“Bionic Cheetah” predicted the rise of performance SUVs

The early 2000s saw the SUV revolution gain momentum as automakers began adding transporters of all shapes and sizes to their respective lineups. In addition to traditional full-frame trucks, it’s increasingly car-based crossovers (claiming to marry the comfort of a sedan with the practicality of a sport utility) that have become the bread and butter of companies keen to take advantage of the higher transaction prices associated with these tall cars.

Few brands have taken the stilt sedan aesthetic as far as Infiniti. Having already embraced parent company Nissan’s all-terrain Pathfinder (sold as the QX4), the marque’s marketers have cast their eyes across the luxury landscape in search of a suitable sequel. What they landed on was a niche that hardly anyone else had, at that time, considered: the SUV as a sports car.

What they birthed was the “Bionic Cheetah”, Infiniti’s own nickname for its FX series of crossovers. These over-muscled machines borrowed more than a little from the Nissan Z parts bin and in doing so set the tone for high-performance SUVs that most of its rivals simply couldn’t match. So where did the cheetah go?

The 2001 Infiniti FX45 concept car

Infiniti’s FX45 concept car, unveiled in 2001.

Infiniti

Walk a different path

Fast SUVs weren’t a new idea when Infiniti adopted its own performance claims for the FX. The concept had probably started with the Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited in the late 90s, a model closely followed by the BMW X5 (offered with the same V8 as its 5 Series sports sedan) as well as the AMG-Mercedes- Benz ML55 tuned. Even Porsche got in on the action, scandalizing purists with the announcement of the Cayenne for the 2003 model year.

Infiniti’s entry – which arrived at the same time as Porsche’s – was something else entirely. While each of the aforementioned models strove to maintain practicality and sought 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 potential offered by the FM vehicle platform, or “Front-Midships”, which had been used to relaunch the Nissan 350Z (as well as to belt the Infiniti G Sedan and Coupe). Featuring a rear-drive layout, muscular low roof profile and a pair of power engine options (the 350Z’s ubiquitous DOHC VQ-series V6, plus a 4-speed V8 .5 liters), the FX paid lip service to the idea of ​​being family-friendly while keeping an eye on the next peak.

As for the Bionic Cheetah moniker, the term appeared early on in FX’s marketing materials as a way to describe the aggressive design language used on the concept car that led to the eventual (and still sharp) production model. Squint and you can see a crouching cat enhanced by all sorts of modern technology, which was quite the evocative image Infiniti was looking for when taking on its bulkier rivals.

The 2003 Infiniti FX SUV

The 2003 Infiniti FX, the first production model.

Infiniti

Hold a promise

The Infiniti FX was at the forefront of the brand’s shift in the early 2000s from provider of comfort-focused cruisers to thrill rides. The G sedan and its accompanying two-door were legitimately thrilling to drive and drew comparisons to the dominant BMW 3-Series at a time when that model still reigned supreme in skidding. Adding the FX to the mix as a crossover version of its athletic stablemates, dusted with a little Z dust from the marketing department, gave Infiniti a much-needed edge as it struggled to set itself apart from the rest of the premium crowd.

Notably, none of its Japanese competitors have followed suit. Lexus had yet to produce a sport SUV of any kind, and Acura didn’t put a spring in the MDX stage until the Sport Hybrid model appeared more than a decade later. This gave the Infiniti FX a unique cachet among imported luxury buyers eager to deviate from the default German route.

A spin behind the wheel revealed just how different the FX truly was from other hopped-up SUVs. Even when found with its 315-horsepower V8 under the hood, the crossover weighed up to 600 pounds less than most of its contemporaries, allowing it to outperform more powerful models while demonstrating a more characterful character. engaging from turn to turn. The choice to forgo the off-road pose had freed Infiniti engineers from having to over-build the sport utility chassis, fulfilling its promise of car-like handling. A set of massive (for the time) 20-inch tires also provided enough rubber on the top-level FX editions to add extra grip to the asphalt, and of course a fancy all-wheel-drive system was also featured on the order sheet.

The 2009 Infiniti FX

A 2009 Infiniti FX, part of the second generation.

Infiniti

Do not follow through

Initial response to the Bionic Cheetah has been overwhelmingly positive, but mixed with more than a little confusion. Journalists loved its cat-like reflexes and exceptional speed, but struggled to figure out where, exactly, the FX fit in the established SUV pecking order. Down on the rear passenger (and luggage) space, it stood out from the crowd with its appeal to drivers, rather than mom and dad, and it was paired with a bargain price that severely undermined Mercedes-Benz. et al.

Over the years, competition from Infiniti responded to the introduction of the FX with its own sloping-roof beetles, the BMW X6 and Acura ZDX leading the charge towards the “crossover coupe” styling cues that eventually came to be. prevalent in much of the industry. The FX itself has been redesigned for 2009, bringing with it a new suspension setup and slightly larger proportions, while remaining true to the original design spec’s emphasis on the driver rather than the drivers. pilots.

And then… nothing. Or at least very little, as Infiniti has begun to move away from what was once the crown jewel of its SUV portfolio. While its V8 engine had been pushed to 5.0 liters after its redesign (with a power output of 390 ponies and 369 lb-ft of torque), Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW quickly moved away with their respective forays into the turbocharging. Renamed the QX70 a few years later, the crossover played the ropes with much of the same mechanical detail and functionality, while every SUV around it escalated into a terrifying arms race of speed, speed and power. adhesion.

The fall of the FX/QX coincided with Infiniti’s own descent into insignificance among performance-seeking luxury buyers. No longer at the height of excitement, the marque’s range had inexorably shifted towards softer, more anonymously styled vehicles that were mostly forgettable behind the wheel. With a trickle of only around 6,000 customers adopting a bionic Cheetah in its final years, and unable to generate the same level of low-volume profit as its more expensive compatriots in the high-end scene, by the end of 2017 the model ( having already lost its V8 engine) was put out of its misery.

The Infiniti FX is proof that being the first to market with an exciting new automotive concept really doesn’t matter. Predicting the industry’s shift toward increasingly powerful SUVs suited to a seemingly endless set of niches, Infiniti was ahead of the curve. But losing its way – and much of its identity – in the years that followed, the company refused to invest what was needed to ride the crest of that wave.

The FX showed us the way to our future SUV, but ultimately had to settle for footnote status in the history books.

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