Forget about the last Infiniti M45, it was a misfit. The all-new 2006 Infiniti M is modern sophisticated and stylish luxury sports sedan available with a V6 or V8 engine.
Unlike the previous-generation model, the new Infiniti M is no wall flower. Its styling fits in with the more expensive Infiniti Q45 and the less expensive Infiniti G35. The new Infiniti M looks aggressive but sophisticated. Inside is a luxurious cabin trimmed in leather and rosewood or aluminum with comfortable seats. Optional Bose Studio Surround turns the car into a mobile concert hall.
The M35 is fun to drive, particularly the M35 Sport with its sportier suspension tuning, and offers decent performance from its V6 engine. The M45 delivers exhilarating acceleration performance, benefiting from one of the most powerful V8s in its class. The all-wheel-drive Infiniti M35X is designed to offer more stable traction and handling in wintry conditions.
The new M shows that Infiniti has truly arrived on the scene in this ultra competitive luxury segment. We recommend checking one out before spending $50,000 on a luxury sports sedan. The new Infiniti M should prove to be a tough competitor to the Acura RL, Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Cadillac STS, Jaguar S-Type, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Lexus GS and others. All these cars use rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The new Infiniti M offers a choice of either along with a variety of features that make it a compelling choice in this class.
To be successful, luxury cars must present a strong family look over time. Witness BMW or Jaguar: their models are instantly recognizable worldwide and could not be mistaken for each other. That was not true of Infiniti (nor Lexus) models until recently. The last generation M45, for example, did not really look like any other Infiniti models.
No more. The new M series looks like a bigger brother of the stylish Infiniti G35 sedan with its crispy lines. The M has the distinct Infiniti badge located in the center of the grille with horizontal bars and a chrome lip at the top. The edge of the hood cuts into the headlight cover with three jeweled lamps behind to give the front of the car a sophisticated yet fairly aggressive look.
The back edge of the hood is high enough to hide the windshield wipers as well as help the top of the fenders flow back and up into the A-pillar. The wedge-like side profile is continued down the side of the car resulting in a high trunk and an almost hatchback look to the rear. A short overhang at both ends of the body helps give the M an aggressive look as well as improving its ride and handling.
The rear of the car is perhaps the weakest from a style point of view although the LED rear combination light cluster and the quad tail pipes help make it look interesting.
The five-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels with a titanium-colored finish on the Sport models are particularly striking as each spoke is made from two thinner spokes, giving the Sport a truly sporty stance. The blacked out background to the headlights helps differentiate the Sport models from the front. Apart from these small differences it is not possible to tell any of the M models apart.
Infiniti likens the shape of the dashboard to an elongated and flattened letter M. It's certainly true that the shape and design is unusual, in a positive manner. The switches and knobs for operating the climate controls, sound system and other functions are all placed on an almost horizontal surface in the center of the dash, below a large seven-inch LCD screen and dual vents. The push button switches are easy to see and operate as is the big control knob in the center. This control knob is more intuitive than the systems in some of the other cars in this class, such as the BMW 5 Series, thanks to its clear layout and markings.
Harking back to olden days, one has to push a starter button to fire up the engine. That's because the M comes with an intelligent key that does not have to be inserted in the ignition. The car senses its presence in your pocket or purse, and automatically unlocks the doors for you. The key can be programmed to deliver various functions such as pre-opening windows and setting seat and mirror positions.
All Ms except the Sport models have subtle rosewood trim (real wood) with a subdued semi-gloss finish. Sport models have genuine aluminum trim in place of the wood although the wood is available as an option. Chrome trim rims are subtly used around buttons and gauges to enhance the luxury look.
The driver's seat proved comfortable, especially in the Sport model with larger side bolsters. It's easy to find an ideal position with the 10-way power seat. Optional climate-controlled seats warm or cool the derriere with a fan.
There's lots of technology available here and it works well. The optional Bose two-channel audio with Studio Surround sound is exceptionally good. Audiophiles should get it. The navigation system works well. We like using the birds-eye view, which presents the map in a 3D format giving an idea of distance and perspective. The voice activation system works well, if not quite as good as the system in the new Acura RL.
Rear-seat passengers prefer the Premium Package with back seats that recline and are heated. The controls are located inside the rear-seat center armrest. The package also includes a full-on DVD system with an LCD that folds out of the ceiling and is controlled with a remote. Separate rear-seat climate control is included with this package. Even without the Premium Package rear-seat comfort proved good with plenty of leg and headroom.
Although the exterior appearance makes the trunk look large, in reality its 15 cubic feet capacity is barely average for this size car and the opening is on the small side as well. Worse yet, when equipped with the optional full-size spare tire it only holds 11 cubic feet of cargo. At least it has scissor type hinges, which, unlike gooseneck hinges, don't intrude into the usable space. A pass-through opening is provided for carrying skis and other long items.
Overall we found the living quarters in the M very pleasant. The design and choice of materials is more akin to a modern Euro-style luxury hotel instead of the heavy wood and deeply cushioned armchair type luxury one expects to find in more traditional hotels.
We found the new Infiniti M fun to drive and it did not feel like a big car at all. Part of the reason why the car doesn't feel too big is because aluminum body panels have been used for the hood, trunk and doors making the body weigh less while also lowering the center of gravity. Also, the electrically controlled rack and pinion power steering was precise with good road feel.
We spent most of our time in the 2006 Infiniti M35 Sport model, but we also drove an M45. Lower weight helps the V6 engine provide enough power to propel the M35 at a decent rate. The five-speed automatic transmission works well with quick shifting. Drivers who want more control can use the manual mode, which works better than in some cars as the shift lever has a short throw more akin to that of a manual transmission in a sports car.
We were satisfied with the V6's performance until we drove the M45 with the 335-horsepower V8. It's a rocket ship providing exhilarating acceleration. Not surprising, as Infiniti claims it is the most powerful V8 among its competitors. What's more the fuel consumption is only a couple of miles per gallon worse, no doubt because the V8 is not working as hard. Unfortunately it ups the cost by almost $7,000, compared to the M35 models. (BMW and Mercedes buyers also face a big premium for the more powerful engines.)
The Sport models feature include what Infiniti calls Rear Active Steer. Don't worry it doesn't mean the rear wheels turn to any great degree. In fact they only move a maximum of one degree, which is unnoticeable visibly. The actuator that turns the rear wheels is powered and controlled electrically. What it does is adjust the rear toe angle in either an opposite phase going into a corner or the same phase exiting a corner and it only operates at mid- or high-speed. That helps turn the car into a corner more quickly and helps stop it from sliding out on exit. Without trying two cars back to back it's difficult to determine how effective it is in reality. All we can say is that the Sport model proved to be very stable, handling more like a good lightweight sports sedan when purposely doing some abrupt lane changes at speed.
The optional Lane Departure Warning (LDW) system uses a camera to detect lane markings and warns a driver with a buzzer when the car starts to wander into the next lane. It only operates above 45 mph and is de-activated when the turn signals are used. In addition it detects the amount of movement of the steering wheel in order to avoid giving out warnings when one is purposely changing lanes. The system is probably a good idea especially when driving late at night on empty freeways or toll roads.
The M35X comes with the same all-wheel-drive system found in the G35X and the FX35. During a short drive in an M35X we didn't notice any differences in ride quality from the rear-drive models. Nor did we notice much difference in handling, though we only drove at a sedate pace. The M35X could be an excellent choice for driving in slippery conditions.
The RearView monitor system is impressive. It has a camera located in the back bumper that projects a view toward the rear view onto the LCD for the navigation system. It's a great safety item as it can help a driver see objects or children behind the vehicle that are otherwise hidden from view. Infiniti's version goes one step further as it displays a line on the screen that indicates the course one is headed along as the steering wheel is turned. It's a really neat idea that works. Drivers still need to pay attention to ensure nothing is behind the car, however.
The all-new 2006 Infiniti M models offer plenty of luxury touches to appeal to luxury buyers. They also offer enough performance to appeal to buyers of sports sedans. Additionally there are plenty of user-friendly hi-tech touches to appeal to techie buyers. We like the value offered by the Infiniti M35 with the Journey Package and navigation system.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara, California.
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