“Electronic Cheetah” expects the performance of SUVs to rise

The early 2000s saw the SUV revolution gain full traction as automakers began adding carriers of all shapes and sizes to their lineups. In addition to traditional full-frame trucks, increasingly car-based crossovers (which claim to marry sedan comfort with sports utility practicality) are becoming the bread and butter of companies eager to make money on the higher-priced transaction cars associated with these long-haul wagons.

Few brands have taken the sedan aesthetic on stilts as much as the Infiniti. Having previously adopted the off-road-ready Pathfinder from parent company Nissan (sold as the QX4), the brand’s marketing experts cast their eyes across luxurious landscapes in search of a suitable supplement. What they landed on was a niche no one else would have thought, at that point: the SUV as a sports car.

What they were born into the world was the “Bio Cheetah,” the Infiniti nickname for the FX series crossovers. These hyper-muscular machines borrowed more than a little from the Nissan Z parts box, and in the process set the tone for a high-performance SUV that most of its competitors couldn’t match. Where did the cheetah disappear?

2001 Infiniti FX45 Concept Car

Infiniti’s FX45 concept car, which was unveiled in 2001.

Infiniti

Walk a different path

Go-fast SUVs weren’t a new idea by the time Infiniti embraced its performance claims in the FX. The concept arguably started with the Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited at the end of the 1990s, a model that was closely followed by the BMW X5 (displayed with the same V8 engine as the 5-Series sports sedan) as well as the AMG-tuned Mercedes-Benz ML55. Even Porsche got into the business, sparking a fundamentalist scandal with the 2003 Cayenne ad.

The entry of Infiniti – which arrived at the same time as the entry of Porsche – was something completely different. While each of the above models strove to maintain the shine of practicality and pursue an aura of off-road credibility, the FX went completely the other way.

Rather than focusing on ground clearance and cargo space, Infiniti took advantage of the handling capabilities offered by FM, or the “Front-Midships” vehicle platform that was used to re-release the Nissan 350Z (plus support the Infiniti G sedan and coupe). Featuring a rear-wheel drive design, a strong low-roof profile and a pair of powertrain options (the ubiquitous 350Z DOHC VQ-series V6, plus a 4.5-liter V8), FX pays for the idea of ​​being family-friendly while keeping an eye on the top of the next corner.

As for the nickname Cheetah Bionic, the term appeared early on in FX’s marketing materials as a way of describing the experimental car’s aggressive design language that leads to the final (and still sharp) production model. A squint and you could see a crouching cat enhanced with all sorts of modern technology, which was exactly the exciting image Infiniti was looking for when facing its much larger competitors.

2003 INFINITI FX SUV

2003 Infiniti FX, first production model.

Infiniti

keep a promise

The Infiniti FX was on top of the brand’s transformation in the early 2000s from purveyor of comfort-focused cruisers to luxury thrill rides. The G sedan and its accompanying two-doors were legitimately exciting to drive and drew comparisons to the dominant BMW 3 Series in an era when this model still excelled on a skateboard. Adding the FX to the mix as a crossover version of its fellow sportsmen, sprinkled with a little Z dust from the marketing department, gave Infiniti a much-needed edge in its quest to stand out from the rest of the premium crowd.

Notably, none of its Japanese competitors have followed suit. Lexus never produced a sporty SUV of any kind, and Acura didn’t put a spring in the MDX’s move until the Sport Hybrid model came out more than a decade later. This made the Infiniti FX unique among buyers of luxury imports wanting to deviate from the default German path.

A turn behind the wheel revealed how different the FX really is from other SUVs. Even when it was found with a 315-horsepower V8 under the hood, the crossover was 600 pounds lighter than many of its contemporaries, allowing it to beat stronger models while showing off a more charismatic personality from corner to corner. Choosing to forego the off-road mode freed Infiniti’s engineers from having to over-build the sports car’s chassis, thus fulfilling its promise of car-like performance. A set of massive 20-inch tires (at the time) also provided enough rubber on the top-tier FX versions to add more traction to the asphalt, and of course a sophisticated all-wheel drive system was also on the order sheet.

Infiniti FX 2009

2009 Infiniti FX, part of the second generation.

Infiniti

not follow up

The robotic cheetah’s initial response was overwhelmingly positive, but mixed with more than a bit of confusion. Journalists loved his cat-like reactions and exceptional speed, but had a hard time understanding exactly where the FX fits into the established SUV arrangement. Beneath the space for rear-seat passengers (and accompanying baggage), it stood out from the crowd by its appeal to drivers, rather than mother and father, and was paired with a competitive price that severely undermined Mercedes-Benz and others.

As the years passed, Infiniti’s competition responded to the introduction of the FX with the advent of the tilt-roof Beetle, with the BMW X6 and Acura ZDX leading toward “crossover coupe” design cues that eventually spread throughout much of the industry. The FX itself was redesigned for 2009, bringing with it a new suspension setup and slightly larger proportions, while staying true to the original design specs to focus on the driver rather than the riders.

And then… nothing. Or at least very little, as Infiniti is beginning to fall back on what was once the crown jewel of its SUV portfolio. While its V8 engine was hacked to 5.0 liters after its redesign (with an output of 390 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque), Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW pulled off quickly with their own forays into turbocharging. Renamed the QX70 a few years later, the crossover played the series with pretty much the same mechanical details and feature set, while every SUV around it ramped up in a terrifying arms race of speed, gear and grip.

The fall of the FX/QX coincided with Infiniti’s descent into an irrelevant place among performance-seeking luxury buyers. No longer on the cutting edge of excitement, the brand’s lineup has relentlessly shifted toward softer, heady-style cars that were often easy to forget from behind the wheel. With a meager 6,000 or so customers adopting the Bionic Cheetah in its later years, and unable to achieve the same level of low-volume profits that its more pricier compatriots see in the upscale scene, by the end of 2017 the model (having already lost its V8 engine) was put out. from her misery.

The Infiniti FX is proof that being the first to bring an exciting new concept vehicle to market matters a lot. In anticipating the industry’s shift toward ever more efficient SUVs that made up a seemingly endless array of niches, Infiniti was ahead. But getting lost in its way—and much of its identity—in the ensuing years, the company refused to invest what was needed to ride the crest of that wave.

FX showed us the way into the future of our SUV, but in the end we had to content ourselves with putting a footnote in the history books.