Marc K. Stengel
With its new G35x sports tourer, Infiniti no longer fields a merely Japanese contender for the premium mid-size sedan category. The company now offers a world-class rival for autobuyers' affections.
The distinction is an important one. As if by default, the prestige segment of the mid-size sedan market is dominated by the Germans. BMW's 3-series is the poster child; Mercedes-Benz's C-Class and Audi's A4 are the acolytes. Everyone else, from everywhere else, has traditionally been an also-ran. U.S. manufacturers, despite protestations from Cadillac and Lincoln, are scarcely in the race at all in this category. That leaves, for the most part, the Japanese trio of Lexus, Infiniti and Acura to scrap it out amongst themselves with internecine fury for second-tier status.
Only now, with the 2004 debut of Infiniti's all-wheel-drive sport sedan, the cards they may be a-shufflin'. With its cherry of a V6 powerplant, the introduction of a spiffy all-wheel-drive powertrain and a generous dollop of interior creature comforts, Infiniti's newest G35 does almost everything right.
Infiniti has been, since its birth as Nissan's premium brand in the early '90s, determinedeven desperateto achieve prestige-car status. Among enthusiasts, however, the company has always seemed to be trying too hard to win acceptance. Remember the Zen-motif advertising campaign for the original Q45 full-size sedan? The campaign wherein pictures of this entirely new car never even made it into ads? What was that all about?
Some 15 years later, when I sit behind the wheel of the 2004 G35x, it dawns on me that somewhere along the way Infiniti's questionably Zen-like "om" has transmogrified into an indisputably sporty-car "oomph." The car's 3.5-liter "VQ35" engine is arguably the auto industry's best respected V6 design. Its 260 horsepower is plentiful. Its 260 ft.-lbs. of torque, climaxing at the sweet spot of 4,800 rpm, is thrilling. Variable valve timing creates smooth, constant power all along the rpm curve, the better to exploit a fantastic five-speed automatic transmission. As a result, clutchless manual shifts click into gear as if a phantom clutch pedal had flicked them there.
From its inception, the G35 has been a traditional rear-drivervirtually a "must" for any car pretending to prestige status among aficionados. The new all-wheel-drive system does little to change this, in normal driving conditions at least. The powertrain bias, in other words, is toward the rear wheels. And yet, when traction is reduced at any wheel, the AWD system instantly redistributes torque in varying proportions to whichever wheels still maintain firm contact with the road. In snow, moreover, a fixed 50:50, front:rear torque split is possible via pushbutton.
It's all a form of engineering magic that employs an electromagnetic center differential and powerful computerization to pull off what Infiniti calls its Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All Electronic Torque Split. How the marketers managed, from that mouthful, to come up with the acronym ATTESA E-TS seems more of a design miracle than the AWD system itself.
From a driver's perspective, however, so what. "Don't give me all that mumbo-jumbo about sensors and electromagnets," you'll find yourself thinking behind the wheel. "Just do it." And the G35x does it indeed. With an initial hint of desirable, tail-happy oversteer, the sedan dives hot and hard into corners. Then, a combination of vehicle dynamic control and AWD subtly takes over to maximize cornering trajectory. Liberal use of lightweight aluminum within the suspension geometry induces crisp handling at all four wheels, and steering is equally precise, with excellent feedback.
The G35x, in short, sports about like a Euro-car; and that, in turn, earns it world-car status within the curious pecking order of the prestige-car enthusiast. Although priced and powered comparably with Acura's rival, front-wheel-drive TL sport sedan, the Infiniti's AWD powertrain sets it a league apart among sport-minded traditionalists. Then again, the Infiniti's $35,280 as-tested price strikes the Euro-cars, with their $40,000-plus window stickers, where they're most vulnerable.
But no one (I hope) drives blind-folded; and the Infiniti still has some stripes to earn in the realm of aesthetics. There's nothing in the least distasteful about the G35's exterior or interior designs. But whatever magic infuses the powertrain is missing when it comes to inspiring the Infiniti's appearance.
In the first place, the jelly-beany curves of the exterior sheetmetal are too bland and recessive for a category of car that's dominated by swaggering Teutons. I'm sure the shape is well chosenin terms of aerodynamics and fuel efficiency, that is. It terms of kindling the fires of an aficionado's imagination, on the other hand, the G35 is a bit of a yawn, a vestige of Zen.
The interior, albeit a cornucopia of creature comforts, similarly fails to excite. There's a one-word reason why: plastic. The leather upholstery is fantastic; the electronics plentiful; the steering wheel controls easy to use. But broad sweeps of unexceptional, matte-finish plastic dampen the mood, despite all the sophistication of the instruments, controls and electronic goodies that this plastic is meant to house. It's an ineffable quality, really; but in an auto category so imbued with aspiration and prestige, it's a quality that speaks volumes.
Volume, on the other hand, is one of the interior's major attractions. The G35 is amply roomy for five, and a generous trunk measuring 14.8 cu. ft. confirms this Infiniti's status as an adept cross-country tourer. One doesn't have to try very hard to have a thoroughly good time driving the G35x, whether on commute or in sport. For the sake of attracting prospective purchasers, however, it simply would have been better if the G35's aesthetics could match the sophistication and inspiration of its powertrainif, instead of dreaming up wacky acronyms, there'd been more attention spent concocting pizzazz.