October 18, 2006

Photo Gallery: 2006 Infiniti M45

Specifications: 2006 Infiniti M45

Buyer’s Guide: 2006 Infiniti M45

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Not a lot of people knew the old Infiniti M45 existed, let alone bought it. A combination of a body that was a bit too small inside for the class combined with anonymous looks meant that the old M got left out in the furiously-competitive midsize luxury sedan stakes, where companies like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi were pitching some of their best, and newest product. Thing is, tight interior aside, there wasn’t much wrong with the old M – it was powerful as you could want and more than decent to drive, and had an irony factor that its more serious competitors lacked. But in a time where we want everything to be as obvious as a smack in the face, its more subtle charms were lost behind its nondescript styling.

It certainly ain’t nondescript now. I thought my M45, finished in an anonymous shade of cop-car grey with dark-grey alloy wheels, would blend into the background, but people swivelled their heads, and some even pointed. Perhaps it was the cluster of high-powered xenon headlights up front, the size of those alloys (19 inches on my $71,800 sport-grade tester). Maybe it was the way the rear lamps lit up like a set of afterburners or the way its roof swoops up and into a tall trunk. Whatever: the new M now has street appeal to go with its speed.

Which is significant. While the base-model M car, the $54,800 M35, is no slouch with a 3.5-litre, 280-hp V6, the M45 goes and sounds like a hot rod, its 4.5-litre V8 producing 335 hp and an explosive burble from the quad tailpipes. Coupled to a five-speed automatic whose shifts are authoritative rather than butter-smooth, it rips up past the legal speed limit to the tune of a series of snarls and snorts. A manual-shift facility is there, but you hardly ever need it, because the automatic is always grabbing for a lower gear so you can speed up all over again.

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A traditional luxury car the M45 Sport is not, but then again, Infiniti has always positioned itself at the sportier, more technical end of the spectrum in which it competes. So while the steering is nicely weighted, and the cornering attitude amazingly flat for such a big car – you can thank active rear steering for that, along with a lowered suspension and summer performance tires – it rides pretty abruptly in town, clumping and banging over rough pavement. It’s happier out on smooth roads where the corners flow into each other, where you can exercise the powerful engine, strong brakes, and chassis balance. If your needs are more urban, a standard suspension, with 18-inch wheels, is available as well.

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The M’s interior continues the non-traditional theme, with a dashboard and console arrangement that look more out of a sci-fi movie than a luxury car. The orange-lit instrument binnacle sits alongside a huge central monitor, which sits above a gigantic turn-and-push knob into which four additional buttons have been inset; it in turn is flanked by six other backlit switches and all of the climate controls. Lower down on the dash are the audio controls, split in half by Infiniti’s traditional analog clock, which is the nicest one I’ve yet seen in a car, its luminous face looking like a compressed Rolex wristwatch. Underneath the sliding armrest is a slot for the DVD entertainment system (part of the technology package on the base M45), and in back is a power-operated screen that folds out of the ceiling and a remote control in the rear armrest.

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Thanks to a widened and lengthened version of Nissan’s FM platform (a set of components that underpins the G35, 350Z, and FX35/45), the cabin now feels roomier than an E-class Mercedes or 5-series BMW, particularly in elbow and headroom. But some of that extra space seems to be wasted by the almost self-conscious bigness of everything: the dash rises way up high, almost forming a wall in front of you; the console into which it blends is also quite high, putting the armrest at the upper limit of my comfort zone (and I sit pretty high). While Nissan’s clearly put a lot of effort into the logic of the various navigation and entertainment controls – the various screens are attractively designed and easy to read, with a downright huge font for the radio display – the size of the central knob and its various surrounding bits means that half of the controls are always a big reach away; the location of the climate switches up above everything else makes the difficult to locate at a glance.

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To be honest, even for this techie, it was all a bit much. I love gadgets, way more so, my credit card statements will tell you, than the next guy. But though the car’s elegance and level of integration is impressive (the same screen and buttons work for the navigation system, the rear-seat entertainment, the back-up camera, radio, and all your preferences for the various systems) there was so much going on in the M that I felt a bit distracted.

Which normally wouldn’t have been such a bad thing in a luxury car, were the M not so nice to drive. In particular, the lane departure warning system, which warns if you’re departing your chosen lane by reading the markings on the pavement, takes threading the big car along a tight, twisty road from blissful to frustrating, as it bleeps every time you near the centre line, while you try and concentrate on hitting the next apex. Thankfully, you can turn the system off with a switch way down low on the dash, but it’s back the next time you start the car.

On the plus side, the cabin is superbly finished in a combination of leathers and metals (wood trim is standard in luxury-grade models), the control logic of the navigation and entertainment systems is intuitive and consistent, and the stereo – a Bose 5.1 surround system with speakers in, amongst other places, the centre of the dash and even the seat cushions – is superb, whether you’re listening to your favourite CD or, in the rear seats, watching an action sequence from your favourite movie. The rear-seat entertainment system, by the way, not only has a gorgeous large screen, but is standard equipment on the M45, something of a first for this class.

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As has been Infiniti’s practice, you can get a new M car loaded, or extra-loaded. The base M35 (add $3,500 for all-wheel-drive) already comes with all of the expected goodies, like leather seats, xenon lights that look around corners, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth integration, power moonroof, and a keyless entry and start system. A $2,200 entertainment system includes the killer stereo and rear screen. Finally, there’s a premium package adds the navigation system, power rear seats and sunshade, intelligent cruise control, and the lane departure warning system. The base M45 starts at $64,400 including the DVD system, to which you can add a $6,200 "ultra-premium" package with navigation and chrome wheels. The sport, which I tested, includes all of the above, plus the aggressive suspension and tires along with aluminum interior trim and some blacked-out exterior bits.

Check out the competition, such as the BMW 545i and Mercedes E500, and you’ll notice that even groaning under the weight of so much equipment, the M is several, if not tens of, thousands cheaper. But despite how the new Infiniti makes a good case for itself, not just on the value front but because of all of the advanced technology packed into its newly-stylish body, there will be many for whom the lure of an exclusive German name will an important part of the purchase decision; for them the Infiniti will remain anonymous, not because of its style anymore, but because of its badge.

But the company knows that there will also be some buyers out there who’ll specifically be out to resist the lure of the big brands and opt for something a bit edgier, whose attitude is rooted not in tradition so much as it is in the search for the next big thing. For them, there are few better cars than the new M.


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