Lumping the EX35 in with other “small cars” is a bit of a stretch. We know the Mini Cooper is small because you have to fold yourself into a ball to get inside. And the Smart Fortwo is so small you can use it as a doorstop. The Infiniti EX35 is not exactly small, since it measures about 15 feet long and weighs 3,764 pounds. Yet, the vehicle has a few important upgrades for the 2011 model year and a couple of new colors. It is also just a blast to drive, especially if you use the manual shift. The fact that Infiniti offers several tech features as standard offerings makes the deal even sweeter, even if we ended up liking the sportier Volvo C30 a bit more.
Actually, the EX35 is not really in the same small category as the C30 either. It’s more of a crossover-hatchback hybrid that maybe falls in line better with something like the BMW X3 – and frankly looks very similar. Yet, inside, the EX35 drives like it is meant for careening down some lonely country lane and taking corners at fairly ludicrous speeds. (Ahem, not that we would know anything about that.)
Refined inside and out
It all starts with the interior. Like the Infiniti M37x, the EX35 has that cocooning cockpit feel. You slip in and the car just feels right. There are faux maple wood accents and a leather steering wheel and shift knob, something that you may not notice right away but might appreciate compared to the hard plastic used on so many other cars. The lighting inside, especially the “electroluminescent” gauges, have that extra luxury look that makes the car worth the higher price tag (our test car is priced at $46,605 but the base price is $35,150 – or much closer to the X3.)
The exterior styling is not as pronounced as the M37x we tested. It’s only slightly bulbous and has more of a hatchback look, more in line with the Nissan Rogue. That’s a style that many people find appealing – it is new and fresh. Indeed, during our test, several people walked up and said they loved the style. A few tried to pry the car keys away (not really) and a few just smiled in approval.
Pick a speed, any speed
We’re jumping right to the driving experience here, because that is the real draw with this sporty hatchback. Interestingly, even though we drove the 2010 EX35 around this time last year, we had more fun in the 2011 model. Maybe it is because Infiniti fine-tuned the engine. It now has a 7-speed transmission. From a standing position, the EX35 doesn’t exactly lurch forward, and we’re not going to say the upper gears pack as much power as, say, the BMW 5-Series. Truth be told, switching from a 5-speed to a 7-speed might be a technical improvement. The real reason the EX35 begs you to drive fast is due to the cockpit feel. Like the C30, you feel one with the car as you twist around a corner or beat the next soccer mom to a parking spot.
Small car, big technology
Interestingly, the EX35, even though it falls in line with all Infiniti models as a luxury car, is quite possibly the smallest car to have so many full-size sedan tech features. (By the way, Ford is doing the same thing with the new 2012 Focus, which has self-park, touchscreen navigation, and a way to share a 3G card over in-car Wi-Fi.) You might be surprised to find out that the EX35 has not just a lane-keeping feature (although the beeping gets a little annoying) but, like the M37x, will also nudge you back into your lane slightly. The EX35 also has adaptive cruise control, which adjusts your speed for the car in front of you. And, there is a blind-spot warning system.
Perhaps the coolest feature, one that is about the same as the 2010 model and very similar to what you will find in a BMW 5-Series, is an around-the-car camera system. The cameras are actually at about waist height under the mirrors, and in the front grills and rear hatch, but to the driver, it looks like a bird’s-eye view of the road. Like the BMW 5, this helps you judge the car’s position next to other vehicles in a parking lot and also helps you back-up and keep your eye on the road.
The EX35 has a few other tech features that will help you stay safe on the road. One is a snow setting – it is located next to the shifter. This feature is not that high-tech: it basically limits the throttle when you get stuck to give you a slow creep out of a sticky situation. The EX35 uses AWD for normal driving and adjusts wheel speed and applies brakes slightly to help you stay straight. Unfortunately, this AWD option, available in some models, did not really work right. There is a trade-off between the small car size and the sporty pizzazz and the shorter wheelbase. In practice, it meant the EX35 didn’t exactly zigzag on the road, but never felt secure on snow.
Another interesting tech feature: the headlights turn around curves in the road, but not because of any special road-recognition system. The lamps are just linked with the steering wheel (like several Mazda cars). For some bonus fun, as you turn around a corner, you can jut the steering wheel back and forth to make the headlights dance on the road – and probably annoy every other nearby driver.
Infiniti has not added a bevy of new features for this model year, and they have stuck with a size and technical features that make the EX35 appealing for a small crossover. We just had fun driving this car, which is not true about every vehicle we test. Using the manual shift, which works better than most, makes the EX35 even more enjoyable on the road. The full tech package on our test car did add $2,700 to the bottom line, so we do recommend asking about how much the tech features actually cost, but several are included with the base model, including the traction and stability control.
More luxury than sport
Is this the car for you? Depending on what you really want in a smaller car, we will say that the C30 was lower to the road and felt sportier. Compared to most smaller cars, though, the EX35 is definitely a huge step up in quality and fun.