- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, BMW must be flattered to a fare-thee-well. With its compact 3-Series sports sedan, the Bavarian manufacturer has crafted an enviable reputation for producing precision machinery that delights driving enthusiasts.

The formula is deceptively simple: A small, high-performance rear-drive sedan that can carry four in comfort (five in a pinch), robust six-cylinder power, a manual or automatic transmission and enough luxury touches to justify a price tag that can easily hit $40,000. There's no mystery about the formula. It's the way BMW mixes the ingredients that evokes envy and the desire to compete for a piece of the action. As a result, other manufacturers are seeking to emulate the aura of the 3-Series.

Mercedes-Benz took its frumpy C-Class and redesigned it as a sportier high-performance sedan. Lexus crafted the IS300, unabashedly following the BMW formula, but with its own potent potions. Cadillac returned to rear-wheel drive with its similarly priced but somewhat larger CTS. Lincoln offers the LS and Jaguar the X-Type, though the Jag has the added attraction of all-wheel drive. The Audi A4 follows a different formula, with a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive.

Not to be outdone, Infiniti sends us the new G35 sports sedan, which is aimed squarely at the 3-Series market. Like the BMW 3-Series, it's a rear-drive, high-performance sedan. Unlike the 3-Series, it has a V-6 instead of an in-line six-cylinder engine and, at the outset, offers only a five-speed automatic transmission.

But it's a worthy competitor in most respects, at less cost. A tested 2002 330i sedan with a five-speed manual gearbox and a decent level of equipment had a sticker price of $40,510. The 2003 G35, with a full load of extras, had a suggested delivered price of $35,730. It actually starts at $29,495, but there's a long list of options most buyers would want.

The last Infiniti in this class was the jellybean-shaped J30, which also had six-cylinder power and rear-wheel drive. But it was out of sync with the times and was supplanted by the front-drive I30, which competed in the midsize luxury class against the Lexus ES300 and Acura TL. The G35 returns Infiniti to the sports-sedan fray.

At first glance, the G35 appears small, though its interior passenger volume belies that. On the government's scale, it classifies as a midsize sedan. The styling is handsome and modern from any angle, with an aggressive prow and attractive hind quarters. The interior has a classy sporting look, with accents on the dashboard and console that mimic titanium, a small-diameter steering wheel, perforated leather upholstery, Infiniti's trademark jewelry-store in-dash clock and tastefully designed instruments that move up and down with the adjustable steering wheel.

Particularly welcome are well-designed dashboard vents on rotating drums that enable the driver and passenger to select a wide-ranging number of adjustments to direct air virtually anywhere in the interior.

Another nice touch is a pop-up screen for the optional navigation system. It means you don't have a lighted screen intruding on your visual space when you're not using it. The only jarring note in the interior design is the placement of the automatic climate controls above the sound-system controls on the center of the instrument panel.

Because the sound controls get used more frequently, it would be handier to have them up above. Also, the temperature control button is the same size and shape as the volume button, so sometimes you get heat when you want to crank the sound.

Though it's not a major problem, the power-seat buttons also are awkwardly located on the inboard sides of the front seats. That means that if a tall driver follows a short one, the tall person must lean into the car to move the seat back far enough to climb in.

Out back, the outboard rear seats are bucket shaped, deeply comfortable and supportive. There's a decent amount of head and knee room for two passengers but, as in most cars, the center seating position should be reserved only for people doing penance.

With a fully independent multilink suspension system, nicely weighted rack-and-pinion steering and an optional dynamic stability system, the G35 handles with taut precision, yet delivers a stable, reasonably comfortable ride.

The 3.5-liter V- engine is rated at a robust 260 horsepower, accompanied by great, growling exhaust notes as you rev through the gears. The five-speed automatic shifts crisply, and there's a manual mode for enthusiasts who prefer to shift for themselves. Zero to 60 comes up in less than seven seconds.

However, to properly compete with the BMW 330i, the G35 sorely needs a five-speed or six-speed manual transmission, which it is likely to get if the Infiniti folks perceive a demand out there in sports-sedan land.

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