will fit behind them.
Cargo space is similarly limited. With the rear seat up, there’s perhaps half as much cargo room as in the typical sedan’s trunk. Folding the rear seat more than doubles the cargo area, but even then there’s only about two-thirds as much as in the typical compact SUV. So it strikes me as odd that a power-folding rear seat is standard. The rear seat is such a short reach, why bother? Especially since it cannot fully fold if the front seats are most of the way back. If you have to move the front seats up before the rear seat can fold, what’s the point of being able to fold the seats using a button in the cargo area? Similar switches in the center console might prove a bit more useful. Rear seat folded and kids need to get into it? Then you can unfold it without leaving the driver’s seat. So it might be of some use in the school’s pick up lane.
While the Infiniti cars have moved on to a 3.7, the EX continues to be powered by the same 3.5-liter DOHC V6 that has powered nearly every other Infiniti in recent memory. In the EX, this engine kicks out 297 horsepower. Factor in that the EX weighs only a couple hundred pounds more than the G (for a total of 3,979 with AWD), and acceleration isn’t far off that of the G. In other words, the EX35 is quick, if not especially so by today’s warped standards. The engine note isn’t the most thrilling. Nissan’s VQ engine has received much praise, but ever since the bump from 3.0 to 3.5 liters it has seemed a bit gruff and unrefined to me. In Europe the EX has already received the 3.7-liter upgrade. If we get the same it will improve acceleration, but not sound quality.
Until the 3.7 arrives with a seven-speed, the automatic in the EX remains a behind-the-times fiver. Beyond the number of gears, this transmission has a somewhat syrupy, old-fashioned feel to it. The lever can be used to manually shift the transmission; no paddles, at least not yet.
Given it’s compact size and relatively low weight, the EX might be expected to venture farther on a gallon of fuel. Alas, perhaps due to the thirsty VQ engine, it does not. The EPA ratings of 16/23 are almost identical to those of the far larger, more powerful Ford Flex EcoBoost. I observed 16 in aggressive driving, and 19-21 in casual suburban driving.
Compared to other compact crossovers and SUVs, the EX handles well, with excellent balance and the sort of feel only a space-inefficient front-mid engine location and rear-drive platform can provide. It’s about as close to a car as a crossover can get without becoming a hatchback. And yet the EX still feels a touch tall to me. Body roll in hard turns and a slight delay in responses to steering inputs let you know you’re in a crossover and not a car. The EX’s steering is moderately quick and provides about as much feedback as any compact ute’s steering does these days. I’d like a quicker, sharper, more direct feel, but judging from what manufacturers offer this must be just me, right? Forgoing the optional all-wheel-drive would probably help. With it, the EX only oversteers readily on loose surfaces. And even on dry pavement the insufficiently sophisticated, overly intrusive stability control intervenes sooner and more often than it should.
The benefit of this moderate chassis tuning: a very livable ride, even with the 18s. Sure, the ride sometimes feels a touch busy, and some bumps register, but there no bobbling about and it’s never punishing the way the FX could be. Noise levels are moderately low, with a sound quality suitable for this class of vehicle. Your ears tell you you’re in a luxury car.
Sounding like an ideal car for the women in your life rather than yourself? Perhaps. For whatever reason, cars have never been sized like clothing. And automakers have generally avoided gender-specific models. But by offering the EX and FX Infiniti goes about as far in these directions as any automaker has gone. Want something bigger and more macho? Then Infiniti will be happy to sell you the FX. For those who, on the other hand, don’t physically require a lot of space and who want a uniquely personal, seemingly tailor-made crossover, the EX is without equal.
Infiniti provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data