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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Kelsey Mays
May 14, 2008
A car that's two years into its current design is usually beginning to show its age, especially when it has as many serious competitors as Infiniti's M sedan does. The M outpaces that trend: The 2006 original took the field by storm, and today's car is nine-tenths as terrific. In a segment whose players' strengths vary across many fronts — performance, technology, quality, reliability — the M emerges a competent choice across the board.
Infiniti sells two variants, the V-6 M35 and the V-8 M45. All-wheel-drive versions of both are also available, dubbed M35x and M45x. Ever since the brand dropped the larger Q45, the M has become its de facto flagship. As such, it's enjoyed frequent updates to stay competitive. The 2008 model sports revised styling and a handful of new technologies. Click here to see a comparison with the 2007 model.
This review covers an M35, though I've also driven the M45. Going & Stopping The M35 should be fine for most drivers. Its V-6 churns out fluid power with no peaky bursts or low-end sluggishness, and under hard acceleration its high-pitched whine should be music to any gearhead. Credit the engine, a longtime award winner from Infiniti parent Nissan. Dollar for dollar, the M35 provides a far richer powerband than competitors like the BMW 528i or Audi A6 3.2.
Though the M's five-speed automatic is a gear or two short of the competition, it works just as well, if not better. It holds lower gears tenaciously at lower speeds, refusing the mileage bait of an early upshift while you're still on the gas. Shifts are heard in engine pitch but rarely felt, and highway kickdown is quick and free of gear-hunting. Around town, lower gears arrive almost instinctively — accelerating out of a corner or pulling around a semi, for instance, you're rarely caught flat-footed in a higher gear. Jaguar's ZF automatic comes to mind in the same league, and I hope Infiniti preserves this sort of performance in its upcoming seven-speed automatic.
If the M35 is confident, the M45 is authoritative. Don't let the mere 50-horsepower difference fool you — with an extra liter of displacement, the M45's V-8 boasts a torque peak that's 800 rpm lower, with 68 more pounds-feet of twist. It trades the M35's finesse for brute hang-the-tail-out power at pretty much any speed. In my brief time with the M45 — it was a 2006 model — I found the acceleration unmanageable at times. It would come in spurts, particularly through second and third gear, giving the car a restless feeling on city streets. If your commute involves roads that are open enough for the M45 to stretch its legs, though, it could be serious fun.
The M35x and M45x utilize an all-wheel-drive system that transfers power forward or backward electronically. It can split power from 50/50 front/rear all the way to 0/100, with all the power going to the rear wheels to optimize handling. Infiniti sums up the system's convoluted name with the equally convoluted acronym ATTESA E-TS — which, were it an actual word, would be a great way to dump all your T's in Scrabble.
Drivetrains: M35 vs. M45
Horsepower (@ rpm)
275 @ 6,200
325 @ 6,400
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
268 @ 4,800
336 @ 4,000
EPA gas mileage
16/23 (M35); 16/22 (M35x)
16/21 (M45); 14/20 (M45x)
Source: Automaker data, EPA
Four-wheel-discantilock brakes are standard, and the systems are identical on the M35 and M45. My test car's brakes felt a bit mushy at first but clamped down later on. The M45 I drove in 2006 had more linear braking. Ride & Handling Midsize luxury cars run the gamut from comfortable to rigid; the M is closer to rigid, though not so much that it's punishing to drive. Despite my test car having the Sport package — which augments the four-wheel-independent suspension with sportier tuning, bigger wheels and high-performance summer tires — ride quality was livable. Highway road noise remains tolerable up to 75 mph — above that, wind and road noise quickly encroach — and the car's chassis dispatches bumps with modest noise and few reverberations.
If you live near curvy roads you'd do well to drive them in the M. The steering wheel moves with a lighter touch than in Infiniti's smaller G35, and though it doesn't feel as precise in prolonged bends — highway cloverleafs, curvy backroads — the turn-in precision for lane changes and most city driving is in the same league. All told, the steering feel encourages twisty-road driving in a way a Volvo S80 or Mercedes E-Class cannot. Body roll remains well in check, and at its limits the M displays good grip and even better balance. The Sport package adds Infiniti's Rear Active Steer, which power-adjusts the suspension hardware to angle the rear wheels slightly while the car is turning. The purported result is swifter handling. I couldn't tell when the system was operating — or what benefits it added — but the M never once came off as unresponsive, so evidently it did its job.
Naturally, models without the Sport package probably display different ride and handling characteristics. All-wheel-drive models increase the M's turning circle to 36.7 feet, as opposed to 36.1 feet with rear-wheel drive. Those figures are right on par with the competition. The rear-wheel-drive Lexus GS carves the narrowest circle, at 34.1 feet, while the V-8 Volvo S80 trails the segment at 40.0 feet. Styling & Quality I won't waste much virtual ink describing the M's styling revisions; they're better shown in the thumbnails at right. Suffice it to say the M looks much like it did before, though certain elements now recall the redesigned G35. Models with the Sport package get 19-inch alloy wheels, while others have 18-inchers.
Originally lauded for its quality compared with Infiniti's previous efforts, the M's cabin has held up well thus far. Interior surfaces aren't as sumptuous as those in the E-Class or Jaguar XF, but the dashboard rises to the windshield in steps, giving the cabin a much roomier feel than either car. Materials quality keeps with the competition: There are leather wrappings around the door pulls and chrome runners along the steering wheel. The cabin trim — aluminum or optional wood — is the real deal, not synthetic.
Audio options range from a six-speaker, six-CD stereo to two Bose systems with eight and 14 speakers, respectively. My test car had the eight-speaker system, which proved rich enough for my taste; I don't think I'd go for the top-shelf upgrade.
The navigation system's graphics are getting a bit dated, but its layout generally wallops the competition. Users can touch the on-screen commands or any of numerous shortcut buttons to zoom in or out, move the cursor around the map, go back to the previous screen, you name it. The intersection input lets you search within a specified city, a clear advantage over systems that aggravatingly display every 3rd and Main in eight surrounding states.
Real-time traffic uses a feed from XM's NavTraffic subscription service to depict congestion levels with color-coded lines along the highway. It can find the quickest route to your destination based on current traffic conditions, something early real-time traffic navigation systems didn't do. On one trip up Chicago's Kennedy expressway, the system reported that my route was largely congestion-free — while I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I'll note, at least, that it rarely overreported traffic. Infiniti says the feed goes from XM to all models with NavTraffic, so this would likely be an issue in any car with the system. Seating & Cargo Four of the M's five seats offer ample legroom and headroom, but the bulky floor hump in back means a fifth passenger has to share foot room. The front seats have standard 10-way power adjustments, and there's plenty of range for taller drivers. After you park, the steering wheel automatically powers upward to ease exit and entry — and does so much faster than in some of the M's crankier peers.
Maximum cabin volume is 105.2 cubic feet, and trunk volume is 14.9 cubic feet. Like most other cars in this class, the M lacks a folding backseat. There's a center pass-thru for skis or other long items, but it's fairly small. (If you want a car with a folding seat in this segment, try the E-Class or XF.)
Cabin & Cargo Compared
Cabin volume (cu. ft.)
Trunk volume (cu. ft.)
103.1 - 105.2**
BMW 5 Series
*Models do not include standard moonroofs. Volumes for other cars listed with moonroofs. **105.2 standard, 103.1 with Premium Package. All data for 2008 models except 2009 Acura RL, Lincoln MKS and Jaguar XF.
Safety & Reliability In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the M earned the top possible score, Good, in both frontal and side-impact tests. Standard safety features include six airbags, with side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain ones for both rows, as well as four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system. Front-seat occupants have active head restraints and pre-crash seat belts that cinch up during extreme braking to prepare occupants for impact. Standard on all but the M35x are xenon headlights with an adaptive lighting system than can swivel the lights a few degrees during a turn to help illuminate corners.
Opt for the Advanced Technology Package — which first requires the regular Technology Package — and you get adaptive cruise control, Preview Braking and Lane Departure Prevention. Adaptive cruise control uses a laser beam to judge the distance to the car ahead and apply modest (not full) gas or brakes to maintain a proper distance. Preview Braking uses the same lasers to sense any oncoming obstructions, including a rapidly slowing vehicle. Though it won't actually begin braking, as the system in the 2009 FX does, it will alert the driver with an audio chime and pre-load the brakes for sharper response.
Lane Departure Prevention debuted in the EX35 SUV in 2007. It builds on the Lane Departure Warning system Infiniti has offered for two years now. Both use a camera mounted behind the windshield to pick up lane markings and warn the driver if the car is drifting astray; LDP goes one step further by applying individual brakes to nudge the car back on course. My test car didn't have it, but I've used the feature in the EX and it's pretty impressive. Contrary to its Big Brother overtones, LDP works subtly: Hit a turn signal or turn the wheel more than a couple degrees in the EX and you'll override it. Don't think of LDP as some kind of bowling-alley gutter bumper — it works gently but meticulously. Aside from an audible warning chime, the most you'll notice is a slight tug on the wheel and a hint of deceleration as the brakes nudge the car back into its lane. Infiniti spokesman Kyle Bazemore told me the systems in the M and EX are identical, and both can be switched off if they prove too intrusive.
Reliability has proved impressive. In Consumer Reports studies, the 2006 and 2007 M35 and M45 garnered top scores. The publication predicts the 2008 model will fare much better than average — a rating that just edges out the RL, GS and A6 and considerably beats the 5 Series, E-Class and STS. Features & Pricing Without the destination charge, the M35 starts at $43,900, which is within range of most V-6 competitors. It's lavishly equipped at that, with leather upholstery, dual-zone A/C, a moonroof, and power front seats with heating and cooling, all standard. That price also gets you a six-speaker, six-CD stereo with an auxiliary jack for MP3 players. The M45 starts at $50,250; besides the V-8 engine, it doesn't add much other equipment. Both offer all-wheel drive and a Sport package, but you have to pick one or the other.
Options include heated and power-reclining rear seats, a navigation system with a backup camera, the two Bose audio systems and a backseat DVD player. Check all the boxes, and a loaded M45x runs around $64,000. M in the Market The M is as competitive as ever, and not just in a practical way. This car is fun — to drive, to look at, to sit in. In a field of climbing prices and checkered quality, it's nice to see an old favorite hold up so well.