Infiniti's EX35 just might be the most fun offering in the premium compact-crossover segment.

Introduced for 2008, the EX35 is now in its second year of production, and remains one of the bright spots in the Infiniti lineup.

Sort of a junior version of Infiniti's midsize FX, the EX doesn't have to take a back seat to its big brother, as the FX35 comes with essentially the same engine but about a $10,000 higher price.

Quality is one of its hallmarks, too, as the EX35 was the highest-rated premium vehicle in J.D. Power and Associates' 2008 Initial Quality Study.

Although the EX returns mostly unchanged from last year, the base model for 2009 now has standard leather seats, rear-view camera, rear climate-control vents and polished aluminum roof rails.

The uplevel Journey model now comes with a standard six-disc CD changer, power tilt/telescopic steering column, coat hanger on the driver's headrest, and dual-zone automatic climate control.

The EX is a rolling showcase for the latest technology that Infiniti and the auto industry have to offer.

Although EX buyers have been predominantly men, the vehicle was designed to appeal to women as well, as Infiniti's consumer research suggested that women like crossover utility vehicles with luxury appointments, but not necessarily the bigger models that have traditionally appealed more to men.

Key competitors in the segment are the Acura RDX and BMW X3, as well as the new Audi Q5. But the EX also competes with sedans in the entry-premium segment as well.

Based on the chassis of the premium midsize 2008 Infiniti G35 sedan, the EX essentially is a wagon version of the G.

Under the hood is the same engine, a 297-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6. It's connected to a five-speed automatic transmission also taken from the G35, and is EPA rated at 17 miles per gallon city/24 highway with rear-wheel drive or 16/23 with the optional all-wheel drive.

It's also a rear-drive vehicle in base form, which helps greatly with its sporty handling. Most crossovers have front-wheel drive (although most, like the EX, are available with all-wheel drive). The EX35 is the only vehicle in its segment with a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive, however.

The high-tech stuff, though, is what makes the EX really cool.

Among the optional gadgetry are an around-view monitor system, self-healing exterior paint, a 3-D navigation-system screen, a lane-departure warning and correction system, and, of course, a Bluetooth telephone interface.

Our test vehicle was the top-end Journey all-wheel drive model.

Outside, the EX features a long hood, short front and rear overhangs, and wheels pushed to the corners. It includes a double-arch grille, large L-shaped headlights (with an available bi-xenon adaptive front lighting system), integrated fog lights, LED taillights and an arch profile.

Also included are a spoiler on top of the rear hatch, dual chrome exhaust tips, an optional power moon roof and optional roof cargo rails.

To appeal to women, special attention was given to the interior design, Nissan said. It includes practical features such as the coat hangers in the rear of the front headrests, and a power-fold-down rear seat that allows for easy expansion of the cargo area at the touch of a button either in the rear of the cargo compartment or a switch up front.

The back seat can be raised again using the same switches. Front-seat height is higher than that of the average sedan, but lower than in the typical SUV.

Also included are easy-to-read gauges with white and violet lighting, an analog clock, and "hospitality" lighting, with an LED beaming a penlight down from above the center console, the automaker said.

There is a seven-inch LCD screen in the middle of the instrument panel that serves the optional navigation and audio system, which includes a 9.3-gigabyte hard drive for music storage and playback

Up front, the bucket seats are roomy and comfortable. There is limited legroom in the rear with the front seats all the way back, but that's normal in the compact segment. Adults can sit back there, but children find it more comfortable.

The center console and instrument stack come with black lacquer and aluminum trim, but maple wood trim is optional.

The around-view monitoring system uses four cameras, one each in the grille, on the rear above the license plate, and on the side mirrors, to produce a bird's-eye view of the area around the car on the dash monitor. The idea is to give the driver a "top-down view" of the car while parking, Infiniti said.

Another feature is the EX's lane-departure prevention system, which goes beyond the lane-departure warning systems showing up on some other luxury vehicles. When the EX system detects the vehicle drifting out of its traffic lane, the brakes engage slightly to give the car a gentle push back into its lane.

Also included is the new "Scratch Shield" paint, which self-heals small scratches - such as those from fingernails under the door handles. The process can take from a day to a week, depending on the outside temperature and the depth of the scratch. This is possible because of a special soft elastic resin in the clearcoat paint. It won't correct severe scratches though, just the minor everyday ones.

Other high-tech features include the standard Infiniti Intelligent Key with pushbutton start, and the optional XM satellite radio.

Also standard are an eight-way power driver's seat with two-way manual lumbar support, and a four-way power passenger. Optional are a driver's seat memory system, heated front seats, and an eight-way power passenger seat.

Available are front and rear sonar parking assist, radar cruise control and a premium Bose audio system. The Bose system has 11 speakers, including two subwoofers, as well as a six-disc, in-dash CD changer and iPod input jack.

Four versions of the EX are offered: the base EX5 model with rear drive, the EX35 all-wheel drive, the rear-drive Journey, and the all-wheel-drive Journey.

Besides leather, Journey models come with a power moon roof, the power-folding rear seat, auto-dimming rearview mirror with electronic compass, universal garage opener, front and rear sonar system and automatic headlights.

Pricing has not yet been announced for the 2009 model, but base prices for the 2008 EX35 ranged from $31,900-$36,850 (plus freight), and a fully equipped all-wheel-drive Journey model topped out at about $45,000.

It's not necessary to pay that much for a well-equipped EX35, however. Buy the base rear-drive model and leave off the fancy high-tech stuff, and you'll still have a great car for a couple or a small family.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236;