From Nissan, A Little Less Infiniti

When Nissan Motor USA introduced its Infiniti brand in the U.S. in 1989, its flagship Q45 sedan was a departure from what Americans were accustomed to in luxury cars. There was no signature grille; instead, a solid black plaque with an arabesque design fronted the car. The wood touches found in most other high-priced models were absent from the cabin. And instead of the usual digital clock, Infiniti substituted a gorgeous gold jeweled timepiece that anchored the instrument panel.

Over the years, Infiniti has moved closer to the luxury-car norm. In 1993, the Q45 got a grille, wood trim on the center console, and more chrome around the taillights. And now, as Nissan replaces the Q45 with an all-new version, even the old-fashioned clock has given way to one of the digital variety. That's not to say this still isn't a great car--it is. But it has lost much of the personality that set it apart from the competition.

To accomplish the latest remake, Nissan adapted the Cima, one of its Japanese-market luxury cars that is substantially cheaper than the new Q45's predecessor. That has enabled Infiniti to maintain the same sticker as the 1996 Q45. Infiniti had lowered the price in June by more than $5,000, from $53,520 to $47,900, in a move to get rid of rebates and subsidized leases. The '97 version is also equipped with a traction-control system that used to be a pricey $1,950 option.

FULLY LOADED. Even though the car costs less, you won't feel as if anything has been left out. The new "Q" has much of the same luxury amenities as its competitors, such as the $52,900 Lexus LS400 or the $49,900 Mercedes E420. The 10-way power seats have memory settings for two drivers. There's an antitheft system with keyless remote control entry. Dual sun visors screen both the front and side. A sunroof and leather seats--softer than those in the previous model--come standard. Ashtray and cupholder covers glide, rather than snap, open. And this time, there's simulated wood trim everywhere.

Infiniti has added a few new touches as well. Built into the driver's sun visor is a three-button radio transmitter that can be programmed to open driveway gates or garage doors. Tiny spotlights illuminate the center console and the window switches on the front doors at night. Best of all, rear-seat legroom has increased dramatically, by nearly four inches. All told, interior volume has grown by 2.2 cubic feet, exactly the amount carved out of the trunk. About the only options are heated front seats and a trunk-mounted six-CD changer. And even those are included, along with a stiffer suspension and rear spoiler, on the Q45's touring model, which costs $2,000 more.

The car, however, does not include some features that have become standard equipment on most luxury automobiles. For one thing, all power shuts down when the ignition is switched off. If you've forgotten to roll up the power windows, you'll have to restart the car. There is only one trip odometer instead of the usual two. And by now, most of the cars in this upscale class have separate air-conditioning controls for driver and passenger.


SILKY SMOOTH. On the road, however, it's the same rock-solid Q45 that it ever was, maybe a tad softer and quieter. Even though Infiniti has replaced the 4.5 liter V-8 engine with a slightly smaller 4.1 liter version, the car is lighter--so you won't even notice the difference. The familiar "whoosh" of power you get when you press the accelerator is still there. The transmission is still silky smooth. And while you would not call the handling exactly nimble--after all, this is a two-ton machine--it's as good as it gets in a big car. What's more, the smaller engine yields better fuel economy: 23 miles per gallon on the open road and 18 mpg in the city, 1 mpg better than the previous model.

The new Q45 is undoubtedly a more refined, more sophisticated automobile. It will probably appeal to a larger audience. But if luxury can be called generic, Nissan has found it. It has stripped away all the quirky nuances that car enthusiasts love. Like my favorite little clock.

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