More and more people are "crossing over" to crossovers from traditional SUVs. These car-based wagons are easier on gas than a truck-based SUV, handle more like a regular car - but are roomier inside and can usually carry more stuff than a regular car.

Almost all of them have one big downside, however.

That downside is that most are based on a front-wheel-drive layout, usually with an all-wheel-drive system of some kind available optionally. Nothing wrong with that, if you mainly want better traction in the wet and snow. But if you want rear wheel drive (with a RWD-based AWD system) and superior RWD handling and balance - you're pretty much out of luck.* *

One of the handful of exceptions to this rule is Infiniti's rear-drive-based EX35

WHAT IT IS

The EX35 is a medium-small, five-door hatchback luxury-sportwagon with two rows of seating and a cargo area behind that - aka, a "crossover" - that differs from others like it mainly in being built on a rear-wheel-drive (instead of front-wheel-drive) layout. It offers performance/handling closer to a RWD sport sedan than other otherwise similar crossover wagons.

WHAT"S NEW

The EX35 was introduced for 2009 as a brand-new model so there are only a few tweaks here and there for 2010. Prices start at $33,800 for the base RWD version and run to $37,400 for a top-of-the-line Journey version with AWD.

WHAT'S GOOD

Rear wheel drive layout delivers sportier driving feel than front-drive-based crossovers. Standard V-6 is as strong as some V-8s. Very quick; very sharp reflexes. More fun to drive than a BMW X3 and doesn't cost nearly as much as the BMW does.

WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD

No manual transmission option - a shame given the otherwise unimpeachable performance vehicle bona fides the EX brings to the table.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The EX comes standard with a 297 hp 3.5 liter V-6 and five-speed automatic transmission - period. The EX's V-6 is one of the strongest standard (and even optional) engines available in a vehicle in this class/price range.

0-60 happens in about 6.3 seconds.

These stats (297 hp; 0-60 in just over six seconds) beat the one competitor that's most similar to the EX in layout, the BMW X3.

Like the Infiniti, the BMW X3 is based on a rear-drive (3-series sedan) layout. But its standard 3 liter straight six is considerably less potent (260 hp, or almost 40 less than the Infiniti brings to the table) and its price tag ($39,700) is almost six grand higher to start. The one advantage the BMW does have, as far as performance stuff goes, is that it comes standard with a six speed manual transmission.

The Infiniti is automatic-only.

The BMW also comes standard with AWD (which partially justifies its higher price point).

Gas mileage for the RWD version of the EX35 is 17 city, 24 highway - slightly better than the heavier, less powerful X3 (16 city, 23 highway).

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS/RIDE & HANDLING

The difference in agility between the EX35 and other FWD/AWD crossovers and truck-based SUVs is apparent as soon as you start driving the thing faster than the (under)posted speed limit, in curves especially. It's not nose-heavy like so any FWD-based crossovers so it doesn't dive and plow and understeer unhappily - with the electronic traction/stability control cutting in constantly as it tries to make up for the design deficiency - in a performance context - of the FWD layout. Arc the steering wheel as appropriate to suit your line, then bully your way through putting power to the rear - as the Motor Gods intended.

And with almost 40 hp more than its nearest SUV/crossover competition (the BMW X3) it can launch itself out of those corners - and down the straightaways - with far greater authority, too. The 3.5 liter V-6 is strong enough to push you back in your seat - and makes passing slo-mo's a real pleasure. Just punch it - and you're gone.

Though it would be nice to have the option, at least, of a six-speed manual in this thing, the abundant power (as well as the excellent programming Infiniti has dialed into the standard automatic) make it a lot more fun to drive than the manual-equipped BMW X3.

High speed stability is exceptional, too - and that is something that's often lacking in closer-to-SUV crossovers like the X3. (It may just be why BMW fits the X3 with not-so-high-speed H-rated/130 mph maximum tires vs. the EX's 168 mph W-rated tires.)

If there's a downside, it's that the EX eggs you on to drive it fast and hard - which does an OJ on the thing's "best case" gas mileage. Run the EX35 hard, as it likes to be driven, and you can expect to get a real world average that's close to 15-16 mpg.

It also wants premium unleaded - so your gas costs will be higher than vehicles that are happy on regular or mid-grade.

RWD versions of the EX35 are slightly quicker and more athletic feeling because they weigh slightly less - and because there's less parastic drag through the drivetrain. You can also make the rear tires screech (traction control off) if that's your thing.

Either way, both versions of the EX are as quick - or quicker - than an early-mid 1990s V-8 powered Mustang GT.

Other factors that affect handling feel/cornering prowess are ride height and weight. The EX35 sits much lower to the pavement than the X3, with only 6.5 inches of clearance vs. the BMW's 8 inches. That is a significant difference you really can feel in a high-speed turn. The AWD X3 is also around 200 pounds heavier than the RWD EX35 (3,754 lbs. vs. 4,012 for the BMW). Combined with the almost 40 hp deficit, this makes the X3 feel sluggish compared with the athletic Infiniti - once again, despite the BMW's available manual transmission.

STYLING & UTILITY

The EX looks like what it is - a wagonized version of the G35 sedan. The front clip is very similar, for example.

The interior layout of the EX is also similar to the way the G35's laid out. It is much less SUV (or even crossover) like and more sport sedan-like - with a curving "double wave" dash that flows into the door panels and recessed LCD display for the GPS in the center stack. It is finished with black lacquer and aluminum trim plates or - optionally - wood veneer inserts. It's what you might cll "swank-tech."

The stats say it will seat five but realistically, this is a four-passenger vehicle - as are others in the segment, including the X3.

One area where the EX is objectively weak relative to competitors like the BMW X3 is cargo capacity. Behind the rear seats, there's only about 19 cubic feet vs. the BMW's 30 cubic feet.

Rear seat accommodations are a mixed bag. Taller torso riders will appreciate the extra headroom (38.4 inches for the EX vs. 37.8 for the X3). But if they have long legs, they will be less happy in the EX - which has just 28.5 inches of legroom vs. 35.8 n the BMW.

QUALITY & SAFETY

Infiniti vehicles have a high-end feel to them, not just a high-end brand name. Though several models are either based on or share major components such as platforms and engines with less prestigious Nissan-branded models, Infiniti does a very effective job of putting distance between them - and not just price-wise.

The base EX, for example, comes with a high level of standard amenities, including automatic climate control, electric sunroof, premium stereo with factory satellite radio hook-up, 17 inch alloy wheels and Infiniti's unique self-healing paint. The finish has high-elastic resins that let it expand to fill in small scratches without ever needing to visit a body shop - or get out the buffing compound.

With a starting price point of $33,800 the EX is also considerably less expensive than its most direct competitor, the BMW X3 ($39,700).

If the definition of "quality" includes giving you equivalent or better features and equipment than competitors for less money than they are charging, then the EX35 is certainly a high-quality vehicle.

Lots of safety equipment - both built-in crashworthiness and active accident-avoidance features - is a given on a vehicle such as the EX35. But in addition to the things you'd find in other similar in price vehicle, such as high-capacity disc brakes with ABS, side-impact and curtain air bags, traction and stability control, the EX35 goes up another notch with an available full perimeter Around View camera system that gives you a 360 degree bird's eye look around the entire vehicle, as if you were floating 10 feet above it. It works when you're moving forward as well as backing up, too - and makes it almost impossible to not notice something that you might otherwise bump into or drive over. You can change the view, too, to show the rear wheels relative to the curb - very helpful in parallel parking and could save you some scuffed (and expensive) rims, too.

In addition to all that, the EX also offers an optional Lane Departure Warning that beeps at you if you wander too near the double yellow line in the road. But be advised the system can be annoying. Its default setting is "always on" - meaning its on whenever you first get in/start the vehicle. You have to manually turn it off every time you start the car if you want to nix the relentless beeping.

That I could live without.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The EX35 offers a tempting package that should appeal to the serious enthusiast driver who wants some utility but real-deal performance and handling capability, too.

Add the optional AWD system and you can probably make it into the office on those handful of snow days when AWD would come in handy, too.

And the rest of the time?

You'll be showing your bumper to every other small SUV/crossover on the road.