words: Stu Fowle

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The new Infiniti EX35 isn't exactly a vehicle you'd expect to carry a bevy of new features and such an important mission - after all, isn't it just a taller, more utilitarian version of the G35 sedan released last year? Mechanically, that's mostly true. But philosophically, the EX takes a new approach for an Infiniti. That's because Infinitis are "man" cars - rumbly, fast, mean, technological chunks of steel and testosterone. I mean, have you seen a QX56? Or heard a G coupe run through the first few gears? For this family of boys, it's time to light up the "It's a Girl!" cigars - the EX35 has been born.

Saying the EX35 is a woman's car isn't completely accurate, either. Infiniti hopes that the new model will sell a modest 50/50 percentage between the sexes, meaning that the aim is to gain new customers without losing the current ones. Among the options that should promote that broadening are three new technologies. The much-touted Around View monitor uses four cameras to provide a panoramic view of the car's surroundings, which helps take the stress out of parallel parking. The display borders on being too small to be truly useful, but a mode that displays just the curbside camera will certainly save the edges of countless alloy wheels. Lane Departure Prevention probably has George Orwell turning in his grave, but it isn't as intrusive as you might fear. It's very judicious about when to intervene, and even then will defeat itself once any driver input is made. It also doesn't come on automatically, so the driver has full control - via a steering wheel-mounted button - of when to take advantage of the technology. The third feature, self-healing paint, wasn't testable in our short time with the car since the process takes between a day and a week (depending on temperature), but it promises to be useful to buyers who don't keep a can of NuFinish around the house. A resin in the clear coat allows slight fluidity, filling in surface scratches - but don't expect it to fix anything that involves the removal of paint pigment.

In person, it's a great-looking machine that's elegant enough to appeal to many women, yet sleek enough to sway male buyers from the BMW X3 or Acura RDX. Most people will call it an SUV, but it really looks more like a wagon. Its height of 61.9 inches supports that notion, since that's just 4.1 inches taller than a G35x, but 4.0 inches lower than a BMW X3. When an EX35 shows up in the rear view mirror, it'll be hard to discern whether it's a G sedan or not. The interior is stunningly close to that of the concept version revealed at the 2007 New York show, and it boasts material colors that are inspired by the seasons. Plenty of toys - a coat hanger that flips out from the rear of the front headrest, a 9.3 gigabyte Music Box hard drive, and a power folding split rear bench controllable from the driver's seat - make the cabin even more inviting, albeit for not-yet-announced prices.

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Like the larger FX, this new Infiniti offers one of the more sporting experiences one can get in a crossover. All Infinitis, save the QX56, ride on the same highly praised FM platform that also undergirds the Nissan 350Z sports car. With a weight range spreading from 3752 pounds for the base rear-wheel-drive model to 3953 for a fully loaded all-wheel-drive Journey model, the EX adds about 250 pounds to the weight of a G35 sedan with the same drive configuration. But no matter the drive wheels or heavy options, all EXs weigh in under the 4067-pound BMW X3 3.0i. The Acura RDX, at 3924 pounds, is a very close match on the scales. Even though a BMW is among the main competition, it is surprising that the EX is the only vehicle in the class offered in rear-wheel drive form.

The EX feels better than either the Acura or the Bimmer on the road. Compared with the front-biased Acura, the EX is better balanced and doesn't feel like an upscale Nissan, while the RDX does, at times, drive like a tarted-up Honda CR-V. The BMW X3's mid-cycle refresh fixed a lot of that vehicle's problems, but it still suffers from an overly harsh ride. By comparison, the EX35 is just about as good of a handler, without sacrificing ride quality.

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Driving the rear- and all-wheel drive models back-to-back, the differences are surprisingly noticeable. The steering systems aren't calibrated differently between the two, but without the added weight of the front-drive components, the wheel of the rear-driver feels lighter and quicker, making that of the all-wheel model feel like one pound weights are dangling from nine and three o'clock. The engine doesn't like the weight, either; the EX feels more energetic through turns and up hills with the 297-hp 3.5-liter VQ-series engine working just two wheels. Still, both models feel great through the ravines around Malibu, California. The rear of the two-wheel-drive EX, unlike the G sedan, never wants to step out, even when pushed hard through winding roads. Unless your daily commute is of the grueling "uphill both ways in a foot of snow" type that Grandpa Frank used to talk about, the rear-driver is the more enjoyable model, with price savings to boot. What's special about the EX is that it truly feels more like a tall wagon - รก la Subaru Outback - than an SUV. It makes the otherwise sporty FX seem confused in its purpose, being both bigger outside and more confined inside. The EX pulls off the sport hatch feel, albeit with a bit more height. I've never thought of myself as an SUV guy, but sitting behind the EX's steering wheel, I'm thinking "This makes sense. It's like a G35, but with more space. I could drive this."

The brakes support the EX's "don't call me a sport-ute" insistence. They come on strong early in the pedal travel, without that feeling they need to gain control of a bunch of top-heavy mass before the real stopping work can begin. It takes a lot to upset the chassis - under normal braking and acceleration, there's minimal dipping and diving. The EX just feels like it was built for balance and performance first, utility second. The lively suspension doesn't spring back like a G37 coupe, but that car is certainly a closer comparison than most sport-utes.

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Still, the EX did leave me wanting a little more. In an effort to instill some manners and thus create a wider audience, Infiniti has overpolished the EX's edges. It doesn't make that pissed-off "Bwwaaaaaar" noise that other Infinitis do - actually, it doesn't make much noise at all. Ahead of me on the Pacific Coast Highway, I can hear a G35 coupe before I can see it, and I wish that the EX would sing like that. The rear doesn't kick out when I mash the throttle. The gear selector doesn't rumble along to the beat of the engine. For the first time since the Q45 went under, Infiniti has built a vehicle that doesn't stink of muscle car sweat and adrenaline. It kills me that I still like it so much.

Pricing for the EX35 hasn't been announced, but Infiniti tells us the base will be "very close to the G35x," which starts at $34,100. An AWD Journey model loaded up with options should soar well into the range of numbers that start with four. That price buys a car that scores high in every tangible aspect, even if it isn't as emotionally available as we've come to expect Infinitis to be. Our fingers are crossed for a 6MT EX37 Sport to fill that role, and think that it is very possible once the dust has settled and Infiniti has won over a few from the distaff side of the house. Until then, the EX35 will be the most enjoyable small luxury crossover on the market, and we'll recommend it to our moms, our sisters, even our football buddies. Sometimes, concessions to the masses aren't such terrible things.