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Infiniti M45: Almost a Giant Killer

People tend to absolutely love the Infiniti M35 and M45...or not. Introduced in early 2005 as '06 models, the M cars are controversial because they're designed to compete directly against European offerings such as small Jaguars, the BMW 5 Series, and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Infiniti also has a rep for trying to one-up Lexus, the king of Japanese luxury wheels, by developing similar models that have more attitude and personality.

My colleague Larry Armstrong recently raved about the M35 with all-wheel drive and the M45 with the sport package, saying that the Infiniti M "is the car the BMW 5 should have been" (see BW, 11/21/05, "This Infiniti Is a Big Step Up"). Consumer Reports echoed that judgment when it named the M35 its top-rated midsize luxury sedan.

I drove the sport version of the M45 and am not quite that wild about it -- although I wouldn't go so far as one of Larry's Italian readers, who derided the cars as having "no soul, only gizmos." In my opinion, whether you go for the Infinitis will depend on whether you like the styling and the many technology enhancements.

EXTRA OPTIONS. The Ms are fabulous cars for the money, but I think they compete most directly against the Lexus GS, the Cadillac STS, and the Acura RL (see BW Online, 12/7/05, "Caddy's STS: From Zero to Wow!", and 9/23/05, "Acura's Introduction to Luxury"). If you want a real driver's car, consider paying up more for something like a BMW -- or, if you had a really good year, a Maserati (see BW Online, 7/14/05, "Maserati's Beauty on a Budget").

The biggest difference between the M45 and the M35 is their engines. The M35, which starts at $41,290, has a 3.5-liter, 280-horsepower V-6. The M45, which starts at $47,600, has a bigger 4.5-liter, 335-horsepower V8. A "sport" version of each, with such add-ons as rear active steering, a sportier suspension, and climate-controlled seats, is available for an extra $2,800.

As with the Cadillac STS, a big appeal of the Infiniti M35 is that, for an extra $2,500, you get all-wheel drive. Wood trim, heated outside mirrors, 10-way power seats, and leather upholstery all come standard on both basic models.

NOT EXACTLY "HARMONY." A la carte options on the both models include XM or Sirius satellite radio ($300), a navigation system ($2,000), and 18-inch chrome wheels ($1,000). Or you can ante up 10-grand-plus for the "premium" package, which includes everything from a navigation system and Bose surround sound to satellite radio, two sets of wireless headphones, a lane-departure warning system, heated and power rear seats, a power sunshade for the rear window, and a DVD player with an eight-inch monitor in the back. The less expensive "technology" package, at $4,200, includes Bose surround sound, satellite radio, the nav system, and a few other add-ons.

The Infiniti Ms look cool and aggressive from the front, but bland and generically European from the side and back. The interior styling is another matter. As the M45 owner's manual states, "Your Infiniti?integrates advanced engineering and superior craftsmanship with a simple, refined aesthetic sensitivity associated with traditional Japanese culture. The result is a different notion of luxury and beauty. The car itself is important, but so is the sense of harmony that the vehicle evokes in its driver."

"Harmony" isn't the word that came to my mind. "Striking, but sometimes verging on the garish" would be a more apt description of the car's curvy dash and highly stylized interior touches. The rosewood trim in my test car was truly beautiful. The upholstery was in eye-catching black leather with toffee highlights, but the toffee color was so bright it was almost too much.

SENSIBLE CONTROLS. Ditto for some of the other effects. For instance, the word "Infiniti" is sunk into the doorsill in backlit letters that light up at night. I'm not sure I really want a logo lighting up under my feet as I get in and out of my luxury car. Outside the car, the brake lights are lit by strings of bulbs in the form of figure-eights. The effect is arresting, but also a little much.

On the other hand, the controls and instruments are among the simplest and easiest to use I've tested (listen up, BMW!). You can do things like check the trip computer and change the radio station by manipulating a knob in the center console and picking options on a screen. But there are also manual switches in ranks around the knob that are easy and intuitive to use (they're marked "Trip," "Information," "Fuel Economy," etc.). I figured it all out without referring to the voluminous owner's manual.

The Ms are European-style rear-wheel-drive cars with plenty of power, especially if you opt for the M45, but the emphasis is on smooth ride and ease of use. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard. There's a manual mode, but you can't get the car with stick shift, a big negative as far as I'm concerned. And the sport version of the car has so many standard gizmos -- active rear-wheel steering, brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, and dynamic stability control -- that you start to feel that the car is doing more for you than you really want.

MILEAGE MATTERS. I had the same feeling about the nondriving features of the M45. Voice controls aren't hard to use, but I found that the M45 frequently misunderstood my commands. It added an extra zero when I tried to input my phone number. And when I told it to, say, "Tune radio to ninety-point-five FM" -- in a loud voice, enunciating every syllable, and feeling idiotic for talking to a car -- the radio switched to 98.5 FM.

My test car didn't have the lane-departure warning system, which watches lane markings on the road via a little camera, but I'm skeptical that it would work on snowy roads. The test car also didn't have the intelligent speed control, which automatically maintains a safe distance behind the car ahead of you, but I wouldn't order that anyway. It's too disconcerting when the vehicle in front does something unexpected, like starting to go too fast around the curves on a two-lane highway.

The M45 also shares the weaknesses of other smallish luxury cars. It's rated to get a so-so 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway. On a 320-mile trip averaging 46 miles per hour, I got 19 mpg. Also, I'm only 5-feet, 10-inches but I found myself keeping the driver's seat nearly all the way back. That didn't leave much room in the seat behind me, and the lack of foot space adds to the cramped feeling in back.

SPARE THE SPARE. For winter driving, Infiniti recommends snow tires on all four wheels, and I would say that's a good idea because the regular tires tend to slip in snow before the traction control kicks in. Finally, if you get the optional full-size spare tire (a real spare is now a $200 to $300 option!), the trunk only has 11 cubic feet of storage space, which is tiny for a luxury car.

The bottom line is that the Infiniti Ms are wonderful cars -- and great bargains compared with most of their rivals. But does the M45 kick butt on European cars in terms of performance? Not in my book.

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