26 Nov 2012

Driven - Infiniti FX Vettel Edition

Speedmonkey takes a test drive in the Infiniti FX Vettel Edition and the FX50

Infiniti have brought their FX Vettel Edition over to the UK and, in timely fashion, I got to test drive it the day after Sebastian Vettel won his third Formula 1 World Drivers Championship.  I also drove the Infiniti FX50 on which the Vettel is based so was able to compare the two.

The vehicle itself is presented as a crossover SUV which basically means it's neither car nor SUV but a hybrid (not in that sense) of the two.  In that regard it succeeds.  The chassis and suspension of both FX50 and FX Vettel provide an excellent basis for a sporty grand tourer.  The fact it is taller than a saloon or sports car doesn't seem to affect the handling to a great extent.

The standard FX shape follows the form of other Infinitis with a handsome rear end and flanks and a good sense of overall proportion.  The front end and bonnet area aren't quite so good looking with a bonnet that crests in the middle and two distinct humps over the wheel arches.  The shape of the front end is almost BMW-like and I'm not sure I like it.

The body of the Vettel Edition is the same as the rest of the FX range but poking out from underneath at the front and back is more carbon fibre than the HRT team can afford to put in their F1 cars.  Diffusers, winglets and scoops channel air under the car to improve downforce by 30%.  Great on track but not so on a rainy afternoon in Reading.  Presumably this accounts, in part, for the £40,000 hike in price over the FX 50.  The carbon fibre isn't exactly classy but it does add a sense of sporting purpose to the car.

The FX 50's interior is generally a pretty classy place to be but the Vettel uses carbon fibre and Alcantara extensively which works well to create a dark, sporty ambience.  The seats are firm and supportive, and are adjustable to fit anyone from a tiny F1 driver through to someone with much larger proportions.

Where Alcantara and carbon fibre aren't used some of the other materials are of questionable quality.  Across their entire range Infiniti use a mix of quality materials and cheap plastics and some of those plastics, which are meant to resemble leather but fail miserably, are still found in the Vettel - which is disappointing.  In particular the steering column housing is a thin plastic affair.

All Infinitis are started with a button - the key stays in your pocket.  The 5 litre V8 in the FX50 makes almost no noise at tickover but fire the FX Vettel and you're greeted with a roar almost the equal of a Jaguar XKR-S.  According to the PR, Infiniti in Japan don't like the FX Vettel because of the noise it makes - they prefer their cars quiet.  But UK and US customers will love the sound it makes - a full, meaty, guttural V8 din.

The controls are all light to the touch.  The steering wheel, leather in both cars but with blue stitching in the Vettel is quite small and sits slightly too high to be perfect.  The gearbox is a 6-speed semi-automatic and works so well in automatic mode that there's no need to use the paddles.  If you did find yourself using the paddles you would end up frustrated because they're attached to the steering column rather than the wheel so you've no chance of changing gear halfway round a tight corner.

The 5 litre V8 produces 420bhp and does 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds.  The chassis, suspension and all wheel drive easily cope with the power.  It doesn't jar and crash over bumps and potholes and imperfections in the road are soaked up well.  The massive 21" wheels in the FX50 do clonk a bit but the BBS wheels in the Vettel are 3.5kg lighter which reduces this somewhat.  The four pot brakes give good feedback and feel and pull the car to a stop quickly without any hint of fade.

Find a motorway slip-road, floor the throttle and the FX Vettel Edition reacts instantly.  Acceleration is linear, gearchanges taking an instant - although use the paddles and it's reaction is too long for a car of this price.  Otherwise the car handles any road well.  In fact so sorted is the chassis it belies it's hefty weight - over 2,000kg.

Nearing the end of my drive I found myself sitting at a set of traffic lights.  The daylight was fading and rain clouds were putting an end to what little light was available.  It felt good sitting in the FX Vettel Edition.  The interior is a great place to be, despite the odd piece of cheap plastic, and the engine at tickover growls like a large dog warding away intruders.  It's fast away from the lights and the driving experience is more than acceptable, albeit not exactly involving.  The driver is too cosseted, too insulated to really feel connected to the FX Vettel Edition.

Infiniti are only making 150 FX Vettel Editions worldwide.  The car I drove was left hand drive but 10 are coming to the UK with right hand drive.  No doubt all 150 will sell but that's not the point.  This is a halo car - an advert for the rest of the FX range.

The FX is compared to the Cayenne and Range Rover but feels much smaller, lower and sportier.  It's handling is much better than the outgoing Range Rover - and the Sport.  It disguises it's weight well.  The FX is a perfectly fine car.  The Vettel Edition even more so.  I'm just not sure how the UK market will take it when faced with such stiff competition.  The price is high.  The standard range costs from £47,000 to £58,000 on the road and the Vettel costs £100,800, although this rises to £105,000 with the de rigeur carbon rear spoiler.

Time will tell if Infiniti, and the FX is a success.  The company have just been announced as co-title sponsors of the Red Bull F1 team, so from 2013 it will be known as Infiniti Red Bull F1 Team, and the resultant publicity will certainly sell a few units.

I would reservedly recommend the FX, or the FX Vettel Edition if you're prepared to spend the extra cash, but feel if they upgraded some of the cheaper materials and smoothed out the bonnet somewhat it would be a better car.

Production of the FX Vettel Edition is due to start on 1 February 2013 in a new assembly hall in Bottrop, Germany.  Each car is hand built and takes 320 man hours.  All 150 will be constructed by mid-June.  Orders are being taken now, with the first being destined for Sebastian Vettel himself.

FX Vettel Edition Specifications:

Price - £100,800 OTR, Engine - 5026cc V8, Power - 420bhp, Torque - 383lb/ft, Fuel consumption - 21.6mpg (combined), Emissions - 307g/km C02, 0-62mph - 5.6 seconds, Top speed - 155mph (limited)

FX50 Specifications:

Price - £58,000 OTR, Engine - 5026cc V8, Power - 390bhp, Torque - 370 lb/ft, Fuel consumption - 21.6mpg (combined), Emissions - 307g/km C02, 0-62mph - 5.8 seconds, Top speed - 155mph (limited)

FX50 Steering column shroud
Note - all images used courtesy of Infiniti - the weather was too miserable to take any photos myself