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On The Road

Two definitions of 'SUV': Land Rover LR3 & Infiniti FX45 prove to be a contrast in st

Gary Anderson/Special to the Town Crier
The Infiniti FX45, offers 315 horsepower and can go from zero to 60 mph in a mere 6.3 seconds.

Suppose you have $50,000 in your vehicle-buying fund and are considering what to buy.

You've already eliminated sports cars as too impractical, sedans as too boring and station wagons as too last-century-suburban. This pretty much leaves you in sport-utility territory. And a very large territory it is.

Two SUVs we've driven this month - the new Land Rover LR3 and Infiniti FX45 - illustrate the range of choices you have at that price point.

Deciding which will suit you depends entirely on what you want to do with the vehicle (or at least what you want everyone to think you do with it), because both vehicles make clear image statements. Fortunately, each is worthy of its image.

If you want practicality and incredible off-road capability, the Land Rover LR3 is the best on the market.

On the other hand, if you want to enjoy a sporty drive to a B&B nestled in the mountains and still have room for several friends and luggage, then the Infinity FX45 is a good choice.

Just don't confuse the two. The LR3 isn't going to compete with a sports car on the road, and the FX45 will never handle rock crawling or steep muddy terrain.

But don't misunderstand: The Land Rover, with its Terrain Response ™ knob pointing to the pavement icon, is never going to get wrong-footed in reasonably spirited highway driving, and similarly, ice and snow isn't going to keep the Infiniti from getting to that ski lodge on the hill.

We're just saying that the designers of each of these vehicles have given up some capabilities in order to be the very best at the things they are really designed to do.

Let's start with the Land Rover LR3. Land Rover has always said that its vehicles will always be the best at meeting off-road challenges. That's the reason that Land Rovers have been the vehicle of choice for UN peace-keeping missions, arctic oil exploration teams, and tropical and desert explorers.

Taking the best features from the previous generation's upmarket Range Rover and technically-competent Discovery, and adapting an engine from its sibling Jaguar division, Land Rover has honored its heritage by creating the new LR3.

The new vehicle has the wheelbase, hauling capability and interior comfort of a Range Rover, and is good enough at serious off-road work to have been honored as Motor Trend's SUV of the Year for 2005.

The 300-horsepower, 4.4-liter Jaguar V-8 engine is capable of moving the LR3's 5,426 pounds down the road at 70 mph while only halfway to redline. With 315 pound-feet of torque, this powerful engine can get the LR3 to 60 mph in eight seconds, and is rated to tow an impressive 7,700 pounds.

While stretching the wheelbase, Land Rover has carried forward the sensible high greenhouse and other styling cues from the Discovery. As a result, the LR3 can carry up to seven adult passengers or, with the second-row seats and two rear jumpseats folded, 87 cubic feet of cargo.

We drove the LR3 on a variety of terrain at a recent off-roading event in Hollister Hills. Where other off-road four-wheelers have always required the driver to move several levers in different combinations to handle specific terrain, the LR3 has a simple knob that is dialed to icons for dry pavement, slippery pavement, ruts, sand, or rock, and the electronic transmission system takes care of selecting the proper gear and power ratios.

Descending steep slopes in the LR3 is confidence inspiring. Push the Hill Descent Button, take your feet off the brake and throttle, and the LR3 creeps slowly downhill at a steady 7 mph.

Vehicle height can be changed using the air suspension system; lowest for easy entry, regular for on-road driving and its maximum 9.5-inch clearance limit for serious off-road obstacles.

Surmounting standard off-road obstacles is easy. The electronic sensors stop any wheel that has lost traction, moving the power to the wheel that still has traction. Land Rovers have always been good at meeting these challenges; the LR3 just does so with less driver intervention.

But we were most impressed with how smooth and quiet it was on the road compared to other SUVs and even standard cars.

Using a new body-frame architecture that combines a unibody structure with a solid frame platform, and then underpinning it with the new Land Rover variable electronic air suspension, the LR3 has a ride quality comparable to that of luxury passenger sedans.

Our only complaint was that Land Rover may have erred too much on the side of the outdoorsy-workhorse image in the interior. Hard-edged styling, nubby rubber mats, lack of wood trim certainly make the point, but the flat, firm seat cushioning makes long trips pretty uncomfortable.

At the opposite extreme, the Infiniti FX45 is the quintessence of on-road performance in a large, imposing vehicle. Company wordsmiths and journalists have had to invent new phrases to describe it. The FX lineup is classified as "premium crossover SUV." The tagline on the price sticker is "the SUV with the heart of a sports car" and more than one journalist has defined it as "a fine luxury sport wagon."

In photos that don't offer any sense of scale, the FX45 has the look of sport coupes like the Nissan 350Z and Infiniti C35. That's no coincidence since the FX shares its chassis and suspension with these cars. But when you remember that those wheels are 20 inches in diameter, you begin to realize just how big it really is.

Powered by a 4.5 liter V-8 that puts out 315 horsepower, the FX45 can go from zero to 60 mph in an astounding 6.3 seconds. That will beat all but the best sports sedans on the market.

Just don't expect to do any serious towing. With only 280 pound-feet of torque, the FX45 is rated for 3,500 pounds. That will handle a trailer with Jet Skis, but won't manage a loaded horse trailer.

With its sport-tuned suspension, the FX45 is really good at carving up the curves on mountain backroads. We drove our test car up to the historic towns of Columbia and Murphys in Gold Country, in company with friends in their Mini-Cooper S, and we were able to match them turn for turn, even on the curviest driving roads in the area.

While we didn't really warm up to the emphatic exterior styling, we did like the interior a lot. With the nicely bolstered multi-adjustment seats, sporty leather steering wheel and gauge pod that moved with the electronically adjustable wheel, we could easily have believed we were sitting in a sports car.

The back seats recline, allowing tall adults to get comfortable, and an optional DVD system would keep children quiet as well as comfortable.

For the driving enthusiast who has a long drive to get a family of four or five up to the vacation resort or mountain lodge, by way of some scenic backroads, the FX45 would be a good vehicle in which to enjoy the trip.

Nevertheless, the 4,370 pounds of vehicle under us reminded us that this wasn't a sports car every time we went through a combination of fast turns. There was never a hint of suspension roll, but we could still feel the weight shifting under us in every transition.

That's the scary thing about these highly competent sport-brutes. Even with the all-wheel drive, if you hit a slick patch in a turn and all four wheels lose traction, that mass will slide. Too much speed on too tight a turn, and that mass will roll.

Besides the sense of mass in this car, our other complaint was with the ride. Back roads? Yes. Off-road? No.

Take this SUV off anything but the smoothest pavement and the stiff suspension and low-profile tires make it feel like one of those horse-drawn buckboards in the recreated Gold Rush town of Columbia. Even a few miles of dirt road into a mountain cabin would put a crimp in a weekend's pleasure.

Neither the LR3 or the FX45 is exceptional at gas mileage, with both rated only in the high teens. At least both have large tanks so you can go a long distance between gas station fill-up shocks.

The designers of both vehicles definitely have hit the bulls-eyes on their particular targets: the LR3 for off-road practicality and the FX45 for large-scale driving fun. Just don't make the mistake of buying one to use for the purpose of the other.

Now, if Land Rover could just have installed the seats from the FX45, or Infinity could have used Land Rover's air suspension, then we just might have the perfect off-road SUV for the driving enthusiast.

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