EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

Bill Gates and the Infiniti M45.

Where would either be without computer technology?

Because most of us know about Gates and Microsoft, we’ll focus on the M45, which returns for 2006 after a one-year absence.

It’s not that the sophisticated computers and network of sensors hidden throughout this car perform magic never attempted by other luxury cars.

It’s that the M45 does things that it couldn’t in its past life. This includes feats such as a lane departure warning that reads the dividers on the pavement to alert the driver when he or she drifts out of the lane without using the turn indicator. That can prevent kissing the grille of an oncoming car.

There’s intelligent cruise control that automatically slows the car using the brakes and/or reducing engine speed so you don’t kiss the bumper of the vehicle ahead.

A rearview camera uses the navi screen in the dash to show you live and in color what’s behind when backing up, though watching the screen is so fascinating you tend to forget what’s on either side of you at the moment.

And it comes with climate-controlled seats that not only warm your buns when it’s cold, but cool them when it’s hot. A word of warning, however, to first-time users. It’s a bit unsettling when the cold air strikes so be prepared for the lane-departure warning system to start beeping. The beauty of cooled seats, of course, is that when you arrive at work on a hot, steamy day, you don’t have to peel pants and shirt off the leather seat. And the seats cool quickly even on those hot days.

There’s also adaptive lighting in which the headlamps turn in the same direction as the car to better light the path.

Mark Igo, vice president and general manager of Infiniti, says there’s so many whiz-bang gadgets that the M45 “captures the soul of the Infiniti brand” and will make “hearts pound.”

If not into high-tech, however, be warned that while your heart pounds, your head may spin.

So may your wallet. The technology doesn’t come cheap. Intelligent cruise control and lane departure warning are part of a $4,200 Technology package that includes a DVD navigation system, Bose sound system and satellite radio.

But you can’t get the tech package without handing over $1,700 for the Journey package that includes the rearview monitor, pre-crash belts that tighten when sensing an impact and a Homelink transceiver.

Rather than pay $4,200 for a tech package that adds the satellite radio, you can get the radio as a free-standing option for $350–after you buy the $1,700 Journey package.

Want a DVD entertainment system? It’s $1,500, plus the $1,700 Journey system.

So to take advantage of high-tech, you must contribute to Infiniti’s high profit.

The Infiniti M is offered as the M35 with V-6, M35 Sport with V-6, rear-active steer and 19-inch wheels and tires, the M35x with V-6 and all-wheel-drive, M45 with V-8 and rear-wheel-drive and M45 Sport with V-8, RWD, rear-active steer and 19-inch wheels and tires.

The M35 offers a 3.5-liter, 280-horsepower V-6; the M45 a 4.5-liter, 335-h.p., 32-valve V-8 that’s also in the Infiniti Q45 and FX45. Both V-6 and V-8 are teamed with a 5-speed automatic with manual-mode shifting for playtime.

Regardless of model or engine, you get Vehicle Dynamic Control with traction control as standard. The stability control system resists oversteer or understeer to keep the vehicle on its intended course. And you don’t have to buy the Journey package.

We drove the ’06 M45 Sport. The V-8 packs a heck of a punch to launch you off the line or down the merger ramp.

But the sports-car handling is what allows you to enjoy the V-8 to its fullest. Thank the standard rear-active steer. The system automatically adjusts rear suspension geometry based on steering input, steering angle and vehicle speed.

Though high-tech magic, it simply means precise control as the M45 goes where you point it, when you point it and seems to lock into a slot in the road to keep you from wandering.

It functions automatically so you don’t even know it’s working and simply think you’re a great driver capable of pinpoint maneuvers.

Like the previous generation M, the new platform positions the engine behind the front axle to optimize front-to-rear weight balance for top handling. The larger wheels and tires contribute as well. The Sport suspension is performance tuned, which helps handling but results in a tad firm ride.

Both the M35 and M45 are built off a version a platform shared with the G35 sedan and coupe as well as FX crossover.

That means the new M45 sports a 4-inch longer wheelbase and slightly wider tracking for better road manners, while overall length was reduced by 8.4 inches to give it a sportier, less cumbersome look–at the expense of cabin room. The cabin is an inch wider, but that still falls short of ample stretch space.

The year’s absence from the market gave Infiniti time to update the M Series and in doing so upgrade the price. The ’04 M45 started at $43,250, the ’06 at $46,900, or about $3,700 more. The ’04 didn’t offer a Sport model; the new one starts at $49,550 before the high-cost options.

In keeping with its spare-no-high-tech-gadget theme, the M45 comes with push-button start rather than a traditional ignition slot in which you insert a key. The electronics that start the engine are in the key fob you must carry. No fob, no push-button start.

Other standard features include leather-appointed seats, voice-recognition controls, Bluetooth wireless technology, in-dash six-disc changer with MP3 playback capability, 10-way power driver’s and six-way power passenger seat, power windows with one-touch front and rear, dual-zone climate control, power sunroof, advanced dual-stage air-bag system with occupant detection for the passenger side and side-curtain air bags front and rear and a first-aid kit.

The M45 Sport (and M35 Sport) offers standard 19-inch wheels and tires (18-inch wheels and tires are standard on non-Sport models), sport-tuned suspension with rear-active steer, Xenon headlamps and climate-controlled front seats.

While the M35 comes in all-wheel-drive, a first for the M Series, the M45 doesn’t. Infiniti said demand in the M35 would determine whether it’s added to the M45. The AWD system transfers torque to the wheels where it’s needed based on conditions and speed.

Infiniti dropped the M Series after the ’04 model year when sales slipped to 2,090 units from 4,755 in ’03.

With a totally new car loaded with high-tech systems, Infiniti says the ’06 will atone for the ’04s dismal showing with sales projected at 2,000 units per month.

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TEST DRIVE

2006 Infiniti M45 Sport

Wheelbase: 114.2 inches

Length: 192.6 inches

Engine: 4.5-liter, 335-h.p., 32-valve V-8

Transmission: 5-speed automatic with manual mode

Fuel economy: 17 m.p.g. city/23 m.p.g. highway

Base price: $49,550

Price as tested: $51,600. Includes $350 for XM satellite radio and $1,700 for Journey package with Bose eight-speaker sound system, rearview monitor, compass and universal HomeLink transceiver. Add $610 for freight.

Pluses: Lots of power and lots of technology in a spirited RWD V-8 with superb handling. Stability control standard along with rear-active steer that adjusts rear suspension geometry based on vehicle speed and steering-wheel input for sports car agility. Other technology available, such as lane- departure warning.

Minuses: Takes time to adapt to rearview monitor in navi screen to determine whether something is behind and exactly where it is. High option prices, made higher by the need for Journey package.

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Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation and Wednesday and Friday in Business. Hear him on WBBM Newsradio 780 at 6:22 p.m. Wednesdays and 11:22 a.m. Sundays.

jmateja@tribune.com

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