BMW 330Ci and Infiniti G35 Coupe
Wanted: Resurgent Japanese automaker seeks LTR w/good-looking, aggressive coupe to help reinvigorate moribund luxury-car division. ISO taut skin, firm chassis, accommodating interior, serious muscle under the hood. Manual transmission and rear-wheel drive essential; Brembo brakes a +. Must cost less than European competitors and be ready for hard-driving fun. Submit complete specs and performance profile to Nissan North America, Gardena, California. Application deadline: November 2002.
Cancel the classified, Carlos; a winner has emerged. The 2003 G35 Sport Coupe is ready to move into the Infiniti garage. Following the tread marks of its sibling, the G35 sedan, which hit the streets last March, the two-door G35 ought to catch the attention of buyers who not long ago had relegated Infiniti to the lease-of-the-month club on their way to the BMW dealership. So impressed were we by the G35 sedan, in fact, that we decided to measure the new G35 two-door against the BMW 330Ci coupe, a car that has not exactly had to resort to the personals to find suitors. Anyone familiar with the pages of this or any other automotive enthusiasts' magazine knows that the 3-series is the gold standard of entry-luxury sport coupes and sedans. That we would even bother comparing the new G35 with the 330Ci is an indication of our respect for, and expectations of, Infiniti's newest model.
It's no coincidence that the G35 coupe looks similar to the new Nissan 350Z. The two G35 models, the 350Z, and the upcoming Infiniti FX crossover are all based on Nissan's FM--front mid-ship--platform and powered by the same 3.5-liter V-6 (the FX will also be offered with a 4.5-liter V-8). The G35 coupe is a foot longer and three inches taller than the 350Z, and its wheelbase is eight inches longer, which allows for two rear seats. Its sheetmetal is similar to the Z-car's yet makes up perhaps a more pleasing whole. The G35 coupe has wider front and rear tracks than the sedan and shares no body panels with it, but under the skin, the two G35 models and the 350Z do share transmission, brakes, suspension architecture, and other componentry, including the Z-car's optional six-speed manual, which is being introduced in the sedan soon. The coupe's suspension is tuned more aggressively than the sedan's. In the G35 sedan, the V-6 makes 260 horsepower, while the coupe gets 280 thanks to a less restrictive exhaust system. (The 350Z makes 287 horsepower.) The coupe's V-6 also has different valve timing from the sedan's, and it requires premium fuel.
"The main difference between the G35 coupe and the Nissan 350Z," says Kazutoshi Mizuno, chief vehicle engineer for the FM platform, "is balance. The driver is closer to the front wheels in the Z, which is all sports car, whereas the G35, a GT sports coupe, is like a carbon-frame tennis racket, with perfect balance. The 350Z is more like a metal racket--very strong."
Unlike the 3-series, which is available with a lesser 2.5-liter six or the 225-horsepower, 3.0-liter in our test car, the G35's 3.5-liter V-6 is standard in all three models: base, with cloth seats, five-speed manu-matic, and six-spoke, seventeen-inch alloys; Coupe Sport, with leather and eighteen-inch, seven-spoke wheels and performance tires; and another Coupe Sport model with a six-speed manual and Brembo brakes, which we tested. At 3460 pounds, the Infiniti is 100 pounds heavier than the BMW but has a better power-to-weight ratio given its extra 55 horses. The 330Ci has only five forward gears in its manual transmission, not that we've ever pined for a sixth. Both cars have standard brake assist, stability and traction control, and side air bags; the G35 also has standard side curtain air bags. You'll find aluminum-intensive, four-wheel independent suspensions under both cars, with the BMW favoring struts up front, the Infiniti control arms. And, of course, both cars send their power to the rear wheels, which is probably the main reason you're reading this article.
Infiniti took us to the former Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California--which, as part of its recent $50 million refurbishment, has morphed into Infineon Raceway--for some hot laps in the G35, and we returned a couple of days later for formal testing. The G35 was a hot number on the track, especially after Kjell Kallman of the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School rode shotgun and helped us refine our lines through this challenging circuit, which features a couple of entertaining blind crests.
Like the 350Z, the G35 tends to understeer at the limit, but overall it's very predictable, has great grip, and takes a set beautifully. The V-6 has plenty of torque, so third gear is all we needed except on a couple of the straights.
The incumbent and the challenger turned in performance profiles that were practically dead even. The BMW is slightly quicker to 60 mph, while the Infiniti won the race to 100. The 330Ci stops better; the G35 corners harder. Both leave the fainthearted Mercedes-Benz CLK320 eating their dust from a standing start (see sidebar).
In the real world, which is to say on the road, the G35 had no trouble keeping up with the 330Ci, but the two cars take distinctly different approaches to the sporty driving experience. The VQ-series V-6 has transformed every product Nissan has ever bolted it into, and in its G35 coupe state of tune, it is certainly one of the best V-6 engines in the world. Although it's not a big, bubbling, brawny thing, it does make its presence known, and a most invigorating exhaust note is created as its combustion effluvia exit the rear of the car through twin pipes. Compared with the BMW's silky five-speed manual, the Infiniti's six-speed is just as satisfying to use, but it is heavier in the hand and requires more deliberate wrist action.
The BMW is all about finesse, whereas the Infiniti wants to maximize the driver's fun, even if it makes him work a little harder for it. Nobody, including Infiniti, has yet matched BMW's ability to marry great handling with an exceptionally smooth ride. Over an undulating Marin County two-lane road, both the 330Ci and the G35 displayed incredible grip and body control, but the BMW did a better job of smoothing out the bumps along the way. Conversely, the G35's steering is better than the 330Ci's, and who thought we'd ever say that about a BMW? The Bavarian car's steering wheel still provides great feel, but it's a tad on the light side. The G35 requires more steering effort but rewards you with far more feedback and the feeling, if not the reality, of better directional stability.
The interior and exterior aesthetics of these cars also follow different paths. The 3-series shape, of course, is classically beautiful and will inevitably age well, but in comparison with the G35's ultramodern, relatively simple front end, the snout of the 330Ci looks a little busy, what with its double horizontal headlights, propeller badge, kidney grille, and multilayered, bi-colored air dam punctuated by fog lights. The G35 wears its sporting aggressiveness on its sleeve, with its stacked, swept-back headlamps, black chrome grille, and high, chiseled rump of a rear highlighted by Gatling-gun-style LED taillamps in the mold of big brother Q45's headlamps. Those beautiful Brembos send some strong visual signals as well. An optional aero package with a rear spoiler and rear side air diffusers reduces the coefficient of drag from an already impressive 0.29 to 0.28 and is claimed to create zero rear lift.
The BMW has seatbelts for five, and, although we wouldn't want to be the fifth passenger, we'd gladly be the third or fourth, as there's sufficient leg and head room for adults in the rear, and access is easy with front seats that flip up out of the way manually and return to their original position. The G35 coupe's front seats, which are heavily bolstered and much sportier than those in the G35 sedan, glide forward electrically to provide access to the rear, but their seatbacks don't return to the original set position afterward. The G35's rear seat offers decent hip and leg room but scant headroom for an adult. The BMW's trunk is much bigger, too, although Infiniti insists that two golf bags can be crammed into the shallow cavity and affixes a sticker to the inside of the trunk lid with instructions and diagrams for doing so.
Both cars have orange instrument lighting, but somehow it seems more appropriate in the BMW, where it's a tradition, than in the more mod Infiniti. The G35's cabin is functional and very comfortable but overall not quite as luxurious as the BMW's. The titanium-colored plastic that forms most of the center console looks okay but not great. "But would you even want wood in a car like this?" queried technical editor Don Sherman. Probably not, but neither would we expect Infiniti's rather old-fashioned analog clock, which sits incongruously in the middle of this contemporary instrument panel and is difficult to read at night.
It took us a while to find a power switch for the G35's radio besides the one on the steering wheel (we eventually found another on the right side of the radio), and the volume control button requires continuous application of your index finger rather than a quick flick of your wrist. Memo to all car manufacturers: Radios must have a simple round dial for turning down the volume instantly, and it must be located on the left edge of the stereo unit, where decades of conditioning have led drivers to expect it.
Prices haven't been announced yet, but the G35 will start at less than $30,000, which leads us to believe that the six-speed model still will cost well under $35,000. The G35 offers all sorts of pricey options packages, including a pop-up-screen navigation system, but so does the 330Ci, and it appears that there will be about a $3000 to $5000 spread in favor of Infiniti buyers between comparably equipped models. The savings up front must be weighed against almost certain better long-term resale value for the BMW.
What we know for sure is that the Infiniti is an absolute blast, and it offers a more visceral and aggressive driving experience than the BMW. Overall, the 330Ci is more practical and still a great car, but the G35 is fresh and hot; it grabs you by the seat of the pants and begs you to drive the hell out of it. Yes, there finally is an Infiniti that you might prefer to a BMW, and it's not that first-generation Q45 you've been scouring the classifieds for; it's coming to your Infiniti dealership in November.