Most humans are fascinated by fast, gargantuan vehicles. I’m not going to argue the point here but there is something uniquely satisfying about piloting an SUV in peak-hour traffic while looking down at the rabble of plebeians as they scamper home in their medium-sized tin cans like a trail of worker ants. Defined by a brutish body kit, an enormous V8 layout up front, a gigantic wheel at each flexing corner and a soundtrack capable of shattering windows, the two SUVs we’ve gathered here were conceived to intimidate. Joining the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 in this comparative test is a newcomer to the South African market – the Infiniti FX50 S. It’s still got a lot to prove but with a thundering 5.0-litre V8 lying under the bonnet and a premium badge stamped on the grille, it probably won’t be long before it joins the Grand Cherokee as a government fleet acquisition…
The Jeep’s scalloped figure presents an imposing contrast to the grungy, industrial backdrop of Cape Town’s Paarden Eiland business area. Its block-like proportions give it a truly menacing stance, almost as if it’s been chiselled entirely from granite by Thor himself. Measuring 20 inches in diameter, the wheels do a great job of offsetting the cherry-red Brembo clampers, but it’s the inclusion of an aggressively defined sledgehammer-like SRT8 body kit and 25mm suspension drop that really sets it apart from the regular Grand Cherokee. Naturally, the front bumper profits from two air dams and obligatory daytime running LEDs, while the bonnet gets a pair of extractor vents for cooling purposes – there is, after all, a huge V8 lump resting under the clamshell hood. Although two large 100mm tailpipes, a rear diffuser and the unmistakeable SRT8 emblem dominate the rear view, it still bears a resemblance to the Toyota Fortuner…
The overall styling of the Infiniti FX50 S represents a departure from conventional SUV rhetoric. It’s more of a cross-over than anything else with whispers of hatchback, coupe and SUV apparent throughout its composition. That said, it does bear hallmarks of the Infiniti family face with its double-arch grille and ‘wave-form’ bonnet, while the uniquely-shaped headlamps point towards the G37 coupe. As is the case with most cross-overs, the proportions of the FX aren’t very glamorous – the large, coupe-like bonnet and hatchback rear-end give it a somewhat ungainly physique. However, it did prove very popular out on the road, causing the same kind of rubber-necking you’d expect to see in a Roger Federer/Andy Murray grand slam tennis final. The only real reference of aggression comes in the form of the monstrous 21-inch six-spoke alloy wheels and chrome extractor vents aft of the front wheelarch. The Infiniti-branded silver brake calipers add a touch of class.
From the moment you slide behind the leather-clad wheel and soak up the ambience of its suave interior, it’s clear that the Infiniti is geared more towards luxury than outright sportiness. All the seats feature high grade leather as standard while the piano-black accents of the facia’s centre stack and the bespoke analogue clock add a drop of elegance. As expected, climate control, a high resolution touch-screen central display, a hard-drive navigation system, Lane Departure Warning (LDW), Lane Departure Prevention (LDP) and an 11-speaker high-quality Bose sound system are included in the sticker price.
Make no mistake, the SRT8’s cabin isn’t short of sumptuous touches. Sure, as we will see, the refinement might not be in the same league as the Infiniti but the cabin does reflect the athleticism of the aggressively tempered exterior sheet metal. Get comfy in the acutely bolstered sports seats and you’ll notice the many slats of carbon fibre and aluminium-look trim that run rampant across the facia and door panels. There’s also a fair amount of SRT badging at play that reinforce the extraordinary nature of this particular Grand Cherokee. The cockpit, however, is not without fault, the most annoying foible being the foot-operated park brake. I’m particularly baffled as to why certain manufacturers still opt to use such a counter intuitive set-up, especially since its position can obstruct leg movement and chafe the shin in certain circumstances.
SUVs aren’t meant to be this fast are they? Sheesh, the SRT8 is absurdly quick for its size. And it should be – the Chrysler group only places the prestigious Street Racing Technology badge on its most track-focused creations. It’s no wonder then that the local launch took place at the Kyalami race track. Under the bonnet resides one of the largest-capacity lumps currently on the market, a charismatic 6.4-litre V8 Hemi that’s good for 344kW and 624Nm of rotational force. This amount of power enables the Jeep to overcome its 2360kg kerb weight and stampede to 100kph in a blistering 5.49 seconds, placing it amongst the fastest-accelerating SUVs in the world. Accessed via a five-speed transmission, the big mill is a feral unit and emits one of the most intoxicating V8 rumbles around. But there is a snag … the Jeep has a tendency to drink a frightening amount of petrol. As a vehicle of mass consumption, the fuel figure will easily soar beyond 20ℓ/100km if you don’t mollycoddle the throttle pedal. This means you’ll drive it more like a septuagenarian with arthritis than Dan Kgothule on his way to a parliamentary dinner. Overcome your fear for splurging on juice however, and the Jeep is a ballistic machine. The Selec-Trac rotary controller lets you tailor the driving experience with the choice of five settings: Auto, Sport, Track, Snow and Tow. Track mode is obviously the most entertaining mode, dialling-in more aggression to the steering and transmission, adaptive suspension, throttle response, stability and traction controls as well as differential behaviour.
We did not expect the FX50 S to beat the SRT8 in the acceleration department but it did surprise us. The 5.0-litre V8 engine may be 1.4-litres less in cubic capacity but it still manages to daub all of its 287kW and 500Nm onto the road pretty efficiently thanks to the seven-speed transmission. The autobox boasts adaptive shift control that adjusts shift algorithms based on how the car is driven and the paddle shifters allow the driver to shift manually if the need arises – think Sebastian Vettel. Get it? Sure, cog-swopping isn’t as seismic as in the Jeep but progress is brisk and culminates in a 6.02-seconds 0-100kph sprint and a top speed of 250kph – 5kph shy of the SRT8. Keep the pedal flattened and the FX50 will reel in the quarter-mile in 14.18 seconds.
So it’s quick, but how impressive does the V8 sound? Of course it’s not as audacious as the Jeep’s fiery lump but the soundtrack is sonorous enough to whet the appetite of the staunchest of performance aficionados. The addition of two extra gears enabled the FX50 to trounce the Jeep’s 13.5ℓ/100km fuel consumption figure with an impressive 11.2ℓ/100km over exactly the same terrain.
Piloting two tonnes-plus of brawny SUV is never going to be an easy exercise especially when changing direction at speed, but both the Jeep and Infiniti handle exceptionally well for their size. Of the two, it’s the Infiniti that pleases most when thrust through a length of twisting Tarmac, responding as diligently to steering inputs as a hot hatch. The Nissan-honed four-wheel steering set-up is accurate on turn-in and weights-up nicely as you feed in speed. The FX corners confidently but that’s partly due to the Continuous Damping Control (adjustable via a button located near the gear selector) and the all-wheel drive system. But there is a catch: the ride quality is hard and road noise appreciably prominent as a result of the big tyres.
The ride quality of the broad-shouldered Jeep is far superior to the Infiniti’s but the SRT8 can’t mask its weight in the corners like it does in a straight line, even with Selec-Trac turned to Track mode. Yes, this mode does stiffen the Bilstein adaptive damping at both ends and quells body roll, but it never seems to shrink around you like in the Infiniti. That said, the permanent all-wheel drive system and grippy tyres do supply loads of traction but the steering lets it down I’m afraid. Feedback from the wheel is of an adequate nature but the lack of feel at greater speeds deprives the driver of ultimate involvement.
As a new brand Infiniti still has a fair bit to prove to the buying public, especially in terms of long-term reliability and the longevity of the product in South Africa. Despite its terse stint in SA back in the 1990s, it should deliver the goods if the corporate infrastructure of its sister brand Nissan is anything to go by. Get over the initial awkwardness of the FX’s styling and you’ll be rewarded by one of the better performing SUVs around – the steering and handling characteristics are just superb, almost sports car-like in their execution. Pricing isn’t bad, either: at R856000 the Infiniti FX50 S is cheaper than segment stalwarts such as the Porsche Cayenne S and BMW X5 xDrive50i, but it still can’t beat the R799990 price tag of the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
It really is hard to ignore the value the Jeep represents in terms of outright performance, luxury and style. The brand’s reputation as a status vehicle appears to have been strengthened even further by the addition of the flagship SRT8 model. A total of 198 Grand Cherokees were purchased in August 2012, trouncing the Infiniti FX by 183 sales.
The Jeep wins this duel – it was an easy decision in the end. Yes, there are concerns about the Jeep’s perceived quality but the entire package is insurmountable. Besides, the 6.4-litre V8 Hemi will put a smile on your face every time you exercise your right ankle.