Story and photos by Laurance Yap
Hey, us poster children for the new economy know all about trying to be everything to all people. We know about juggling our schedules to suit different employers’ needs, about altering our mannerisms to meet different sets of expectations, about being able to switch roles, and sets of competencies, at the drop of a hat. It might not be the most stress-free way to live, working what seems like ten jobs at once, but it can work.
Automakers have long tried to convince us that they too can do it all. “Luxury sport sedan!” both the Infiniti I35 and Acura 3.2 TL Type-S proclaim. They’ve got the goods to back it up, too, with luxurious interiors, gadzillions of gadgets (Bose audio systems, power heated leather seats, sunroofs, and even a power rear sunshade on the Infiniti) as well as 17-inch wheels and motors blowing out over 250 horsepower (255 for the Infiniti, 260 for the Acura). Both have upscale looks, alphanumeric badges (the TL is based loosely on a lengthened and widened Accord, while the I35 is dimensionally almost identical to a Maxima) and expensive-looking twin exhausts. And their list prices are within spitting distance of each other–$41,000 for the I35 tested here, and $41,800 for the Acura.
Behind the wheel of the Infiniti I35
How do they fare? Well, depends on the role they’re trying to play. If you’re looking for something that errs more toward the luxury end of the luxury-sport continuum, you’ll be better served by the Infiniti. It’s got more room, to start, and both the seats and steering wheel have a wider range of adjustment. The leather is softer and smells better, and the audio system with its in-dash 6-CD changer sounds superior to the Acura’s, despite being tuned by the same manufacturer. There are also more luxury goodies to play with: a trip computer in the electroluminescent instrument cluster, heated rear seats, and even a heated steering wheel are standard equipment.
Not that the Acura is a slacker in this department. Though their leather feels more like plastic, the seats have bigger side bolsters and fit smaller people (like me) better; the rears are still comfortable despite less headroom and legroom. All the expected power options are present, and the automatic climate control system is a lot easier to use. But everything from the gated shifter, with its sequential “SportShift” gate beside the driver, to the aluminum-finish gauges, gives off sportier messages. From the more restrained use of plasti-wood to the smaller windows and even the stiffer resistance through the ignition key’s smaller arc, the Acura’s clearly more a machine about driving than it is about luxuriating.
It’s an impression reinforced on the open road, where the Acura leaves the Infiniti for dead from stoplights and also passes traffic on two-lane roads faster and more confidently. Credit the extra fifth ratio in its five-speed automatic, which is able to make better use of the 3.2-litre VTEC motor’s power and torque. Despite fantastic kickdown performance on the highway from its four-speed, the I35 can’t keep up; acceleration from rest is hampered by a huge gap between first and second gears which results in a noticeable pause in the proceedings. Don’t worry, though; the Infiniti is still more than fast enough in traffic, and still has enough torque to vaporize the front tires should you switch off the traction control (the Acura comes with VSA stability control).
Despite their luxurious leanings, neither car rides particularly well. The Infiniti is the more comfortable cruiser of the two, but even it is prone to wiggling and jiggling over rough surfaces, and even occasionally on smooth ones. The Acura’s ride is firmer, and you feel every bump, but it also seems better-damped, and when the going gets twisty, the car feels better keyed into the road on its four-wheel double wishbones. Both cars have alert steering with good feel, and fine braking performance, but not only did the Infiniti’s brakes connect to a loosey-goosey pedal, but its rear end felt light under hard braking, a trait the Acura’s stoppers never engendered. The Acura’s also doesn’t lean as much in turns and its 17-inch Michelins grip better than the Infiniti’s Dunlops, and its engine snarls angrily while the Infinti’s 3.5 is more a model of restrained musicality.
There’s an argument to be made for it being almost too sporty to be a true luxury performance sedan: for a few hundred bucks less, the Infiniti offers a far more balanced approach with almost equal lashings of luxury and sport. Given these cars’ intended new-economy roles, it may be the better buy, even if it ain’t nearly as fun.
But then again, poster child or not, I’ve never been one to do things–even stupid things–by halves, and have always been a sucker for screaming engines and screeching tires. Eight hundred bucks extra for the Acura seems like a small price to pay for so much more entertainment.