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.

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Hot hot hot. Looks even better than the 2011 5 series (which looks pretty elegant). And the interior is gorgeous.

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