First Drive: 2006 Infiniti M
By Mike Cervantes
Feb 27, 2005, 18:06
It seems every recent review of the new M35 and M45 would be remiss if it did not mention the trials of Infiniti’s short past. The convoluted “rocks and trees” launch campaign that left consumers scratching their heads and purchasing vehicles from the equally new Lexus brand. The financial troubles of parent Nissan Motor Company in the 90’s that dealt Infiniti nothing more than rebadged Nissan Maximas and Pathfinders.
Through this infancy period remained a loyal core of buyers and dealers who continued to believe that one day, soon, Infiniti would mature into a brand of benchmark luxury vehicles capable of challenging the world’s best. These were people committed to making the best with the vehicles they were dealt. It’s no industry secret that Infiniti has continued to have a dealer core that ranks at or near the top of all major surveys when it comes to customer satisfaction. The foundation has long-been in place, just waiting for the day when Infiniti delivers earth shattering products.
For the folks at Palm Springs Infiniti in Southern California, and a select few invited guests, that day came February 17th, 2005. At a lavish invitation-only preview with catered dining, valet parking, and live jazz performers; employees and guests alike celebrated as the wraps were taken off of the all-new Infiniti M sedan. The feeling amongst everyone in the showroom this night was mutual: it was worth it. The years of hard work getting the Infiniti brand off the ground, the years of loyalty to products that (while still good in their own right) could have been better, they had all paid off.
This rainy night in a warm showroom in the desert resorts communities just east of Los Angeles there were no excuses, and perhaps the only disappointment in sight was at the neighboring BMW and Mercedes Benz showrooms. This night was a shot across the bow of everyone who will listen, and especially those who won’t: Nissan and Infiniti have come back from the drawing board with indisputably the best sedan they’ve ever created. In the process, they may have just set the new benchmark by which all succeeding mid-size luxury sedans will be judged.
In the days following preview night, Palm Springs Infiniti was very kind in lending us a loaded black M35 without the sport package and a scorching silver M45 Sport. Our initial impressions of both are, to put it simply, Infiniti has outdone itself. And the competition. Seeing these sedans in photographs is one thing – they look good. In person, the M is just downright hot. It has the elegant presence to justify its $50,000 price-tag and just enough aggressiveness to hint at the performance tuning that lies just below the surface. Like the wildly popular G35 sedan and coupe and the FX crossover that came before it, this is the look and character of Infiniti. The lines are clean yet attractive, purposeful yet exciting. There’s no Bangle-esque trickery here, simply because Infiniti has proven you don’t need it to look good. Just ask any of the slack-jawed bystanders we passed, of which there were many, even here in jaded and affluent Palm Springs.
Once you step inside, over the yellow-lit “INFINITI” script on the aluminum-clad door sills, it’s clear that this is the best interior the brand has crafted since the redesign of the flagship Q45, if not the company’s best ever. The M’s interior mixes the design aggressiveness of the G35 and FX with the quality and elegance of the Q45 for a result that is unlike anything previously created by Infiniti, or any competitor for that matter. The mix of aluminum, chrome highlights, glowing orange lights, soft gray leather, and textured charcoal plastics in our M45 Sport tester are futuristic yet intriguing at the same time. The seats are aggressively bolstered to hold the driver and passenger in place during the spirited handling maneuvers this sedan was designed for.
The most important question, of course, is how does it perform? Our first stab of the M45’s gas pedal leaves us with one feeling: breathlessness. The VK45DE 4.5 liter V8 engine with 335hp and 340 lb-ft of torque is extremely versatile in its ability to handle everything we threw at it. This sled is a rocket, when you want it to be. It can get you to extralegal speeds in, literally, the blink of an eye and the stomp of a pedal. And the sounds it makes while getting there are enough to make any muscle car lover take pause. If you should choose to take a cruise down Palm Springs’ famous Palm Canyon strip, the V8 is equally willing to sit back quietly and take you peacefully from stop to stop. The amazing 5-speed automatic transmission attached to both engines in the M works amazingly well, clicking off shifts with supernatural smoothness – especially under hard throttle. When in manual mode, this tranny even blips the throttle for you during downshifts.
The M35 is powered by Nissan’s highly regarded VQ35DE 3.5 liter V6 engine. In this application, the VQ pumps out 280hp and 270lb-ft of torque. Though not quite neck-snapping like the VK45, this gem of an engine plays well with that fantastic transmission to get the M35 out of its own way in plenty of time. Speed freaks will be plenty satisfied with this engine. And though it lacks that distinctive V8 exhaust burble, the sounds this V6 makes are equally intoxicating. In fact, we found the semi-exotic exhaust note of the M35 to be even more inciting than the V8 – perhaps because we knew we could wind it out further than the V8 without getting ourselves into major trouble with the PSPD. Whichever engine you decide on, it isn’t likely that you’ll be disappointed. Unless the last thing you’ve piloted had wings and a jet engine.
To compete in the mid-size luxury sedan market means you must have more than just a big engine. Just look at the overall sales figures of the last M45. Fortunately, Infiniti knows a thing or two about handling dynamics. Their G35 and FX models, both based on the FM platform – a version of which underpins the new M, have been lauded by the press for their aggressive tuning. The M35 and M45 models are no exceptions to this trend. The overall feeling here is one of solidity. This car is very controlled, with no shakes or vibrations to be found – even over recently rain-damaged roads. If the Germans have had one claim to fame, it was that their vehicles featured almost vault-like solidity and stability. Well, move over BMW, Mercedes, and Audi; the Japanese now deserve that spotlight as well. But don’t mistake this with heaviness in any way; this nearly-4000 pound sedan is quite nimble on its feet, especially with the Sport model’s 19-inch wheels and Rear Active Steer system. This system employs an electric motor to actively adjust the geometry of the rear independent suspension in accordance with vehicle steering direction and speed. In the real world, it worked entirely without any detection on our part. Just the way technology should function, making things better without making things worse. Good job Infiniti engineers.
Increasingly, even a midsize luxury sedan with all of the above features is not enough to win over the hearts and wallets of the very selective shoppers in this market. That’s where technology plays an important part in grabbing the attention of potential buyers. The M series features technology in spades, though Infiniti has done a fairly good job at integrating it without confusing drivers. Just grab the stylish “key” (nothing more than a small remote fob) and drop it into your pocket and walk to your car. Press the little button on the meaty exterior door handle and the M happily lets you in. Close the door and the seat, mirrors, and steering wheel adjust to your pre-set position. Now, step on the brake and press the start button and the engine fires up and you’re ready to go.
The controls for all of the major HVAC and stereo controls are placed separately from the navigation system controls for those of us who prefer to change the radio station by pressing a simple button instead of using a complex computer interface. Infiniti has incorporated an iDrive-like knob on the center stack with which you can navigate through the simple on-screen menus of the DVD-based navigation system. Though easier to use than the BMW system, the redundant buttons and toggle switch on the steering wheel and the voice-activation system are even better options, as they don’t require you to take your hands off of the wheel. Still perhaps not the best answer to the integration of technology into our drives, kudos to Infiniti for figuring out a good balance between traditional radio/HVAC controls and the new computer-like interfaces featured on some cars.
The parade of available interior/technology features rolls on with Solar Eclipse instrument lighting, climate controlled front seats (the air conditioning options will come in handy during Palm Springs’ 115-degree summers), heated reclining rear seats, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, in-dash 6-disc changer with MP3 capabilities, the aforementioned Infiniti Intelligent Key, and Birdwiew 3-D navigation system. Perhaps the most entertaining, day in and day out, will be the amazing BOSE audio system. Featuring digital 5.1-channel decoding in conjunction with 14 speakers (including two mounted on the top of each front seat, this stereo system truly puts you in the middle of a performance rather than just in front of it. The multi-channel soundstage allows each instrument/vocal arrangement of a song to be played out of a different location in the vehicle. Imagine having Ray Charles performing in front of you while his backup singers are behind you. That’s what this stereo can do.
“The Infiniti M represents the very best Infiniti has to offer. It’s a result of years of automotive engineering,” said Mark Igo, vice president and general manager, Infiniti Division. “The many innovations found on the new M are purpose-driven technologies, designed to enhance safety and drivability.”
Some of those features include Infiniti’s RearView Monitor, which uses a tiny camera mounted above the rear license plate to project real-time video to the 7-inch LCD screen on the dash while the vehicle is in reverse. A seemingly excessive use of technology on paper, yes, but in reality it really does come in handy backing into tight places. Another extremely promising feature pioneered by Infiniti is their Lane Departure Warning system. This uses another small camera mounted just above the interior rear view mirror to read the lines on the road and warn you with audible beeps if you’re drifting out of your intended lane, a situation that can occur if you fall asleep at the wheel or are using a cell phone. The warning will shut off if your blinkers are turned on, though the system may be a tad too sensitive to gradient patterns in the road. We experienced the system during both rainy and dry conditions and it seemed much more sensitive when the roads were wet. The conclusion here is that while LDW will be very valuable to drivers on the freeway, it may need a bit more development for city-driving situations.
“Over 55 percent of fatal auto accidents in the United States are caused by lane departures, including single vehicle and head-on accidents,” said Igo. “The LDW system is an important advancement in vehicle safety technology.”
Other technology/safety features include Infiniti’s laser-guided cruise control, Adaptive Front Lighting System with xenon headlamps, Preview Braking that uses the cruise control’s lasers to identify obstacles in front of the vehicle and pre-pressurize the Brake Assist in case emergency braking maneuvers are needed, Pre-crash seatbelts, Vehicle Dynamic Control, Advanced Air Bags, and available ATTESA E-TS all wheel drive on the M35x
All of this M goodness does come at a price, albeit one that’s thousands less than most competitors. The base MSRP for a V6-powered M35 is $39,900 while the V8-powered M45 starts at $46,750. If you can live without the V8, your best bet would probably be an M35 Sport, which starts at $42,700. If you live in the Snow Belt, your top pick would probably be an AWD M35x, with a starting price of $42,400. You’d better hurry, though. The M goes on sale at about the same time you’re reading this, and Palm Springs Infiniti alone has already pre-sold quite a few – a scenario that’s likely similar across the country.
For Palm Springs Infiniti, and the brand in general, the M represents a new step. It’s been easily proven that consumers are willing to buy a near-luxury Infiniti, just look at the success of the G35 and FX35. The question is, are people willing to pay $50,000 for an Infiniti sedan? The answer is unclear, as the only high-end Infiniti models of the past – the Q45 and M45 – have not exactly been hot sellers, though they haven’t been hot performers in media tests, either. This new M is different; it’s at or near the top of every performance category all for a lot less cash than the typical E-Class or 5-Series. It takes the same philosophy as the G35 and applies it to a slightly larger package with even greater results. Certainly, Infiniti is hoping for the best by allocating larger numbers of M models to dealers like Palm Springs Infiniti that have a track record of strong high-end model sales. A $65 million ad campaign can’t hurt, either. Unless, of course, it features nothing but rocks and trees.
In our opinion, the new M is more than a credible option in the mid-size luxury sedan market. While not perfect, it certainly gets pretty close – especially when cost is figured into the equation. It may not have the brand cache of a BMW or Mercedes, but anyone in the market will be doing themselves a favor by checking this new sedan out. It just might win you over, and a couple thousand other luxury shoppers, as well.
Special Thanks to Jay Tulli and everyone at Palm Springs Infiniti in Palm Springs, CA for their tremendous assistance in accommodating our every demand during this project. If you’re in the market for a new M, or any Infiniti, check out PalmSpringsInfiniti.com. For more photos of the M, check out this article's corresponding thread on AutomotiveForums.com.
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