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The INFINITI M35 and the more powerful M45 challenge the luxury cars from Europe. The INFINITI M models successfully blend aggression and sophistication for stylish visual flair. Their rosewood-trimmed interiors are luxurious, with comfortable seats and a full array of standard safety equipment. All the requisite luxury accoutrements are there, including keyless push-button starting. More significantly, the M35 and M45 deliver the kind of performance and handling that keep German engineers awake at night.
For 2008, the INFINITI M series received significant styling revisions, and Sport versions now boast a look all their own. Both M35 and M45 are now available with INFINITI's intelligent ATTESA ET-S all-wheel drive. A new Lane Departure Prevention option on 2008 models not only warns the driver if the M is leaving its lane, but selectively applies the brakes to straighten the car's course.
New for 2008 are revised electroluminescent instruments with white lighting and violent accents, standard XM Satellite Radio, and an upgraded (optional) touch-screen navigation system with a 9.3GB hard drive for digital music storage and playback. XM real-time traffic reporting is also available.
The M35 can be rewarding to drive. Its V6 engine is one of the most powerful you can buy. Enthusiast drivers will particularly like Sport Package, which features a firmer suspension and active rear steering. The V8-powered M45 delivers even stronger acceleration; and is also available with the Sport package.
Sedans in the $50,000 range comprise one of the most competitive chunks of the new car market, one loaded with such outstanding machines as the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Cadillac STS, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Lexus GS, Acura RL, and the new Jaguar XF. The INFINITI M leans toward the sportier end of this spectrum, particularly in Sport trim. We strongly recommend a look at the INFINITI M35 or M45 for anyone shopping for a car in this class.
The rear-drive INFINITI M35 ($43,050) and all-wheel-drive M35x ($44,800) are powered by a 275-horsepower V6 engine. The rear-drive M45 ($49,350) and all-wheel-drive M45x ($51,850) are identical to their M35 counterparts, but powered by a 325-hp V8.
Leather seats with heating and ventilation come standard on all models, and the driver's seats offers 10-way power adjustment. Also standard are real rosewood trim, a 160-watt six-speaker AM/FM stereo with 6CD changer, power sunroof, Bluetooth cell phone interface, voice activation of many controls, and a seven-inch LCD screen that displays most vehicle information. Standard wheels are 18-inch cast alloys with a finish called Titanium.
Rear-wheel-drive models are available with the Sport Package ($1,650), which adds a firmer suspension, Rear Active Steer, 19-inch alloy wheels, aluminum interior trim, and sport seats with more aggressive bolsters and premium stitching. Sport Package models are distinguished by their own front fascia and other exterior cues. The rosewood trim ($600) is available in place of aluminum on the Sport versions.
Option packages build in layers. The Technology Package ($3,350) consists of eight-speaker Bose audio with iPod interface and 9.3GB Music Box hard drive, DVD navigation with an eight-inch screen and RearView monitor, and additional voice recognition features. Technology Package buyers may add the Advanced Technology Package ($2,800), which comprises Intelligent Cruise Control with Preview Braking; the Lane Departure Prevention system; Bose 14-speaker, 5.1 channel surround-sound; a DVD-video/DVD-audio drive; and auxiliary audio-video inputs.
The Premium Package ($9,650) bundles everything in the Technology and Advanced Technology Packages with a DVD entertainment system, heated and power reclining rear seats, and separate rear-seat climate controls (with driver lockout). Packages can be mixed and matched according to buyer preferences.
Safety features include dual-stage front airbags, front-passenger side-impact airbags, and curtain-style head-protection airbags for all outboard seats. All INFINITI M models feature Vehicle Dynamic Control skid-management electronics, traction control, and an advanced ABS system. Optional safety equipment includes the lane departure warning system, RearView monitor, preview braking and pre-crash seat belts. In front-offset and side-impact crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the M35/45 got Good ratings, on a scale that comprises Good, Acceptable, Marginal, and Poor.
The INFINITI M follows through with a distinct INFINITI identity heralded by the introduction of the stylish G35. The M looks like a bigger brother to the G35 sedan. It has the distinct INFINITI badge located in the center of its grille, with familiar horizontal bars and a chrome lip at the top. The edge of the hood cuts into the headlight cover with three jeweled lamps behind, creating a sophisticated yet fairly aggressive look.
The back edge of the hood is high enough to hide the windshield wipers, and it helps the top of the fenders flow back and up into the A-pillar. The wedge-like side profile continues front to rear and ends in a short, high rear deck, creating something like a hatchback look in the rear. Short overhangs at both ends of the body help give the M its aggressive look.
For 2008, subtle but significant revisions better emphasize the M's identity. The clean new 2008 grille abandons the previous fussy, semi-visible vertical elements, leaving nothing to distract from INFINITI's trademark horizontal blades. The new front bumper houses a hungry-looking center air intake, outlined in bright metal and repeating the shape of the grille, flanked by bolder fog lights stretching the outboard edges of horizontally split brake nostrils. It's all far more visually interesting than the plain rectangular slots below the bumper of last year's model. Side sills have been re-shaped as well, and last year's body-color side molding is replaced by bright metal.
2008 Sport Package models now have a look all their own, with unique front fascia that gently undulates in plan view, while turning the base-level lower-center air intake upside down and eliminating its bright molding, making it more a mirror-image of the upper grille. So while the eye tends to sweep across the width of the base model, the Sport always draws your gaze back to its protruding center. It's more race car, less luxury car, which no doubt is exactly what INFINITI intended. Black-grilled lower brake nostrils and blacked-out headlight bezels add to the road-racer effect. Also for 2008, a red S badge identifies Sport Package cars.
For 2008, slimmer, simpler taillights have been used, plus a wider deck lid molding, bring a sharper focus to the M's pert tail, without compromising its INFINITI identity. The change required new rear quarter panels, no small investment. This is an improvement over the pre-2008 models where we thought the rear view was its weakest.
Also for 2008, the base-level 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels emulate the five-split-spoke pattern and titanium-look finish of the 19-inch Sport Package wheels (which are new as well, but changed more subtly). These are particularly striking, as each spoke is made from two thinner spokes.
INFINITI likens the shape of the M dashboard to an elongated and flattened letter M. It's unusual, but in a positive manner. The switches and knobs for climate controls, sound system and other functions are all placed on an almost horizontal surface in the center of the dash, below a large LCD screen and dual vents. They're all easy to see and operate. This big multi-function control knob in the center is simpler and more intuitive than the systems in some of the other cars in this class, such as the BMW 5 Series, thanks to INFINITI's clear layout and markings.
New for 2008 are Fine Vision electroluminescent gauges surrounded by gear-like rings.
INFINITI, like an increasing number of automakers, has gone quaint on us. Harking back to olden days, one has to push a starter button to fire up the engine. That's possible 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. We're not sure we like this technology, though many owners do. On the upside, the key can also be programmed to deliver various functions such as pre-opening windows and setting seat and mirror positions. On the downside, we've heard lots of reports of tow trucks responding to calls from owners of all brands of cars with intelligent key problems.
The standard M35 and M45 have real rosewood trim with a subdued semi-gloss finish. Sport models have genuine aluminum trim in place of the wood, although the rosewood is available as an option. The aluminum trim has a new ribbed texture for 2008, while the rosewood is a bit more brown and less rosy. Chrome trim rings around buttons and gauges subtly enhance the luxury look.
The driver's seat proved comfortable, especially with the Sport Package, which adds larger side bolsters. It's easy to find an ideal position with the 10-way power adjustments. The ventilated seats warm or cool the derriere with a fan. Sport Package M's also feature unique stitching on the steering wheel and shift knob.
There's lots of technology available here and it works well. The Bose sound systems are exceptionally good; audiophiles will find them worth the price. New for 2008 are a 9.3GB Music Box hard drive for digital music storage and playback, and XM NavTraffic real-time traffic reporting.
The navigation system also impressed us. We like using the birds-eye view, which presents the map in a 3D format that creates a sense of distance and perspective. The voice activation system works well, too, if not quite as well as the system in the Acura RL.
Rear-seat passengers will be happiest with the Premium Package, which adds heated, reclining back seats. The controls are located inside the rear-seat center armrest. The package also includes a 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, however, the rear seats offer plenty of leg and headroom.
Trunk capacity is 15 cubic feet, about average for this size car, and the opening is on the small side. The trunk lid 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. People who bought the 2006 model agreed. They loved its interior and features, according to a study by J.D. Power and Associates, the market-research firm. In Power's Automotive Performance Execution and Layout (APEAL) study, the 2006 M cars ranked first in the mid-size premium segment, ahead of the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series and Lexus GS.
The INFINITI M does not drive like a big car. Part of the reason is aluminum. The hood, trunk lid and doors are all aluminum, reducing the body's weight and helping lower its center of gravity. Also, the electrically controlled rack and pinion power steering is precise, with good road feel.
The M35 has one of the stronger V6 engines available, and it propels the M35 at a decent rate. The five-speed automatic transmission works well and shifts quickly. Drivers who want more control can use the manual mode, which works better than similar systems in some other cars, thanks to a short-throw shift lever more akin to that of a manual transmission in a sports car.
The M45 is a rocket, and it gives you the urge to floor the gas pedal just to feel the exhilarating acceleration from its V8 engine. Its EPA-estimated highway fuel mileage is only a couple of miles per gallon lower than with the V6. City mileage is the same.
The Sport Package includes what INFINITI calls Rear Active Steer. This system turns the rear wheels up to 1 degree, which isn't enough to be seen, but it helps turn the car into a corner more quickly and helps stop it from sliding out on exiting. Without trying two cars back to back it's difficult to determine how effective the rear-wheel steering is on the road. We haven't done that, but we have driven the Sport model and found it to be very stable, handling more like a good lightweight sports sedan in lane-change maneuvers.
Those who live in slushy, snowy climates should be wary of the Sport Package, however. These cars are equipped with sticky speed-rated tires, which are designed for lots of grip on dry pavement, and aren't much good in snow. Better to choose the all-wheel-drive M35x or M45x, which come with the same general-purpose, all-season tires as the base models. And with all-wheel-drive, the x-models add an element of confidence and security in sloppy climates, without a significant toll in fuel economy.
The M35x and M45x come with the same electronically managed ATTESA E-TS (Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All Electronic Torque Split) all-wheel-drive system found in the G35x sedan and the FX35 crossover. We were less impressed with the overall effect of the M35x. The strength of the V6 engine is lots of power and torque, which in turn means good response and acceleration. Yet this is neither the most fuel efficient nor the smoothest V6 on the market, and that bit of not-so-luxurious coarseness seemed to be magnified in the M35x's all-wheel-drive powertrain, or at least in our test car. The AWD system itself is not as smooth or seamless as those in some other luxury cars, such as Audi's quattro system. During hard bursts of acceleration, the INFINITI's front wheels can generate a front-wheel-drive-style torque-steer effect, in which power from the engine twists the steering wheel in the driver's hands. Moreover, as power spreads out amongst the four wheels, it can create a driveline lash that comes across to the driver as a jerk somewhere in the bowels of the car. It adds up to a less-than-luxurious experience we haven't noticed in rear-drive INFINITI Ms. However, the M35x could still be a good choice for wet or snowy locales.
We haven't tried the new V8-powered M45x, but we have to wonder if its even more potent engine wouldn't exacerbate our complaints about the V6-powered M35x.
The RearView monitor, included in the navigation system, is impressive. It has a camera located in the back bumper that projects a view toward the rear onto the in-dash LCD whenever the driver shifts into Reverse. 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 and displays a line on the screen that indicates the course of travel as the steering wheel is turned. It's a neat idea that works. Drivers still need to pay
The 2008 INFINITI M35 and M45 offer luxury, sports sedan performance, and user-friendly technologies that make for compelling packages. They're interesting, comfortable, and now better-looking than ever. Our preference is for the rear-wheel-drive models. The available all-wheel-drive system isn't the best, but would be welcome in sloppy weather. We consider the INFINITI M lineup among the best cars in a class full of good cars.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie contributed to this report from Santa Barbara, California.