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Nissan looks to carve a new niche for Infiniti

March 25, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

In a luxury segment crowded with variety, attractiveness and technology - from every corner of the world - you could be forgiven for letting the Inifiniti M45 slip by.

Well, the "M", as it is now being called, has been brought in and showered with attention by a company that has virtually redesigned itself over the past few years.

The result is an entirely new vehicle with the looks, attitude and wherewithal to tackle the field. Not only do the 2006 M35 and M45 have more space, grace and pace, they have been packaged to offer a clear value advantage over the competition.

The M is based on Nissan's ubiquitous FM (Front Mid-ship) platform used for everything from the 350Z, Maxima and Murano to the Infiniti G35 sedan and coupe. Infiniti is Nissan's upscale division.

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For this application it has been stretched, and Infiniti says 60 percent of the components are new.

From the Xenon headlights to the quartet of big chromed exhaust outlets, the overall stance and appearance is much more aggressive. A wide track, massive wheels and tires pushed out to the corners leaving minimal overhang, and a long hood and short reardeck result in an impression of stability and purpose.

While the exterior is certainly fresh, the interior is a showcase worthy of study. The instrument panel sweeps from pillar to pillar in a graceful arc that features a distinctive and stylish dip in the middle. The M45 Sport model gets titanium-like metal trim while the remainder of the lineup gets real rosewood with a matte, rather than a gloss finish.

There are now five models differentiated by engine, driveline and trim. The M35 and M35 Sport get Nissan's award-winning 3.5-liter VQ series V-6 putting out 280 horsepower in this application. The M35x AWD adds all-wheel drive (not available on V-8 models). The M45 uses the potent 335-horsepower 4.5-liter V-8 from the previous version and a Sport version of the M45 tops the range boasting a raft of handling upgrades. All models get a newly-refined five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift capability. Infiniti quotes M45 zero-to-60-mph times of less than six seconds, down there with some serious company.

The all-wheel-drive system (M35x) is shared with the FX series sport-utility vehicles as well as the smaller G35x sedan and varies the torque split, front to rear, as required by available traction.

Compared to the outgoing M45, the new series is a much more rounded performer thanks to a chassis that has 250 additional welds and added reinforcement for a 30 percent increase in torsional (twisting) rigidity. To control weight, aluminum is used for the hood, rear decklid and inner and outer door panels. The front cross-bar beam is made of magnesium and a similar structure ties the rear-suspension mounting points together. Fold-down rear seats were thus sacrificed in the name of structural rigidity, but a trunk pass-through permits long items to be accommodated.

We spent the majority of our wheel time in the top-of-the-line M45 Sport, which has more aggressive suspension tuning, huge 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in summer performance rubber and "Active Rear Steer". This electronically controlled system produces up to one degree of rear-wheel turn - in the opposite direction of the front wheels - to help the "M" corner better. The rear wheels then turn in the other direction to stabilize the exit from the corner. The system only comes into play at higher speeds.

The new suspension, combined with communicative and accurate steering, makes this big sedan fun to fling around.

Modern luxury cars are laden with technology and the M is no exception. Available features include: an incredible 14-speaker Bose surround sound DVD mobile entertainment system; climate controlled front seats; power reclining and heated rear seats; tire-pressure monitoring system that individually displays each wheel; voice-recognition system; DVD-navigation; intelligent key with push button ignition; adaptive front lights that turn with the front wheels and laser-guided intelligent cruise control that helps you maintain a safe distance from the car you're following.

At base prices ranging from $39,900 for a well-equipped M35, to $49,550 for the M45 Sport, Infiniti claims the new M enjoys a cost advantage over comparably equipped competitors. While price is not as important a consideration at this level, it certainly won't hurt to have the edge.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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