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Future models - Infiniti - M - 35h

First drive: Barnstorming Infiniti M hybrid on its way

High-end hybrid: The Infiniti M35h sedan enters a growing field of luxury hybrids that includes models from rivals BMW and Lexus.

On the road in the world’s fastest-accelerating hybrid car, the Infiniti M35h sedan

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Infiniti logo5 Jun 2012

By MIKE COSTELLO

INFINITI Australia will take up the fight to the likes of the Lexus GS and BMW 5 Series with its M sedan range, which is expected to be priced from between $80,000 and $120,000 when launched here in August.

Although the range will open with six-cylinder petrol and diesel models, we went with the company to New Zealand to have a quick test of the flagship hybrid version, dubbed M35h, albeit in UK specification.

Infiniti claims this petrol-electric executive express – the first Nissan Group hybrid vehicle sold in Australia – is the world’s fastest-accelerating full hybrid production car, with a zero to 100km/h sprint time of 5.5 seconds, half a second faster than the Porsche Panamera hybrid.

The M35h will primarily compete against the recently released Lexus GS450h, as well as forthcoming petrol-electric versions of the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6.

While Infiniti Australia is yet to reveal sales targets, it projects that the M range will account for fewer than 20 per cent of its total sales, with the halo hybrid version to make up only a fraction of that.

Most Infiniti sales are expected to come from the FX mid-sized SUV, which will be tasked with conquesting buyers from the BMW X5, Lexus RX and Mercedes-Benz ML.

Judging by its price position in Europe, class-leading performance and high levels of standard equipment, we expect the M35h to be priced at around the same level as an equivalent $111,900 Lexus GS F Sport.

Expect all variants sold here to come loaded with standard features, with Infiniti indicating that the range will not necessarily be cheaper than GS, 5 Series and E-Class models.

The UK-spec GT Premium variant we drove included a heated steering wheel, navigation, premium Bose sound system, every kind of audio connectivity, voice recognition, radar-guided cruise control, lane assist, sunroof and electric rear sunshade.

The cabin was intimate and welcoming, with excellent sound-deadening, high build quality, a wrap-around dash design with a wide transmission tunnel, lashings of high-quality leather and ash wood trim, and comfortable heated and cooled memory seats.

However, the 7.0-inch central display falls short of the massive screen found in the Lexus GS in terms of sharpness, while the smart key and several dash buttons too clearly display their relation to more humble Nissans.

We also would have liked to see technology such as a head-up display, digital speedometer, and an electric parking brake rather than the archaic foot-operated unit fitted to all variants.

The curvaceous exterior design somewhat conceals the fact that this is a big car – its 4945mm length puts it somewhere between a Mercedes-Benz E-Class and S-Class – resulting in strong rear legroom and acceptable headroom for anyone up 200cm tall.

The complex powertrain inhibits boot space, however, with a relatively meagre 350 litres available, down from between 450 and 500 litres on the non-hybrid models.

Power comes from a 3.5-litre aluminium-alloy V6 producing 225kW of power at 6800 rpm and 350Nm of torque at 5000 rpm, paired with a 50kW/270Nm electric motor (with a lithium-ion battery pack) for a combined system maximum output of 268kW.

Drive goes through a seven-speed automatic with two clutches – the second of which decouples the petrol engine and allows the car to feasibly run in electric mode at speeds in excess of 100km/h.

Plant the foot, however, and the silence of the electric motor is swiftly subsumed by the macho burble of the petrol six, which delivers an impressive amount of punch via a linear power curve.

Fuel consumption on our test drive stubbornly refused to move beyond 9.5 litres per 100km, despite some enthusiastic driving.

But what’s most impressive about the M35h’s performance is the unfussed and deceptive – almost Germanic – way in which it accumulates speed, with barely a hint of extra wind noise or tyre roar from its 18-inch wheels at anything within legal speeds.

The transmission is a clever unit that smoothly switches the dominant power source at any given moment, and offers relatively unfussed shifting of gears thanks to the welcome absence of a droning continuously variable transmission as found on most hybrids.

Our test car did not have the optional column-mounted paddle shifters for the manual mode, something we would like to see rectified on local cars.

Weight-saving measures like aluminium doors and bonnet, the absence of a torque converter, and unique steering and braking systems help keep the weight down to 1830kg – midway between its petrol and diesel-powered siblings.

The big car manages to feel quite nimble along twisting and mountainous roads courtesy of its well-sorted chassis and rear-drive configuration.

However, there is a disconnect between the driver and the road thanks to the somewhat vague electro-mechanical steering. It may be a little too early to call from this brief taste test, but our UK-spec car didn’t feel as engaging and dynamic as, for example, a BMW 5 Series.

Much harder to fault was the pliant suspension tune, which strikes a balance between comfort and dynamics, soaking up unsealed and corrugated trails and smooth tarmac with equal verve while keeping the car relatively composed mid-corner.

Infiniti employs an independent double-wishbone suspension design up front and a multi-link system in the rear, with stabiliser bars front and rear and double-piston shock absorbers all-round.

Some Australian models will receive four-wheel active-steering technology, sport-tuned suspension, sport brakes and 20-inch wheels and tyres.

Our test car came with a drive-mode selector system, which adjusts throttle sensitivity and transmission mapping according to the mode selected via a knob on the transmission tunnel.

We kept the car in Sport mode for the majority of the drive, which gave us more immediate pedal response and longer holding of gears. Eco mode and Snow mode – the former of which also includes green-focused driver ‘coaching’ – substantially inhibit the throttle response, almost as if there were a soft pillow under the accelerator pedal.

Of course, we’re going to have to wait until we drive an Australian-spec car on local roads before passing final judgement on Infiniti’s executive express, but first impressions are that the Japanese brand has conjured an interesting and worthy contender against the established mid-size luxury players.

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