Most luxury sedans try to do everything fairly well, while taking no risks that might turn off a potential buyer. The typical end result: a car with few memorable characteristics, good or bad. Despite a “have your cake and eat it too” powertrain, the Infiniti M35h is not such a car. You might not like everything about it. But you will remember it.
To begin with, the Infiniti doesn’t look like any of the others. Though the current automotive fashion favors sheer surfaces, straight lines and sharp creases, the M’s big body contains the fullest curves this side of a plus-sized lingerie catalog. Think Jaguar with more brawn and less grace, as if to prove that organic forms don’t have to be feminine. The tall fenders require 20s to properly fill them; unfortunately the factory dubs are only available on conventionally-powered rear-wheel-drive variants. The h gets 18s.
The equally curvaceous interior recaptures the traditional charm that Jaguar abandoned with the XF in a bid to reinvent itself for the new century. Audi might offer stylish interiors, but they’re never this warm and intimate. The $3,900 Deluxe Touring Package’s silver-rubbed white ash trim tastefully dazzles. The brightwork flowing along the door panels and center console is a joy to gaze upon and trace with a fingertip. Another artful touch: the DTP’s diagonally-quilted semi-aniline leather upholstery. Materials are about as good as they get at this price level. And, despite the clear attention to form, function hasn’t been neglected. The center stack’s controls are very close at hand and logically arranged. The large, cushy seats feel as good as they look. Even compared to those in other luxury sedans, the M35h’s cabin is a very pleasant place to spend time. (Of my 50+ press cars, this one has been my wife’s clear favorite.)
The Infiniti M’s driving position is much different than you’ll find elsewhere. As in the related FX crossover, from the driver’s seat you clearly sense that you’re piloting a massive vehicle, yet not an expansive one. Those curvy interior panels detract from roominess up front. Also, the M’s body is considerably narrower above the beltline than below it. The relatively upright A-pillars touch down far inboard. As in the Jaguar XJ, but to an even greater degree, the view forward has overtones of vintage GT. The rear seat is less of an acquired taste, with plenty of room, a comfortably positioned cushion, and an open view forward. The trunk—well, the lithium-ion battery pack reduces its cubes from a competitive 14.9 to a compact 11.3.
The M35h’s hybrid powertrain combines a 3.5-liter V6 with a strong electric motor for a total of 360 peak horsepower, roughly splitting the difference between the M37’s V6 and the M56’s V8. But this isn’t the whole story: at lower rpm the hybrid’s performance is much closer to that of the 417 pound-feet V8, thanks to the electric motor’s 199 pound-feet of torque (on top of the gas engine’s 258). Despite the 280 pounds added by the hybrid bits, the M35h’s 4,129-pound curb weight is barely over that of a BMW 535i. Reasonable curb weight + scads of torque = strong acceleration. Rotate the console-mounted dial to “power” and the throttle can be overly aggressive, easily overpowering the rear tires. (Avoid this setting when the road is wet. For snow there’s “Snow.”) Even in “Eco” the M35h is a far cry from a Prius, you just have to push the throttle closer to the floor to blur the scenery. “Normal” strikes a good balance.
Helpful readouts include throttle efficiency and battery charge level. But, as in most hybrids, there’s no indication the division of braking between the motor/generator and the conventional brakes, so it’s unclear how to modulate the left pedal for optimal efficiency. An odd (if common) omission as the key benefit of a hybrid is its ability to recoup energy otherwise burned off by the brake rotors.
Based on the seat of the pants, the gas engine, seven-speed automatic transmission, and the electric motor (that takes the place of a torque converter between them) usually work together seamlessly. A notable exception: a hesitation in Eco and (to a lesser extent) Normal modes when you initially put in an order for a decidedly un-eco rate of acceleration, as if the powertrain computer can’t decide what to do. Want to get across the road before those approaching cars arrive? Sit tight, the desired thrust is on its way. The wait can only seem interminable. A second transmission issue: slow reactions to manual inputs. In manual mode anywhere near WOT you’d best request a shift 1,000 rpm short of the redline. Otherwise, “hello rev limiter!”
The ears have a different take the powertrain’s seams. The VQ-Series V6 is more polished than in other applications, but still far from hushed. At half-throttle and up it roars in a very un-hybrid-like manner. This would be okay, perhaps even welcome, except the noise comes and goes. The electric motor is capable of solely powering the vehicle up to 60 miles-per-hour, and frequently does so. The gas engine was off for the entire length of a two-mile 30-mph road. Very peaceful, this ability to glide along in near silence. But at near-highway speeds the engine often cycles several times a minute. So you’ll have a muted VQ rumble, then silence, then the rumble again, over and over. If the engine is going to cycle so frequently, it needs to be much quieter. Other noise levels are low. Aside from some occasional jiggles the ride is that of a luxury sedan, with a sense of solidity and level of encapsulation you won’t find in a mere Nissan.
And fuel economy? For one nine-mile trip where the gas engine was off much of the way the trip computer reported an astounding 39.7 miles-per-gallon. Then 24 on the return trip, despite an equally light right foot. The difference: whether the battery pack was giving or taking. Over longer trips that evened out this variable the car came close to the EPA numbers: 27 in the burbs, 32 on the highway, a significant bump over the M37’s 18/26 and impressive for a performance-oriented luxury sedan. Even a heavy foot sinks the numbers only into the low 20s. Apparently the VQ isn’t incorrigibly thirsty. Infiniti is about to lose its bragging rights, though: the 338-horsepower 2013 Lexus GS 450h ekes out 29/34.
Then there’s the chassis. The M’s moves are as old school as its aesthetics. Charming in some ways, much less so in others, and impairing confidence when it’s most needed. The steering is quick but light and distant. The car’s handling feels sporty, but not tied down or precise. One plus: the battery pack shifts the weight-distribution from 54/46 to 51/49, reducing understeer. But copious body roll in hard turns and a general sense of heft (above and beyond the car’s actual mass) suggest a closer relationship to the FX crossover than the G compact sedan. Worse, body motions aren’t well-controlled, especially out back where the rear end often lags a half-step behind the front. And all this is before adding the throttle to the equation. Like other rear-wheel-drive offshoots of the corporate FM platform, the M35h is prone to snap oversteer. Crack open the throttle with the steering wheel turned even a few degrees and the rear end will step out, even way out, nothing progressive about it. Combine dramatic oversteer with quick steering and subpar body control and you’ve got your hands full. Keep a cool head, don’t overcorrect (very easy to do here), and the rear wheels will again fall in step behind the front ones. The process is just far less intuitive and controllable than it could and should be. Leaving the stability control fully engaged helps, but in a heavy-handed way. Like those in its sibs, the M35h’s system cuts in early and hard. Better systems employ far more finesse, letting you believe you’re a better driver than you actually are. Yet, despite these dynamic faults, perhaps even due to some of them, the M35h is fun to drive. It might lack for talent, but it’s oh so willing.
The M35h starts $6,000 north of the M37, at $54,595. The must-have fancy wood and upgraded leather (plus the nav and 5.1 Bose audio that attend them) bump the tally to $61,945. Fuel savings might earn back the hybrid premium over the course of a decade, sooner if you drive many stop-and-go miles or gas prices shoot up. But also recall that the hybrid accelerates more like the M56, and the V8-powered car costs about $2,000 more. Some people are concerned about the potential long-term costs of hybrids. There’s more stuff that might potentially require replacement, including that lithium-ion battery back. Though it’s far too soon to tell in this specific case, the lower tech NiMH battery pack in the Toyota Prius rarely requires replacement even well north of 100,000 miles, based on TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey. If Nissan’s system is nearly as solid (far too soon to tell) its longevity won’t be an issue. The rest of the car? about average so far.
The Infiniti M35h has its shortcomings, especially when called upon to hustle through some tight curves. But the car’s unique combination of strong acceleration, 27/32 fuel economy, distinctive exterior, and beautiful cosseting interior has a certain charm. Want technical perfection? Then get something German. But if you’d prefer a luxury sedan that ignores conventions, that combines myriad noteworthy strengths and weaknesses into a whole that shouldn’t work—a luxurious retro-flavored hybrid where oversteer is a concern—yet somehow does, then take the M35h for a spin. Unlike with the typical hybrid or even far too many performance luxury sedans, there’s never a dull moment where the car seems to be doing all the work and you’re just along for the ride.
Infiniti provided the car with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.