- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

It is said that you cannot achieve great success unless you fail first.

That happened to Infiniti with its M model. The M started as a stopgap car in 1990, when Infiniti first tried to make a tire print on the luxury and near-luxury stage.

It had a flagship, the Q45, which competed directly against the Lexus LS. And it had the J30, an ill-fated jellybean-shaped car. So Infiniti, the luxury division of Nissan, went shopping at the parent company in Japan, and found the Nissan Leopard. After some tweaking, it became the rear-drive Infiniti M30 — first as a hardtop coupe, then briefly also as a classy convertible.

But then the M designation disappeared for a decade. It returned as the M45 in the 2003 model year, this time as a V-8 luxury/muscle car slotted just below the Q45 in price, and as a competitor to the Lexus GS.

Though it had a lusty V-8 engine and zero-to-60 acceleration near six seconds, the M45 flopped. Infiniti dealers sold 5,765 copies in its first year, and sales dropped to 2,090 in 2004.

Clearly, something needed to be done. First, Infiniti decided to skip the 2005 model year, and focus on an all-new 2006 model. The result is the new M, which promises to be considerably more competitive. For one thing, there’s more variety, with both V-6 and V-8 engines, an all-wheel-drive version, and enough sport and premium packages, as well as stand-alone options, to satisfy the pickiest luxury/performance buyer.

But the new M plays against an accomplished group of performers, including the Lexus GS, Acura RL, Cadillac STS, Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the Jaguar S-Type. It starts with a competitive price tag and a high level of standard equipment. At the entry level — if more than $40,000 can be said to be entry-level — the M35 comes with an all-new 3.5-liter V-6 engine that delivers 280 horsepower.

That likely will satisfy the vast majority of owners. For those who must have the bragging rights of V-8 power, the M45 — with a 4.5-liter V-8 and 335 horsepower — is available for $6,800 more, at $47,360.

The test car was the M35 with the V-6 and all-wheel drive. The extra driving wheels add $2,500 to the base price, worthwhile for people who live in climate-challenged areas. However, the V-8 is not available with all-wheel drive.

All of the M models share a handsome, if unassuming, new body with what is now Infiniti’s biggest passenger-car pod — 105 cubic feet. That gives it more interior space than the flagship Q45 sedan. It assures that the M can seat four persons in sumptuous comfort. Like other manufacturers, however, Infiniti disrespects the occasional fifth passenger, tortured with no room for the head or feet, and no seat comfort.

Infiniti has a flair for interior design, and the posh accommodations show it. Among other things, the M comes with soft leather upholstery and Brazilian rosewood trim, which has an oiled, hand-rubbed look like the stock of a fine shotgun.

Sport models, which get active steering on the rear wheels as well as 19-inch wheels and bigger performance tires, come with aluminum interior trim, but can be ordered with the rosewood. The Sport package, however, is not available on the all-wheel-drive model.

Aluminum also is used in the door panels and trunk lid, which helps keep the weight to a smidgen more than 2 tons on the all-wheel-drive model and less than that on the others.

That contributes to the Infiniti’s rapid acceleration — the company does not publish zero-to-60 times, but they’re plenty quick with either the V-6 or V-8. Power is fed to the wheels through a new five-speed automatic transmission with short shift throws and a manual-shift mode.

Though the ride is controlled and mostly comfortable, the M35’s suspension system is more akin to that of a sports sedan than a boulevard cruiser, even on the nonsport models. There’s little body lean in turns and the tested M35 tracked true on straight stretches, with a good steering feel and no need for frequent corrections.

Standard equipment includes traction and stability control, antilock brakes with brake assist, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, 18-inch aluminum wheels, a motorized glass sunroof, an audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer, and a so-called intelligent key system.

The last enables the driver to keep his or her remote locking device in pocket or purse. It automatically unlocks the door at a touch and enables the driver to simply press a dash-mounted button to start or stop the engine.

There’s also an array of option packages and individual options, including a DVD-based Bose audio system, a lane-departure warning system, automatic cruise control, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, heated rear seats with power recliners, rear-seat climate control and a powered rear sunshade.

All of this, of course, can substantially boost the suggested price. The tested M35 all-wheel drive, with some but not all of those options, had a bottom-line sticker of $49,960.

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