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Introduced in May 1995, the I30, based on the Nissan Maxima, was developed to fill a gap in INFINITI's line in the high-volume and growing entry level segment of the luxury car market. The front-drive luxury sedan became the fourth car offered by Nissan Motor Corp.'s luxury division, which began selling cars in 1990. The I30 was planned to share features and styling cues from INFINITI's flagship Q45, but with a significantly lower base price of less than $30,000.
Within INFINITI's current product line, the I30 is positioned between the entry level four-cylinder G20, which runs about $25,000, and the $36,000 rear-drive J30.
The odds seemed stacked against the I30. Unsuc-cessful examples of badge engineering--taking the same basic car and selling it under two separate nameplates at different price points--are many. Additionally, the I30 competes in the crowded entry-luxury segment against some extremely strong contenders including the Lexus ES 300, the segment's volume leader, the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Mazda Millenia and now the Cadillac Catera.
Nevertheless, the I30 has succeeded, and spectacularly. In less than two years on the market, the I30 has come to represent half of all INFINITI sales.
A test drive in the Leather Appointed version of the 1997 I30, virtually unchanged since its introduction, helped us understand why buyers are attracted to its performance, luxury and price.
The INFINITI family resemblance is easily recognizable on the I30, with its prominent face as its most striking feature. The I30 sports a Jaguar-style grille, a direct descendent of the grille on the INFINITI Q45. The lines of the I30's body are elegant, flowing into the wide, horizontal taillights of the back.
The distinctive grillework helps the I30 achieve some visibility in a field that's crowded with rather bland-looking designs. With the exception of the BMW 3-Series, this is a class where the styling ethic tends toward anonymous elegance.
The I30 shares many family ties with its Nissan cousin--the same platform, mechanical and electrical components, and much of its sheet metal.
However, the I30--appropriately--sports more luxury touches than the less expensive Maxima.
For example, its keyfob-activated standard security system turns on the interior lights as it unlocks the car. When you're locking up, the headlights flash to acknowledge its electronic orders, a handy feature when you're hunting down your car in a dark shopping mall parking lot.
The keyfob control can lower the front windows, and also has a panic button to create noise and attention when the situation warrants.
The I30's long wheelbase and 70-inch width combine to provide a roomy interior, among the most spacious in its class. Rear seat leg room is particularly generous, and the large door openings make entry and exit more convenient than in a good many of the I30's competitors.
Not only is there ample room for five passengers, the I30 can also carry their belongings handily, with 14.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Additional cargo space for long items, such as skis, is available with the standard rear seat armrest pass-through.
Trimmed with wood and leather upholstery, the interior has a warm, plush ambiance. The seats, though they could use more lateral support, are quite comfortable. Visibility is exceptionally good from any seat.
Controls and gauges are logically situated and easy to operate. The center dashboard is home to a digital clock, the standard automatic climate control system and the standard Bose audio system with cassette and in-dash compact disc player.
In terms of amenities, there's just not much to add.
The I30 comes in three trim levels--the standard model; the Leather Appointed edition; and the Touring version. Each contains various levels of standard equipment, all comprehensive.
The Leather Appointed I30 includes, above and beyond the base model, leather interior, of course, standard automatic transmission, power sliding glass sunroof, and automatic anti-glare inside rearview mirror. An eight-way power driver's seat and four-way front passenger's seat feature what INFINITI calls "extended pelvic lumbar support," designed to help prevent fatigue on long drives.
An Integrated HomeLink Transmitter comes standard on some I30 models. It allows the driver to control up to three radio frequency-activated devices, such as garage doors, security gates or home interior lights from the car. Two option packages are available-- heated seats (for Leather Appointed models, $400), and a traction enhancement package ($830), as are a few stand-alone options, including power sunroof.
Standard safety equipment on all I30 models consist of dual air bags, four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, an anti-theft system and, like all 1997 models, side impact protection.
Other standard equipment on all I30 models includes power windows, door locks, antenna, trunk and fuel filler door releases as well as cruise control with steering wheel mounted switches and pre-wiring for a cellular phone.
Nissan officials seem to cringe at any suggestion of similarity between the I30 and Maxima. They shouldn't. The strong mechanical underpinnings the I30 shares with the Maxima uphold INFINITI's tradition for performance.
Both the I30 and the Maxima are powered by Nissan's outstanding 3.0-liter 24-valve dohc V6 engine, rated at 190 horsepower. The engine provides smooth and quick acceleration that will easily lead the way when the light turns green, yet yields fuel economy that won't drain the wallet.
Isolation from the road provides a quiet and comfortable ride but the driver maintains a strong connection with the road. The rear Multi-Link Beam suspension combines elements of multi-link and torsion beam suspensions, resulting in the tires maintaining optimum contact with the road.
While maintaining a strong performance orientation, the I30 also lives up to its luxury lineage. The suspension from the Maxima has been tuned to provide a softer ride in the I30. Extra sound deadening materials have been added to the I30 to create a quiet cabin. Thankfully, they didn't deaden the refined growl of the engine.
The $31,995 Touring model--the I30t--is even more performance oriented with the five-speed manual transmission as standard equipment, performance tires, sport-tuned suspension and rear deck lid spoiler. Add $1000 for the automatic transmission with this package.
While it's impressive from the driver's vantage point, we also found the I30 to be a pleasant package from a passenger's point of view--even from the rear seat. The back seat can pleasantly accommodate three adults and is far more comfortable, quieter and smoother than that of many cars in its class.
Dollar for dollar, one could outfit a Maxima with almost all of the I30's features and come out ahead financially. But the Maxima and I30 are by no means semi-identical twins. In fact, they exhibit very different personalities.
Each is thoroughly competent and well equipped. But if a luxury ambiance and presence is the objective, the I30 is the way to go.
The I30 buyer also will be treated to a first-class experience at the INFINITI dealership. Since it started selling cars in the United States, INFINITI has insisted that dealers treat customers in their showrooms as they would guests in their homes. And they do, one of the key elements in INFINITI's excellent owner loyalty story.
The Total Ownership Experience includes 24-hour roadside assistance, free for 48 months, even if the warranty has expired. It adds an exclamation point to a car that stacks up as an excellent value in its class.