SAN DIEGO – Introduced in 2003, the Infiniti FX was an industry first as a fast and sleek cross/utility vehicle that emphasized sporty over utility.

“It was a breakthrough; there was nothing else like it at the time in that segment,” says John Weiner, director-product planning for Nissan North America Inc.’s Infiniti luxury division.

The FX was fast. And as a style statement featuring curvy lines, it looked more like a sports car than a typical CUV or SUV with a 2-box design.

But one drawback was the FX had the rough ride of a sports car, bumping along on uneven road surfaces. “Clearly it was a customer area we had to address,” Weiner says.

So, the redesigned ’09 FX features a smoother ride and higher level of impact absorption, due to a refined 4-wheel independent suspension with front double-wishbone and rear multi-link designs.

The new FX also is sleeker and more powerful.

The wheelbase has been stretched 1.4 ins. (3.5 cm), with the front wheels moved forward and out for a more pronounced stance. Other sports-car cues include a long hood, short overhangs and low center of gravity.

A creased profile line across the side metal is new. So are side air vents that are functional to meet European standards, not just for show.

There still are two engine choices. An all-new 390-hp 5.0L 32-valve DOHC V-8 option is more potent than the 4.5L mill it replaces. The standard engine is a 303-hp 3.5L 24-valve DOHC V-6. Both engines link to a 7-speed automatic transmission.

“We dialed up the driving options,” Weiner says.

The new vehicle also has an array of sensor-activated technology, such as:

  • Intelligent Brake Assist that provides collision warning and partial braking if a collision with the vehicle ahead is imminent.
  • Distance Control Assist that slows the vehicle to keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead in heavy traffic.
  • Land Departure Warning/Lane Departure Prevention that helps keep the FX in its travel lane.

Lest driving enthusiasts fret about turning over too much control to the vehicle itself, the systems can be turned off.

Going on sale in June, the ’09 FX comes in three models: FX50 with the 5.0L V-8 and all-wheel drive; FX35 with the 3.5L V-6 and AWD; and an FX35 with rear-wheel drive.

The vehicle isn’t big on cargo space. Other CUVs offer more. But Weiner says there’s enough to hold five golf bags (which seem to be auto makers’ new reference gauge when discussing storage capacity).

Interior amenities include a driver-oriented cockpit, standard leather seats, a 12-point sequential “welcome” lighting system and a greater use of maple trim.

Pricing is pending. The current model costs about $41,000.

A CUV with sports-car speed, relatively limited cargo space and a design that “may be a bit more form over function” might not be for everyone, Weiner says.

It’s for what Infiniti calls “progressive independents,” consumers who like trendy styles and show a rebellious “hint of the dark side” in their personalities.

Still, FX demographics skew toward professional and entrepreneurial men in their early 40s who are married and affluent – hardly members of the dark Goth subculture scene.

“They want a sexy, exciting car that turns heads but they need some functional utility,” Weiner says of FX customers. They also like their “high-technology toys,” he says.

The FX is a “phenomenal” vehicle, says Bill Stephens, general manager of Riverside (CA) Infiniti. “The FX has always done well in our market, and we’re excited about the new one and its changes.”

With the outgoing models, about nine of 10 FX buyers at Riverside went with the standard 3.5L engine, rather than opting for the 4.5L.

“They didn’t see that big of a difference for the extra money,” Stephens says. “But we think they will see the difference with the 5.0L. So we expect the FX50 to sell well. It is powerful and stands out, especially with the 21-in. (53-cm) wheels.”

During a test drive at a media preview outside San Diego, an FX35 with a V-6 engine was fast and responsive; the FX50 with the V-8 seemed rocket-powered.

The ride definitely has been smoothed out. And the vehicle’s low center of gravity fosters a nimbleness not usually associated with utility vehicles.

Loading the FX with technological features is great, but it also loads up the instrument panel and nearby environs with control switches, buttons and readings. It borders on looking cluttered, but the FX isn’t the only vehicle with that issue.

In what Weiner calls “a tough market,” Infiniti’s 6-vehicle lineup collectively sold 127,038 units in 2007, up 5,892 compared with 2006.

Infiniti dealers in the U.S. delivered 20,727 FX models last year, an 8.5% drop compared with like-2006, according to Ward’s data.

The overall luxury CUV segment peaked in 2004 with 428,273 unit sales, declined in 2005 and again in 2006, but rose to 410,391 units in 2007.

Infiniti predicts the segment will hit 534,600 sales this year and surpass 600,000 in 2011. “It’s a healthy segment, the second-largest in the luxury market,” Weiner says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com