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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Infiniti M35- Perfect StopGap

Provided Great Depression Jr. doesn't relegate us all to bicycles or rickshaws pulled by out-of-work stock brokers, you'll probably be sitting in your office chair at this same time next year, procrastinating just as you are now by reading about the Infiniti M. Except it'll be a new M with more style, more power, and more of the swoopiness spreading across the Infiniti line. Except there's a problem, because your lease is up now and you want an Infiniti. Now. Are you going to regret not holding out that extra year for the all-new goodness? Probably not, because while the current M35 has always been a great car, a few last-minute substitutions have made it even better.


You won't notice anything new about the 2009 M35 from the outside — a minor bumper massaging happened last year — but good things have happened below the surface of the M. The 275-hp VQ35 V-6 that's lived under the hood has been replaced by a 303-hp version of the more refined VQ35HR. That engine made its debut in 2006, when the G35 sedan saw a full revision, and is composed of about 80 percent new parts versus its predecessor. A revised block is 8.4 millimeters taller to reduce piston side force, while the engine's center of mass is 15 millimeters lower for better overall dynamics. It revs higher (7600 rpm versus 6600) has a higher compression ratio (10.6:1 versus 10.3:1) and includes variable exhaust cam timing. In addition to being more powerful and more refined, the engine is more efficient: 2009 fuel economy numbers are 17/25 mpg, up one and two respectively. But that's not due to the engine changes alone — the M35 gets a new transmission, as well.


Infiniti's new seven-speed automatic debuted with the introduction of the 2009 FX35/50 and is now standard in the G sedan and G coupe. However, only the volume-leading M model — the rear-drive, V-6 M35 — gets the slick seven-cog with rev-matching on downshifts. Infiniti's PR guys say the wide gearing of the five-speed is better suited to the all-wheel drive and V-8 models, but we suspect the cost of retooling didn't mesh with profit margins in the final year of production for the lower-volume M35x, M45, and M45x.

You might also be wondering why Infiniti's new 330-hp, 3.7-liter six is standard in the cheaper G, yet the bigger M is being updated with that car's old engine. The answer there is simple — the 3.7-liter actually out-powers the M45's V-8, and although the latter has 67 lb-ft more torque, it would be silly to offer two engines that similar in power output. When a new M comes, we expect the FX50's 390-hp monster will find its way over, clearing room for an M37. For the time being, the new M35 manages to hit the sweet spot of being a large improvement without crossing into M45 territory.


The 2009 M35 is quicker and more refined, but the engine still needs to be worked hard to be entertaining. Horsepower peaks at 6800 rpm, while the engine's torque peak of 262 lb-ft comes at 4800 rpm, about 800 higher than the M45's maximum. The V-8 is always satisfying and does more with fewer gearshifts. And that's the primary difference between the two models. The M35 will appeal to buyers who want to stretch the engine to the top of its rev range, flip between gears, and actively get involved in the action, whereas the M45 buyer wants to waft down the highway with seamless confidence and minimal effort. In that respect, leaving the five-speed transmission in the M45 makes some sense — it doesn't need the extra two gears.

With a lot of recent new car debuts, Motive has come to appreciate the lighter weight and sharper handling of V-6 versions of cars, but after driving an M35S and an M45S back-to-back, we can't say we'd be happier with even this new V-6. Part of this may be because the M35's weight savings are pretty minimal, tipping the scales at just 100 pounds under the M45's 3958-pound curb weight. The handling differences between the two sport package-equipped vehicles we tested were almost imperceptible, though the M45's steering has slightly more weight and feels more focused to the mission of going fast. Both cars have identical steering ratios and 245/40R19 tires, so credit for the difference has to go to the car's slightly heavier nose.


More than just the minor difference in steering feel, the M45 always feels ready to pounce on the unsuspecting road, while the M35 needs a bit of a running start. Still, the V-6 has its advantages, like not requiring premium fuel (though it is recommended.) The M35 isn't as thirsty, either, bettering the V-8 by one mpg city and four mpg highway.

In either form, the Infiniti M remains one of the best (and quite possibly the most overlooked) vehicles in its class, even on the eve of its retirement. The cabin is spacious, comfortable, and attractive, and the optional Bose Studio Surround audio system is among our top three or four favorite stereos out there. The M may not carry the rich history and tradition of the Mercedes E-class or the BMW 5-series, but it is hard to find any area where this relative newcomer lags behind those two stalwarts of mid-size luxury. As it nears the end of its product cycle, the updated M certainly goes out on a high note. If recent efforts from Infiniti predict anything, it'll come back more competitive than ever. Hopefully, we won't all be riding donkeys by then.