Pros: Opulent interior; nimble handling for its size

Cons: Slo-o-o-w power hatch; no automatic three-flash turn signal

What's New: The Infiniti JX is an all-new model.

Three-row luxury crossover SUVs have been a license to print money for brands like Acura, Audi, and Buick; they all make posh seven-seaters that are popular with consumers and reviewers alike.

These aren't ponderous truck-based SUVs like the Lexus LX570, the Cadillac Escalade and the Lincoln Navigator. No, these machines that are built on the foundation of front-wheel-drive cars. They give drivers a smoother ride and better gas mileage while packing as much or even more space inside.

Infiniti realized that the company was leaving money on the table by offering just its slow-selling truck-based QX56 behemoth, so it cranked out the smooth-as-a-politician JX35. That doesn't mean the JX is a hurried, halfhearted effort: the JX hits a bull's-eye on the crossover target, deftly combining a cushy ride with snappy handling and seamless power. It's also easy on gasoline for a seven-seater with all-wheel drive.

Comfort & Utility

The trade journal Ward's Automotive has already named the JX35 to its 10 Best Interiors list, even though the Infiniti just arrived in showrooms this spring. The vehicles on that acclaimed list earn their positions, so it is a tribute to Infiniti that the JX is recognized alongside the Audi A7, the Chrysler 300 and the Range Rover Evoque.

The cabin is lavishly finished in the wood and leather expected of vehicles in this price range, and there is plenty of cleverness displayed, too. Like many premium vehicles, the JX35 offers seat coolers in addition to seat heaters. And, on the JX, the seat coolers aren't a gimmick. They actually do chill your rear on sweltering days.

Normally kids are left to pretend they are assaulting an obstacle course when clambering into an SUV's way-back seats, and adults try hard never to go there. In the JX, the middle-row seats conveniently fold and slide forward simultaneously for truly easy access to the third-row seats. There's also plenty of space and ample luxury amenities. But a trade-off of the easy-fold second-row seat design is poor thigh support. Adults aren't going to be thrilled by long trips in the middle-row seats, but kids in infant or booster seats will never know the difference.

The enormous panoramic skylight should minimize claustrophobia among the passengers by bringing a generous amount of light inside the JX.

The only botched amenity is the absurdly slow power-operated hatch. Manual operation is faster and easier for anyone who isn't wrestling to control a wriggling toddler and a grocery bag full of eggs.

Technology

Technology is expected in luxury vehicles, and it is abundant in the JX. As a family hauler, some of that tech is in the form of rear-seat entertainment, and we found the system worked well. Some systems seem designed to confound their operators, and parents end up listening to Dora the Explorer playing through the stereo speakers because they can't figure out how to route sound just to the headphones. In the JX, setting the various audio and video sources was simple and quick, which is always appreciated.

And the vehicle includes both wireless headphones and headphone jacks for the wired kind, so you don't have to buy more wireless headphones when you have a full car, and can use your iPod earbuds if the batteries are dead in the included wireless headphones.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The laws of physics dictate that no vehicle that weighs 4,419 pounds and powers all four wheels is going to sip gas while carrying seven occupants. But EPA ratings of 18 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway for the all-wheel-drive version (24 mpg for front-wheel drive) are best in the class.

So, too, is the acceleration, considering the relatively small 3.5-liter V6 engine churning out 265 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. If the rest of the front-wheel-drive car-based platform is a bit of a departure for Infiniti, so is the transmission, which is one of Nissan's signature continuously variable automatics.

These are not renowned as responsive driver's transmissions, so a CVT could be expected to be a big letdown in an Infiniti. But Nissan is continuing to perfect the state of the CVT art, so that the transmission is barely discernable from a conventional automatic. You can't really tell it is a CVT, and it helps this big vehicle get reasonable gas mileage, so it has to be considered a benefit.

Safety

The JX includes side air curtains and brake assist as standard equipment beyond the required airbags and electronic stability control. Choose the optional Technology package, and you get backup collision intervention, intelligent brake assist with forward collision warning, blind spot warning and intervention and lane departure warning and intervention. The Premium package, which costs almost $5,000, adds the impressive Around View monitor, which shows everything surrounding the car on the video screen and should help prevent driveway accidents. Even better, the system has moving object detection and front and rear sonar, so should a child or pet scoot into your path, the JX will alert you. It is a very comprehensive group of safety technologies that protects not only the vehicle occupants but also people around the car.

The JX hasn't been crash tested yet by either the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Driving Impressions

The JX35 is a great-driving vehicle that actually feels smaller on the road than its fairly immense actual size. Squeezing into small parking spaces is really the only time that the JX's size becomes apparent from behind the wheel.

The thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel provides exemplary feel and feedback. That's welcome in a world in which power steering seems to be getting worse rather than better.

Throttle calibration is smooth and progressive, with no jumpiness as you ease into the gas. That, combined with the lack of gear changes from the CVT, makes the JX impressively serene in traffic around town. The JX is a fantastic vehicle for hauling the family in comfort and style. It's an instant contender in the luxury crossover segment.

Other Cars to Consider

Acura MDX- Acura's bread-and-butter vehicle is comfortable, smooth and loaded with amenities, so its popularity is no surprise.

Audi Q7- Audi continues to expand its presence in the luxury market with a benchmark crossover. The diesel version offers amazing fuel economy, but with a pricey bottom line.

Buick Enclave- Buick's return to relevance began with the Enclave, and it continues to be a spacious, comfortable luxury family hauler with a 24-mpg EPA highway rating.

Mercedes-Benz GL450- No brand does prestige the way Mercedes does, so if you need a family vehicle to park outside the club, the GL350 is your choice.

AutoTrader Recommends

The all-wheel-drive JX35 we tested was packed with nearly all the available goodies, running up its sticker from a base price of $41,550 to $55,170, including $950 in destination charges. Considering the price of the competition in this segment-as well as the appealing option packages that include navigation, DVD entertainment and intelligent brake assist-that isn't bad. But a price-conscious driver who wants the extra 1 mpg could choose the front-wheel-drive version and add only the Technology package. That would get you the critical safety features, including brake assist, forward collision warning, blind spot warning and lane departure warning and prevention, for a total of $44,500.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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