SANTA MONICA, CA – What if the Infiniti G sedan grew a rear hatch?

Well, it did, although Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s luxury unit wisely has chosen to call its new model the EX, no doubt making it an easier sale than the “G hatchback.”

Less there are doubts, the spirit of Infiniti’s best-selling midsize sport sedan is alive and well in the all-new’08 Infiniti EX35 compact cross/utility vehicle, the best attempt yet by an auto maker at dethroning BMW AG’s X3, which kicked off the performance-CUV craze in 2004 and continues to dominate the sector.

The EX has the same sinuous and sexy shape as its platform-mate, although all body panels are different from the G, a company spokesman says.

It also boasts the G35 sedan’s 3.5L VQ V-6 engine, winner of a Ward’s 10 Best Engines slot for 13 consecutive years.

In a mid-September test drive of the vehicle here, the EX is all G from behind the wheel, boasting the same tight, on-center steering and stiff, sporty pedals.

But the passenger seat offers a more sedate experience, as the G’s stiff suspension is relaxed for the EX, providing a softer but still sporty ride.

Infiniti has two new technologies available on the EX: Lane Departure Prevention (LDP), which will be available first on the refreshed M sedan debuting next month, and Around View Monitor (AVM).

Both are of some assistance, with LDP building on Infiniti’s existing lane departure warning system by using the vehicle’s stability control to correct lane drifts at speeds above 45 mph (72 km/h). This can be useful for drowsy drivers at night or early in the morning, but otherwise the constant dinging of the warning sound is an annoyance. Fortunately, it is controllable via a steering-wheel-mounted button.

AVM simulates an overhead view of the EX using four cameras. It is operable at speeds below 10 mph (16 km/h) and can be helpful in detecting obstacles when pulling in or backing out of parking spots. However, a quick look around the vehicle works just as well, and the blind-spot detection abilities of the side cameras would be more useful at higher speeds.

’08 Infiniti EX RWD
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel drive 4-door cross/utility vehicle
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6 with aluminum heads, block
Power (SAE net) 297 hp @ 6,800 rpm
Torque 253 lb.-ft. @ 4,800 rpm
Compression ratio TBA
Bore x stroke (mm) TBA
Transmission 5-speed automatic with manual mode
Wheelbase 110.2 ins. (280 cm)
Overall length 182.3 ins. (463 cm)
Overall width 71.0 ins. (180 cm)
Overall height 62.6 ins. w/ roof rails (159 cm)
Curb weight 3,790 lbs./1,719 kg
Base price range AWD version to begin around $34,000
EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg) 17/24 (13.8/9.8 L/100 km)
Market competition BMW X3, Acura RDX
Pros Cons
Fast and light on its feet... but AWD adds noticeable poundage
Gorgeous outside and in... except for "plumber's cracks
A driver's vehicle... but not so much of a people hauler

The EX is available in all- and rear-wheel drive. The weight difference, although just 163 lbs. (74 kg), is quite noticeable, as the RWD EX is much more sprightly on SoCal’s famed Pacific Coast Highway.

For all of its driving and styling pizzazz, a few faults come through, mainly the tiny backseat. Infiniti kindly carved out knee niches in the seatbacks to make the rear compartment a bit roomier, but it’s still cramped.

And although a luxury model, the EX’s rear hatch lacks a power function. Product planner Eijiro Fukai says the plastic tailgate’s light weight makes a traditional (i.e. heavy) motor unfeasible. Nissan, he says, is working on a smaller, lighter motor for such an application.

Infiniti, instead, prioritized power on the EX Journey trim’s second-row seats, he says, which gently fold by holding down a button, creating a nearly flat loading floor to haul larger items. The upward motion, oddly enough, is fast and violent, as the seatbacks are spring-loaded.

Unlike the cabin of the under-whelming Acura RDX, which boasts a lot of painted silver finishes, the Infiniti EX exhibits true luxury by using real aluminum trim (in conjunction with a black lacquer). Handsome maple-wood trim is optional.

Not as visually intriguing are three vertical indentations in the dash on the passenger side. Meant to mimic the look of a luxury sofa, they are more reminiscent of a plumber’s behind when he bends over.

A coat hanger integrated into the passenger headrest is a useful feature available in the Luxe Elite package.

The combination of its G lineage and luxury and performance attributes, plus the fact it’s being launched in a relatively new and growing near-luxury segment, means Infiniti should easily exceed EX’s sales goal of 20,000-25,000 units annually.

The new Infiniti EX35 goes on sale in the U.S. in late December.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com