Friday, February 3, 2012

Infiniti jumps into hybrid pool with M35h sedan

Sacramento, California – Infinti. Luxury sedan. Hybrid.

Just a few years ago, those are words I did not envision saying in order anytime soon.

But for 2012, Infiniti has offered up the M35h, billed by the automaker as putting out “V-8 power and four-cylinder economy.”

In my week with the car, I can tell you that Infiniti’s claim is spot-on. With a 3.5-liter V-6 delivering 258 foot-pounds of torque and an electric motor capable of about 200 foot-pounds on its own, you definitely get the V-8 experience.

Yet fuel mileage comes in at an impressive 27 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the open road. By comparison, a 2012 Infiniti M37 with a standard 3.7-liter V-6 and 330 horses delivers 18/26 on the mileage chart.

But you have to think beyond that, because just like scheduling two dates on one night, it’s complicated.

For starters, the M35h has a starting price of $53,700. That’s $6,000 more than the basic M37 sedan. That might seem like a wide space, but in the world of gas engine-versus-hybrid the chasm is not that large. Consumer stats tell me that Infiniti buyers tend to keep their cars for a long time, which means they’d likely make up the price difference in gas savings in fairly quick order, especially at today’s prices, with the hybrid.

Bottom line: You need to do the math on your own driving habits and what you’re paying annually for gas BEFORE writing a check for an M35h.

But wait, it gets a bit more complicated. Power in the M35h is delivered via what’s called a one-motor, two-clutch parallel hybrid system, with the significant byproduct being the car is capable of speeds up to 62 miles per hour in pure-electric mode.

Let me assure you, that’s a big deal. In theory.

In practice, however, I found that the M35h sometimes seemed to be confused at significant changes in speed above 60 mph threshold. The confusion manifested itself in an occasional hard “thump” of a transition between engine and electric motor. It did not happen all the time, but it happened enough to make me think the new offering might need a few tweaks up the road.

Otherwise, the M35h was a typically posh Infiniti sedan getting better-than-nice fuel mileage.

My tester was overstuffed with exotic extras that brought the bottom line to nearly $68,000. Frankly, the standard perks were plentiful and likely to please most motorists. Part-of-the-standard-deal features included 10-way power/heated leather front seats, a memory system that automatically adjusts just about everything for drivers ranging from 5-feet tall to 7-footers, rain-sensing windshield wipers and V-rated, all-season tires. The automatic gearbox is a 7-speed.

I found the cabin to be quiet, the audio system rockin’ and the passenger comfort level high. Controls were easy to use. Highway smoothness was excellent. Ditto steering. The car handled like a smaller machine. It also looks good, especially on the front end, where oversize headlights fit nicely on either side of a two-tiered grille.

All in all, this is a good “green” effort for a luxury auto builder … Perfect the engine-electric transitions, and things will be just about, well, perfect.

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