Luxury sport sedans have a lot of boxes to tick. In a segment where high price points have not prevented a a crowd of competitors from gathering, every contender must develop a unique identity that sets it apart from the pack. This means a combination of performance, character, quality and feel that makes the car’s priorities evident, and speaks to the tastes of its well-heeled driver. Instead of picking a specific formula, the M35x tried too hard to check all the boxes, leaving it almost completely without distinguishing characteristics. The upside is an almost utilitarian soullessness, an anonymous competence that defines much of the front-drive luxury market. In this group though, we’re looking for more than that. The Infiniti’s driving experience comes across as a pastiche of other, more memorable cars, and this lack of identity drops the M to last place.
At first glance, there’s little to disappoint, but little to excite, either. The M was clearly styled in the Mercedes idiom: more impressive than alluring, particularly dressed in black metallic. The basic shape is blocky and slab-sided, with a pronounced wedge shape and more chrome bling than you’d find on a whole fleet of 5-series BMWs. Overall, the look is aggressive and imposing, and the workmanship impresses, but the M’s styling just doesn’t leave a lasting impression – curious, given that other Infiniti products, particularly the sleek G sedan and coupe, are stylish and overflowing with design personality.
Once inside, the M again makes a decent impression. The dashboard is a two-tiered affair: a dark upper panel and light-colored lower panel separated by a dash-wide swath of unique-looking African rosewood. Entry and exit are the best in this test, aided by the M’s tall roof line and a system that moves the seat and steering wheel in and out of the driver’s way for ingress and egress. The seats themselves are wide and comfortable, if not terribly supportive. The workmanship is good, but the materials are a mixed bag – the leather and wood trim is of obviously high quality, but many interior materials, such as the door padding, look slightly downmarket at this price.
The driver interfaces with a nicely padded wheel, and instrumentation is beautifully rendered and highly legible. Like its German competitors, the M has a multifunction wheel (think iDrive) to control, well, just about everything. These controls can be finicky to use, but at least Infiniti places the controls high on the dashboard, in the driver’s line of sight, mitigating the ergonomic impact of the system. The aesthetics are another matter – all those buttons under the LCD navigation / radio screen make it look as if a miniature laptop computer has been grafted into the dashboard. It’s not a look for all tastes, and this writer found it decidedly awkward.
The equipment level is hard to argue with – the M came fully stocked with toys, including ventilated front seats, a hard drive-based multimedia system, voice-activated audio and climate controls, an excellent Bose sound system, and a DVD audio and video system. Other gadgets were a bit too gimmicky, such as the lane-departure warning system, which beeps at you when you’re straying too far out of your lane. Frustratingly, it can’t be turned off.
Keeping with its utilitarian theme, the M35 excels as a people mover. It offers the largest and most comfortable back seat in this test, and a massive, well-shaped trunk. But then so does an Avalon.
The M35 is powered by the latest iteration of Infiniti’s ever-present 3.5 liter V-6, putting out a class-acceptable 303 horsepower. Like the Lexus, this engine loves to rev, and puts out a fairly aggressive howl, but the M’s curb weight – over 4,000 pounds – and willing but cog-limited 5-speed automatic mean you have to truly flog the engine to drive enthusiastically. Subjectively, the M felt slower than the Mercedes, but the engine felt more eager and made more encouraging noises. The 7-speed transmission, available in the rear-drive M, would help, but what would really make the difference here is the 324-horsepower, direct injected V-6 in the G37 sedan.
Handling-wise, the M35 fares better. Among the Japanese luxury brands, Infinti has been chasing BMW for quite some time, and this car shows they’ve been learning along the way. The M is not as overtly sporting as the BMW in this test, but a lot of the ingredients are there: direct, communicative steering, solid structure, and a firm but compliant chassis. As a result, the M35 responds eagerly to hard driving, and rewards the driver with an open line of communication with the road. But here’s where the underpowered V-6 undercuts the M35 yet again – as eager and competent as this car is over the road, it never feels effortlessly fast, and that’s a deal killer in this class.
This car is also available with a 325-horsepower V-8 – the M45 – and with that engine, it would have been a better match for the BMW and Audi, but thus equipped, the M was far from revelatory to drive, and wouldn’t have placed any higher than fourth in this test. And if the BMW stretches the price envelope here, the M45 would have blown it away with a sticker pushing $63,000. As tested, the M35 came in at a far more reasonable $54,965, and that seems the more sensible way to go.
And that sensibility explains why the M35 finishes last here. While the Infiniti is undeniably well-rounded, competent, and a solid value, those are common-sense attributes, and when you’re dropping this kind of money on a car, it shouldn’t be a sensible purchase – it should be an extravagance, a treat. A car that, in one way or another, simply blows you away. Each of the cars in this test offer that in their own fashion, each is a unique melange of performance and character that give shape to an identifiable personality. Except the M35, which other than geeky streak, shows almost no personality at all. In this segment, that’s an unforgivable sin.
Engine is willing, but it feels underpowered, and the transmission needs more cogs
Comfortable without being too mushy
Feels eager, with quick, direct steering; too bad the engine intrudes on the fun
Impressive, but doesn’t really have its own style
Roomiest in test, with some unique stylistic touches, but some subpar materials and the odd center stack do not impress
Fit and Finish: 3/5
Notably well made, but some interior materials are not up to snuff
It’s hard to think of a gadget this car doesn’t have
Just not much to get excited about here.