In 2004, one of the most outrageously styled vehicles on the road was not a two-seater sport car or a wild and woolly sport sedan, but the Infiniti FX45 SUV.
Described by the company as a "bionic cheetah," it made its debut in 2003 and looked like it was designed on another planet - massive and kind of bulbous with huge 20-inch wheels and tires, yet sleek and extremely contemporary.
Even if you didn't know what kind of vehicle it was, you'd recognize the FX45 as something definitely off the beaten track. Technically, it was a sport utility vehicle, but it didn't really fit neatly into any one market niche.
For one thing, it was built on the same platform as the Nissan 350Z sports car and Infiniti G35 luxury sedan. This gave it handling and performance not normally associated with a sport-ute and, on a track, it'd leave any comparable vehicle, with the possible exception of the Porsche Cayenne V8 or BMW X5 4.6iS, for dead.
It was powered by the same 4.5-litre V8 engine found in the upscale Infiniti Q45 and M45 performance sedans. With 315 horsepower on tap, this meant the FX45 was most un-SUV-like when you put the pedal to the metal.
It also had a full-time all-wheel-drive system that directed additional power to the front or rear wheels when necessary and a slick-shifting five-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift feature.
It may have been a glorified grocery-getter, but the FX45 was as much a hot rod as anything else. In company-speak, it was what Infiniti liked to call "a premium crossover SUV." In other words, it was meant to appeal to both performance enthusiasts and those buyers with a more practical side.
A quick word about the AWD system. Unlike just about every other setup on the market, this one had the engine applying power equally between the front and rear driving wheels during takeoff and then gradually redirecting it to the rear wheels when the vehicle reached cruising speeds. Off-the-line 4WD, in other words, and when you accelerated out of a corner, for example, it also redistributed power back to both front and rear wheels. The result was "flat" cornering performance, which meant body lean was almost non-existent.
It was clearly not a down-and-dirty bush beast and wasn't designed to respond particularly well to extreme off-road conditions, but the FX45 could readily handle things like a sudden snowfall or heavy rain with no problem at all.
Needless to say, it had all the bells and whistles: all-leather interior, wood trim, heated seats, rear-seat entertainment system, tire-pressure monitor, "intelligent" cruise control, power everything and, if you wanted it, a DVD-based navigation system, with Infiniti's "bird view" graphics.
This latter item was, and is, one of the more user-friendly ones out there and was part of the FX45's so-called "man-machine interface" overall design. Luddites take note: relatively simple things, like changing radio stations or fan speed, required more steps to accomplish than they should have, although one would get probably used to it eventually.
The FX45 competed directly against heavy hitters like the BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne and Mercedes M-Class, with a just-over-$60,000 starting price. If nothing else, Infiniti's upscale sport-ute was one of the most eye-catching vehicles on the road and definitely drew a crowd when parked. It was also priced thousands of dollars less than its German rivals, which didn't hurt.
There are three safety recalls from Transport Canada to report. Two involve non-complying headlights and one deals with a fuel filler hose that could possibly crack and decay when exposed to ozone. This in turn may activate the malfunction indicator light on the dashboard and, in extreme cases, result in fuel vapour leakage and a potential fire hazard. Dealers will fix all three problems, gratis.
The U.S.-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has these three on file as well, with 19 technical service bulletins for the 2004 FX45.
Considering its overall sophistication and complex engineering, this is a surprisingly modest number, and many of these advisories are fairly minor in nature - mysterious noises from the front fender area, loose/squeaky bucket seats and body vibrations during hard braking, for example.
There are also several cooling and hydraulic system issues, as well as tire-pressure warning lights that won't always go off, to report for this year of the FX45.
As far as Consumer Reports is concerned, the 2004 FX45 is "a good bet," with top marks virtually across the board. No black marks anywhere, and it receives a "better-than-average" grade for predicted reliability.
One rather strange comment from Consumer Reports concerns the exhaust note, which they seem to think could be "tiresome." But what's tiresome to some ears is a symphony to others.
It should also be noted that the FX45 required premium gas, unlike its V6 stable-mate, the FX35, which would run happily on regular.
Price-wise, expect to pay about $20,000 to $27,000 for a five-year old Infiniti FX45 - almost a third of what it cost new.
2004 INFINITI FX45
Original Base Price: $60,200; Black Book Value: $26,075; Red Book Value: $19,725
Engine: 4.5-litre V-8
Horsepower/Torque: 315 hp/329 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 15.9 city/11.2 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: BMW X5 4.6iS, Porsche Cayenne, Mercedes ML500