By Andy Stonehouse, for Utah Rides
There are two kinds of people in this world, I’ve discovered: People who actually enjoy driving, even in crummy traffic, and those who see cars and trucks as an appliance, like a dishwasher: a means to an end, a way to get from place to place, and nothing more.
That said, what I’m about to reveal about the slightly ominous and Big Brother-ish future of automobiles will probably be of less appeal to you car fans and of more appeal to those who hate driving. I apologize, thusly.
Two of the most futuristic-looking, new-school, light-duty SUV/crossovers on the market appeared to me in rapid succession, and while they ended up being priced about the same, they couldn’t be more different. Except for that whole Orwellian accident-prevention angle, which they both share.
A brand new creation, Infiniti’s JX35 occupies an unusual middle-ground position between two of the Nissan luxury line’s different concepts.
It’s nearly the same length and offers the same seven-passenger capacity as the twice-as-tall, utterly behemoth QX56, but it looks more like a stretched and modified FX crossover.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK350 is a smaller, more rugged-looking crossover that’s been on the market for a few years and has been given more power and some minor overall tweaks, but is strictly a two-row-only deal.
Both have base prices close to $40,000 but once the bells and whistles start piling on, the Infiniti I drove – front-wheel drive and featuring a continuously variable transmission – was sneaking past $55K, while the all-wheel drive GLK, with more output from its 3.5-liter V6 than the bigger Infiniti, finished off at about $54K.
That’s a lot of coin for a couple of substantial but not Suburban/Expedition-sized family haulers and light offroaders, so what’s the big deal, besides space-age looks and two of the nicest interiors you’ll find in the industry?
Both, I think, might be aimed at the “I don’t really like to drive, but I do at least like a nice-looking car” market. Also, the “I don’t believe that shoulder-checking is necessary” demographic.
For the JX boasts an optional technology package that’s evidently got the most distracted drivers on the planet firmly in mind. The blend of rear, side and front cameras, radar and other sensors work together to create a virtual force field that surrounds the vehicle (even the button controlling this on the steering wheel you gives that idea). And that force field will intercede on your behalf, which the more “I really do like to drive my own car, by myself” folks may find a little freaky.
To the rear, Infiniti has taken the rear-traffic warnings first found on Chrysler minivans and refined it as Back-Up Collision Intervention, which will spot cars or kids coming from the side in a parking lot and quite actively poke the brakes for you, if you do not.
Up front, the Forward Collision Warning system sends out radar feelers and, when activated, will also not-so-subtly stomp on the brakes when you get too close to other vehicles in traffic, even at freeway speeds. And not just in cruise control mode. I mean, really stomps on the brakes.
I thought this was all a little much for my liking, but then I drove the Mercedes, with its own $2,950 Driver Assistance Package, and it took things even further.
Both cars have active blind spot (the blinky lights in the mirrors we’ve come to find on nearly every mid-level vehicle on the planet) and lane assist systems; when activated, both cars will now slightly brake for you if you cross over the painted lines on the highway to veer you back into the proper position.
This wasn’t quite as big an issue on the Infiniti, but on the smaller Mercedes, it was positively jarring when it happened – lights, a colored display on the instrument panel, audio warnings and then a big ol’ jolt on the brakes. Mercedes’ system also scans the road ahead but its Pre-Safe Brake system wasn’t quite as obvious as that.
The upshot is the most obvious safety aids that I’ve ever experienced. Among the tired, the distracted and the disinterested crowds, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.
Otherwise, both vehicles are rather sterling examples of the evolving automotive experience, though neither gets spectacular gas mileage in the process.
JX rides comfortably and confidently, not as overbearingly as its larger cousin, though the one standard engine choice makes 265 not-exactly tire-smoking horsepower, and the continuously variable transmission (the powertrain is shared with the new Pathfinder) does have some genuine moments of slackness during more aggressive acceleration.
The JX is indeed still a substantial vehicle, though not overly tall, which makes it easy to simply open the door and sit comfortably in the leathery seats, versus climbing up on a ladder to mount the car. Second- and even third-row seating is large and comfortable (no half-sized kiddie seats) and slide-ahead access makes it pretty easy to get in and out; the whole shebang can also be largely flattened for larger objects. There are two sunroofs, a larger one in the back for all those rear passengers.
JX’s design features the same broad chrome grille and wide nose as fellow Infiniti products, and a much longer, chrome-edged set of side windows that finishes with a Zorro-inspired curve at the back of the cabin. And the floor line features aerodynamic plastic trim that juts out like it does on a Range Rover Sport.
Finishings are totally up to Infiniti standards, with polished hardwood, sumptuous leather, intricate but ultimately easy-to-use instruments and knobs and buttons. There’s a full suite of new dial-up concierge services, plus Infiniti Connection with Google Calendar and Zagat restaurant ratings on the navigation system.
The GLK hasn’t changed remarkably; a more aggressive front grille mimics the looks of those hyper-powered AMG models, and on the inside, the large, circular jet-engine styled air vents on the console do modify the look.
The Mercedes’ 3.5-liter V6 has been bumped up to 302 horsepower and is matched with a whisper-smooth seven-speed transmission. Wheel-mounted paddles can help you drop a gear or three to slow you down during a big downhill descent; some drivers will be absolutely flummoxed by the odd, German-styled automatic gear selector stalk, but you’ll get used to it.
As a minor concession to the 21 combined MPG it generates, the GLK is also equipped with the ECO Stop/Start system, which kills the engine at a full traffic stop and then restarts it when you let off the brake.
2013 Infiniti JX35 AWD
MSRP: $41,550: As tested: $55,170 Powertrain: 265-HP 3.5-liter V6 engine, continuously variable transmission
EPA figures: 20 combined MPG: 18 city, 23 highway
2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK350 4Matic
MSRP: $39,090: As tested: $53,545 Powertrain: 302-HP 3.5-liter V6 engine, 7-speed automatic transmission
EPA figures: 21 combined MPG: 19 city, 24 highway