M35 heats-up the passion of Infiniti

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The luxury division of Nissan began life in 1989 as a viable competitor to the burgeoning Lexus and Acura brands, even if somewhat blinded by an avalanche marketing program that was more about rocks and trees than the brand. It took some time to overcome, but eventually the brand took shape and initially it was a winner.

The Infiniti flagship Q45 was a delightful performance-oriented luxury car pulled by 278 horses, a large number considering the time frame of 1990. It was every bit as alluring and interesting as the Lexus LS and the Acura Legend. And it was more powerful.

The extraordinarily styled J30 entered the lineup in 1993 adding to the luster of the new brand.

But then Infiniti made a wrong turn in the late 90s. This time it couldn’t blame the decline on rocks and trees for the enemy was its own inertia.

By 1999, Infiniti was pitching an uninspiring 140-horsepower G20, a clone of the Nissan Maxima called the I30 and an underwhelming Q45 that didn’t live up to its name having been downgraded to a 4.1-liter engine.

The brand was sliding into mediocrity.

But all was not lost, just in the nick of time, Infiniti made a U-turn back in the right direction. The Q45 was redesigned in 2002 returning to its luxury/muscle days, endowed with a 340-horsepower 4.5-liter V-8. Yes, the Q45 was again aptly named.

But what really turned the brand around was the race performance inspired rear-wheel drive compact G35 sedan and coupe in 2003. The G35 featured incredible styling, wonderful road manners and a potent V-6 engine. The sedan was endowed with 260 horses and the two-door, built as a more charming twin to the Nissan 350Z, got 280 ponies. The G-series won rave reviews from the press and the motoring public. (Both G35 models come with 280 horses for 2006). Infiniti had found its soul again.

To put the icing on the cake, Infiniti has added new mid-sized M-series sedans for 2006. In this case Infiniti has found its passion again.

The M, which replaces the short-lived 2003-2005 M45, is perhaps the best Infiniti in its nearly two-decade history combining outstanding performance, many standard luxury appointments, wonderful handling characteristics, spaciousness and impressive styling in a package that has few rivals.

The M35, with a lusty V-6 engine, is a joy to drive. And we believe that M35’s more powerful M45 stable-mate, which contains a 335-horsepower V-8 under hood, is even more attractive and adventurous.

Infiniti now has in its lineup a competitor to the BMW 3-Series, Audi A-4, Acura TL, Cadillac CTS and Jaguar X-Type in the G35. And the M35/45 has the credentials to take on the BMW 5-Series, Audi A6, the new Lexus GS series along with the Acura RL and Cadillac STS.

Although the M series shares a platform with the G35, it is six inches longer at 192.6 inches and has a two-inch longer wheelbase at 114.2 inches. This spells more room inside, especially for rear-seat passengers who can enjoy four extra inches of leg room.

The M35 all-wheel drive version with sport-tuned suspension which we tested showed impeccable road manners with point-and-shoot steering. We were delighted to find that the sedan has the ability to carve up a twisting back-road blacktop like the vaunted BMW 5-Series.

One of the M’s unique optional features found on the Sport model is a form of rear-wheel steering that turns the rear wheels up to one degree opposite of the front depending on cornering needs. Honda has employed a similar technique at various times through the years on select vehicles.

The 3.5-liter 280-horsepower V-6 gives the M an urgency that is pleasing at all speeds with the power directed through a silky 5-speed automatic transmission. When we asked for a downshift by slamming the accelerator to the floor, it responded instantaneously.
There was never the agonizing delay found in some other luxury products.

The V-6 will hustle the M35 from a standstill to 60 in 6.3 seconds and through a quarter mile run in 14.7 seconds at nearly 93 miles per hour.

For more money — about $6,000 — and a slight sacrifice in gas mileage — about 2 miles per gallon — the M can be purchased with a 335-horsepower V-8 good for sub-6-second times.

The M35 is offered in base and Sport and with an all-wheel drive option. Base models are lavishly equipped with genuine, satin-finish Rosewood inlays on the dash, doors, and console, and leather upholstery. The Sport versions get real aluminum trim.

The gauges have a high-tech look with electro-fluorescent lighting.

The M’s controls are fairly intuitive. Included are real knobs for volume and tuning on the radio. You may not think that’s a big deal, but after a week with BMW’s iDrive, simple radio controls deserve a standing ovation.

Although the M does have a joystick control, most of the things you use every time you enter the car including climate and stereo can be operated without wading through a list of multi-tasking computer options that often takes three steps when one would suffice.

The standard-equipment list is long including dual-zone climate control, 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat with memory, color 7-inch LCD information display, keyless entry and push-button starting. There is also a moonroof and a voice-recognition system that manages at least half-a-dozen functions, Bluetooth compatibility, and a complete array of power features.

The M comes with a full compliment of safety features usually found in sedans over 40 grand including front and rear side curtain airbags.

Great sound can be part of your M car. The premium package includes a Bose digital Studio Surround audio system with 14 speakers. An in-dash 6-CD player, MP3 player, and satellite radio setup — both XM and Sirius are offered — are included. A DVD mobile entertainment system with a flip-down 8-inch screen is available for rear-seat passengers.

One of the key factors in a car purchase these days is gas mileage, and the M35 measures up quite well with 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway for 2-wheel drive and 17/24 for all-wheel drive. Infiniti recommends premium fuel, but says the engine will run fine — albeit with a slight decrease in performance — on regular gas.

Our loaded M35 with all-wheel drive and Sport package had a sticker price of $48,190.

There are a number of good luxury sport sedans on the market, but you would be hard pressed to find an overall package as desirable as the M35 at any price.