Within days of our first drive of the new Infiniti M35 and M45, Nissan's luxury arm celebrated its fifteenth anniversary. There have been many years during Infiniti's checkered history when one wondered whether the marque would even reach another birthday or simply become a footnote to the automotive history term paper titled "Lexus." But Infiniti's G35 coupe and sedan and the FX crossover groove with American consumers as no Infinitis have done before them, and the brand has hit its stride.
Like those two success stories, the M35 and the M45 are built on Nissan's ubiquitous rear-wheel-drive FM (front midship) platform. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the M enters a new product category for Infiniti. After all, the outgoing M45, a curious blend of 1980s styling and 1990s technology, has been nearly invisible since Nissan rushed the Japanese-market Cedric here in 2002 to give Infiniti a tenuous toehold in the mid-size luxury-sedan segment. That crowded corner of the market needs another entrant like America needs another brand of bottled water.
Yet the same thing was said about entry-luxury sedans before the G35 pushed its way to the front of the grid to rub fenders with the class-leading BMW 3-series. As with the G35, the M35/M45's engineers have targeted the German competition, and the resulting car compares favorably with the BMW 5-series, the Mercedes-Benz E-class, and the Audi A6, not to mention the Cadillac STS, the Acura RL, and, we predict, the upcoming redesigned Lexus GS. Like most of them, the M35/M45 is available with all-wheel drive, fast becoming an essential option for luxury cars, and a choice of six-cylinder (M35) or eight-cylinder (M45) power.
When the 2006 M35 and M45 go on sale in March, they'll be offered in five models: M35, M35x AWD, M35 Sport, M45, and M45 Sport. All-wheel drive is available only with the V-6, although Infiniti might mate it to the V-8 later. The FM platform, which supports double-control-arm front and multilink rear suspension, has been modified heavily for M use, and a lot of its harshness has been engineered away. The Sport package stiffens the springs and dampers, adds spidery nineteen-inch wheels, and includes "Rear Active Steer." This system monitors vehicle speed and steering angle, then uses motors to alter the rear suspension geometry by moving the lower links, causing rear toe-in to vary by as much as one degree. It sounds gimmicky, but it helps you to storm through decreasing-radius corners more smoothly.
Actually, on Napa Valley roads that twist up and down like a grapevine, even the base M35 delivers body control and steering feedback that are at least equal to those of the Audi and the Mercedes, which is to say quite good but a little soft, and the chassis is more tied to the task of hard driving than is that of the front-wheel-drive-biased Acura. Both engines are mated to a smooth five-speed manu-matic transmission with well-spaced ratios, although on one occasion, the M45's V-8 hesitated for a beat during the two-three upshift in manual mode. If you're cross-shopping the Infiniti with the STS or the 5-series, you'll definitely want the Sport package, which tightens steering feel and decreases body roll without making the M ride like a hay wagon. (On pockmarked Snow Belt roads, though, the standard eighteen-inch rubber might be preferable.)
We didn't drive an M35 Sport, but it just might become the hot model. The 280-hp V-6 offers gobs of go across the rev band and rarely leaves you thinking that you shoulda had a V-8. Go with the 335-hp M45, though, and you'll get the same smooth and torquey V-8 as in the Q45 but with a slightly bigger cabin, none of the Q45's steering and suspension slop, and a lower sticker (though prices have yet to be announced).
Matte rosewood trim or aluminum swoop and sweep across the M's instrument panel in a design purportedly inspired by a piano keyboard. Nissan's cost cutters did not show up for this particular recital, so the cabin materials, if not best in class (Audi), are on par with Mercedes and superior to Cadillac. An optional Bose audio/DVD system with front- and rear-seat screens will entertain fidgety children or at least drown them out. The expected array of standard safety systems is joined by Infiniti's optional lane-departure warning device, which debuted recently on the FX.
If you drive the new M hard, you'll know that Infiniti is at last close to being the Japanese BMW. With cars this good, Infiniti's upcoming sixteenth birthday should be sweet. But Infiniti still hasn't made the turn down Easy Street. Step outside the M, and behold . . . what? A generic Asian-sedan shape with a big, bland rear bumper, a C-pillar kink borrowed from BMW, and a handsome grille plastered with a logo that's largely meaningless to America's luxury-car buyers. At first glance, you might think the M35/M45 is a gussied-up Nissan Maxima or Altima. This car has lots of style, but it's generic style. Infiniti surely has learned from the FX that captivating design, combined with world-class engineering and performance, is its ticket to the big time.