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New luxury soft-roader should be the right fit for more folk
Charleston, S.C. — To understand the business model behind luxury SUVs, just look at the numbers. Last year in Canada, their sales totalled 65,500 — a sliver of the pie compared with, say, small cars (350,000), compact SUVs (290,000) or full-size pickups (260,000).

And yet, the number of distinct models competing in the luxury-SUV segment is around 35 — more than in any other category of vehicles.

In an industry where economies of scale are the Holy Grail, why would so many automakers create so many different models to chase so few sales? Could it be that the profit on each individual luxury SUV sold is so juicy that the business case is irresistible?

Combine that compelling business case with a glaring gap in Infiniti's lineup, and we now have yet another nameplate joining the swarm of SUVs jostling for the attention of luxury buyers. The 2013 Infiniti JX is a large three-row crossover at a mid-$40Ks price that won't, however, leave buyers feeling like they've just been gouged.

In practice many luxury SUVs do benefit from economies of scale, by sharing hidden hardware with other, higher-selling products in their makers' portfolios. A Cadillac Escalade, for example, has many parts in common with GM's huge-selling Chevrolet and GMC full-size pickups. And although Nissan isn't saying so, I suspect there's a lot of Nissan Quest and Murano hiding beneath the JX's curvaceous "Essence" design language.

Certainly, the JX's powertrain specs read straight out of the Quest brochure: a 3.5-litre V6 deploys 265 horsepower and 248 lb.-ft. of torque to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Of course, this being an SUV there is also all-wheel drive available, and in slippy-slidey Canada, AWD will be standard.

Infiniti pitches the JX as the roomiest vehicle in its segment, which is true if you accept Infiniti's rather selective definition of the segment — namely the Acura MDX and the Audi Q7, both of which start at MSRPs significantly higher than the JX's $44,900. Methinks that JX prospects would likely also consider the even roomier Buick Enclave, as well as the Lincoln MKT (which has more third-row legroom and more cargo room behind the third row than the JX) and perhaps the (admittedly smaller) Volvo XC90.

At a finger's-width under five metres, the Infiniti is a natural fit in this peer group whose members range in size from the Volvo's 4.8 metres through the 5.1 metres of the Q7 and the Enclave, to the 5.3 metres of the Lincoln.

The JX represents a lot of feature-packed space for the money. Standard amenities even on the base mode include a power liftgate, HID bi-xenon headlamps, leather, a power-adjustable and heated steering wheel, eight-way power driver's and six-way front-passenger seats, back-up camera, tri-zone automatic climate control, and all of today's must-have portable-electronics connectivity.

Five option packages add various combinations of items like hard disk-based navigation, rear-seat entertainment system, upgraded audio, climate-controlled front seats, a 2nd/3rd-row moonroof, 20-inch wheels and/or an alphabet soup of active-safety warning and intervention systems such as lane-departure, blind-spot monitoring and intelligent cruise control. Among these is an industry first: Backup Collision Intervention, which not only warns of a potential collision, but also brakes automatically if you don't respond.

What you don't get much of from this latest addition to the "Inspired Performance" brand is either inspiration or performance. Other Infinitis are available with a brawny 3.7-litre, 300-plus-horsepower V6, which would place the JX right in the zone with its primary competition; the 3.5-litre it does have, however, trails the pack in both displacement and outputs. Even with its seamless CVT transmission helping things along, acceleration is ho-hum. Nor is there any joy to be found in the sound of the engine's exertions when you put the whip to it.

Equally detrimental to the inspired-performance mantra is the staid handling. Slack, slow steering response and an overall feeling of portliness do little to encourage an expressive driving style.

In case you care, fuel consumption is decent

Settle for a more sedate pace, though, and the JX can calmly, quietly deliver best-in-class fuel economy. The claimed numbers — 11.5 L/100 km city, 8.5 highway, 10.2 combined — beat the aforementioned gas-engined competition by at least 10 per cent, and actually match the Audi Q7 diesel. For our sedate drive in and around Charleston, S.C., the JX computer showed 10.9 L/100 km overall.

That's pretty decent for a vehicle that size. And the tepid driving experience likely won't matter to the kid-schlepping moms who are expected to be the primary drivers of the JX. Beneath its fashionable SUV duds the JX is a big, cushy, plushly-furnished people-mover capable of transporting up to seven people — yes, even seven adults — while still preserving some useful space to stash their stuff out back.

Unlike some competitors the JX is not available with second-row captain's chairs, so there's no walk-through to the third row. But as a nod to the JX's expected mom's-taxi duties, Infiniti has designed the 60/40-split second-row in such a way that even with a child seat latched in place, you can still tip-and-slide the bench to allow access to the rear.

Useable room for up to 14 legs

Said middle bench is fore-aft adjustable over a range of 14 centimetres, and with judicious sharing, generous legroom can be obtained in all three rows simultaneously. With the driver's seat set for my 172-cm frame (and I do like to sit well back from the wheel) I could "sit behind myself" with kneeroom to spare in both the second and third rows at the same time, so to speak. However the seats are quite low to the floor, which enforces a somewhat knees-up posture — not only in the third row, but to some extent in the second row too.

Comfort should not be an issue in the driver's office. The range of at-the-wheel adjustment is ample and the seat can be raised high enough to avoid visibility issues. The gauges are clear and readable, and Infiniti's customary array of centre-stack switches, working in concert with the large screen, is more user-friendly than most. No sign of the brand's signature analogue clock, though.

One concluding thought that comes to mind is that the last thing the world needs now is another large luxury SUV. The JX is less of a gas-hog than many of its peers, though, and it does plug a gaping gap in Infiniti's own lineup. The automaker even predicts the JX will become its own top-selling model after it goes on sale in May. If you really need useable seven-passenger seating in a luxurious setting, and you can't see yourself in a minivan, maybe you can help it get there. The driving experience won't inspire you, but at least the numbers look right.

2013 Infiniti JX35 AWD
Price: $44,900 - $58,400
Type of vehicle: AWD full-size luxury crossover
Engine: 3.5L, 24 valve, DOHC V6
Engine Power/Torque: 265 hp/248 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Continuously-variable automatic
0-100 km/h: 9.0 seconds (est.)
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): 11.5/8.5 L/100 km
Competition: Acura MDX, Audi A7, BMW X5, Buick Enclave, Lincoln MKT, Mercedes R350, Volvo XC90

PREVIEW SUMMARY

PROS
Well priced for what it offers
Comfortable, quiet and safe
Useable third-row seat doesn`t steal from cargo room behind it
Fuel-economy comparable with rival diesel models

CONS
Underpowered compared with the competition
Most alternatives are more fun to drive
No captain's chairs option




 
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