New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Infiniti M

It might be lacking the stage, the lights, and Simon Cowell’s vee-neck shirts, but the world of automobiles is strangely similar to television’s biggest show. American Idol judges are famous for pointing out that if you sing a Whitney Houston song, you had better, as the saying goes, bring it. Likewise, if you build a car to compete with the very best, it will be compared to the very best.

These days, every automotive yardstick, like it or not, seems to have a BMW badge on it, so this Infiniti will be judged against the 5-series. The Bimmer is a tough act to follow, but we were never shy in singing the last-generation Infiniti M’s praises, and frankly, it deserved better than the modest success it enjoyed against its German rivals. And now there’s a new M to battle it out with the new 5-series, the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and a relatively new Acura TL.

The new BMW 5-Series packed on some inches and pounds, but the size and weight of new M have remained approximately the same. Although the two cars are now roughly equal in size, the Infiniti is still a step behind BMW in engine technology. The M’s engines use throttleless valve-lift systems (VVEL) to help boost efficiency, just like BMW’s last-generation Valvetronic engines. Infiniti engines rely on monster displacement, though—rather than turbo boost like the newest generation of BMW engines—to produce bigger doses of power. The M’s V-6 engine grows to 3.7 liters in the base car, which is now called the M37. The V-6 generates 330 hp, which is 5 hp more than last year’s 4.5-liter V-8, so in this case, moving down from an M45 means you actually move up in horsepower.

And speaking of moving up, the M45 becomes the M56, and it features an all-new, direct-injected 5.6-liter brute of a V-8 that belts out 420 hp and 417 lb-ft of torque. That’s a gain of 95 hp and 81 lb-ft to a car that was no slouch to begin with. Infiniti doesn’t estimate acceleration numbers, but ask the V-8 to sing some high notes and you might just see 60 mph in less than five seconds. Two additional gears in the transmission—it now has seven forward gears—assist both acceleration and fuel economy. Despite its enormous power gains, the rear-wheel-drive M56 gets an extra 5 mpg on the EPA highway cycle versus the M45. Both the V-6 and the V-8 can be mated with all-wheel drive.

The M’s generous trunk and cabin are about the same size as in last year’s model, but the cabin is more elegant than ever. Thankfully, the old car’s wet-dog smell is gone, and someone finally got the lawyer to drop the useless paragraph of legalese that appeared every time you wanted to access the navigation system—which, by the way, continues to be among the easiest to use, with your choice of dial, touchscreen, or speech inputs. The M37 in these photos features an optional deluxe touring package, which is dressed up with hand-finished, white ash wood sprinkled with (get this!) actual silver powder. It may sound a little Liberace, but it’s actually quite subtle. And pretty gorgeous.

The seats are both more supportive and more comfortable, and the rear seat is particularly plush, with a great view out. The cabin is quieter than before but still noisier than we hoped. Impact noise comes through loud and clear, and there’s a rush of wind around the A-pillars that becomes intrusive as you near triple-digit speeds, which, especially in the M56, are very easy to achieve. Brake feel is superb, with either the standard setup or the sport package’s upgraded anchors. We have nothing but praise for the M’s handling, which, like before, is characterized by beautiful balance and superb body control. The steering is less communicative than we’d like, but it remains precise and predictable, even with optional active four-wheel steering—something even BMW doesn’t always get right.

The M remains among the leaders in active safety technologies, with the industry’s first blind spot intervention (BSI) system added to its repertoire of driver aids. BSI gently nudges you back should you try to make a lane change with another car hidden in your blind spot. In a quick test of the system, it worked unobtrusively but is easily overridden or turned off should you be in the mood to pit-maneuver yourself into someone else’s car. We think it’s great. BSI, that is, not the suicidal pit maneuver.

When choosing an M, you might think that the V-6’s more-than-sufficient power would render it the easy choice, but there’s one problem: even the M’s standard active noise cancellation system can’t come close to drowning out the vviibbrraattiioonnss coming from the VQ-series V-6. Once the world’s standard for V-6 engines, the VQ is now near the bottom where NVH is concerned. Singing alongside the glass-smooth in-line sixes and quiet, balanced-shafted V-6s in this segment, the VQ sounds and feels out of place. And since the V-8 carries only the slightest of fuel-economy penalties (only 1 or 2 mpg), we think it’s the M to have.

The Infiniti M56 is one top performer among a rarefied set of highly capable competitors but so, too, was its predecessor. However, success at the dealership, like triumph on the Idol stage, ultimately becomes a contest of popularity rather than just raw talent. Maybe this time, the M’s more dramatic styling will finally earn it the public recognition and votes that it deserves.

On Sale: Now
Base Price Range: $47,115–$60,915
Engines: 3.7L V-6, 330 hp, 270 lb-ft; 5.6L V-8, 420 hp, 417 lb-ft
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: Rear or 4-wheel
EPA city/highway: 16–18/23–26 mpg