Love Tap 

Off the Floor

Off the Floor

So there I was, minding my own business, sloughing along in wall-to-wall rush-hour traffic on the southbound Atlanta Bypass. With my voyage seeming to lengthen with every congealing moment amidst this river of commuters, my thoughts turned inward. My gaze swept languidly over the crisp, crinkling black leather upholstery of the sport-touring sedan in which I’d spent the last four hours. I stretched my fingertips away from the leather steering wheel and fanned them admiringly over the instruments and switchgear attending upon my various whims. I tweaked sound levels of the Bose-designed six-speaker radio/cassette/CD system to give that iconoclast Malcolm McLaren his best palette for reassuring me that “Jazz Is Paris”—and not some rolling parking lot west of Atlanta.

In short, I distracted myself by falling in love with Infiniti’s ’99 iteration of the I30t, and I looked forward to the moments we still had left together en route to Columbus, Ga., then back again to Nashville. When a plumber’s panel truck ahead to the right swerved violently onto the shoulder, traffic parted involuntarily and without panic around either side of an invisible menace in the road. The Infiniti responded as if by innate reflex, leaving me undisturbed in my reverie.

I heard the “thwack!” of impact as a sherd of retread shrapnel dimpled the hood just to the right of the grille; but I never saw the projectile and assumed I had run over something else. It wasn’t until two days later, when I made a routine check of fluids and belts underhood, that I saw the marble-sized divot. Sure, I was distressed by the slight damage; but in another sense I thrilled privately at the sight. Like Pygmalion, I saw before me a single blemish that might bring this seductive car to life and make credible a claim of her near-perfection.

I am not in the habit of frothing over Japanese interpretations of luxury car design. In industry parlance, the I30 is more accurately identified as Infiniti’s contender in the “near-luxury” class of 30-something-thousand-dollar cars. On paper, the I30 is a direct descendant of the underappreciated Nissan Maxima, and it marshals all of the typical specifications into comparison with its rivals: 3.0-liter V6 making 190 horsepower; front-wheel-drive; independent suspension and ABS disc brakes at all four wheels; roomy seating for five; and an ample, 14-cubic-foot trunk.

At first impression, however, there is an inkling that the specially equipped I30t, designating “touring model,” is something more than ordinary. The deck-lid spoiler, of course, is an obvious clue. The five-speed manual transmission reinforces the hunch; and the comfortable but noticeably taut suspension tuning confirms the impression.

As with all things wise and wonderful in this life, however, the magic of the I30t inheres within the weave of its various elements. Though hardly the most powerful V6 in this competitive class, the Infiniti’s twin-cam spins joyously to redline and exults in the positive, quick shifts of an ideally matched five-speed manual transmission. Weighing in at just 3,147 lbs., the I30t clicks a mere 6.6 seconds zero-to-60. The trim weight advantage also lends poise and responsiveness to handling: The car executes quick directional changes at speed with minimal body roll. It settles promptly into smooth cornering trajectories with none of the nervous skittishness that mars even more thoroughbred cars. Braking is fantastic; the 131 feet required for 60-to-zero stops tell only part of the story. It’s important, as well, to note the progressive, consistent pedal feel and smart, undistracting operation of the four-channel/four-sensor anti-lock braking system.

The I30t, however, keeps its power and performance in context: This is not a pure sports machine, after all. The swaddled leather interior makes this fact clear enough. The plastic, might-be-burl accents do exactly that—they accent rather than dominate. Set-and-forget automation is a guiding principle inside this cockpit. There are auto headlights, an auto remote controller for garage doors and such, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. The auto-temperature HVAC system is one of the better I’ve experienced. It’s a strong, silent type that works hard and unobtrusively in the background. How hard, indeed, was made obvious on a crystal fall day when I opted for windows open and sunroof retracted. Without the drag of an all-monitoring climate control system, acceleration leaped beyond its already enthusiastic levels into wheel-spinning bouts of brio.

And therein, perhaps, is the other subtle imperfection that tends to ground this Infiniti in reality. Frequent and abundant front wheel spin is a necessary by-product of so spirited a combination of motor, transmission, and front-wheel drive. Moreover, the I30t may chasten the unwary with a fistful of torque-steer, as the accelerating wheels attempt to wrest the steering wheel out of unsuspecting hands.

New for ’99 is Infiniti’s inclusion of traction control on the short option list for this well-equipped car. Inexplicably, however, this $300 option requires an additional order of heated seats for $425, effectively raising the as-tested price of $31,725 by an additional $725. That’s the wrong direction, especially in light of Acura’s impressive, refurbished 3.2TL, which costs just $27,950, base price.

It merits suggesting, however, that “near-luxury” car shoppers not let plain-speaking numbers dissuade them from trying on an I30t for size. It is, after all, Pygmalion and not Pythagoras whose spirit imbues this car with its virtues. For reasons better experienced than understood, the I30t strikes a stately pose even while it sprints, corners, and brakes in giddy flout of civil decorum. To see this car parked on the lot or to read its specifications on the page, however, is to summon a warning from Roman poet Ovid, who knew, even in Augustus’ Age, the essence of the fine ride: “The best art, they say, is that which conceals art, and so Pygmalion marvels....”

For all to see

Although Norma Swanson, 37, was a passenger in a 1994 Nissan Altima when its passenger-side airbag deployed and blinded her, Nissan went to trial with the curious defense that “the driver of the car was to blame.” Swanson countered, according to a Dow Jones wire service report last week, that Nissan was aware “passenger-side airbags in ’94 Altimas struck people in the face before they inflated.” Maybe so. The carmaker settled with Ms. Swanson for an undisclosed amount one day after the case went to trial. According to Swanson’s attorney, there have been at least 23 cases nationwide of eye injuries resulting from airbag deployments in a variety of vehicles. So far, out-of-court settlements have been the norm. Ms. Swanson, meanwhile, has recovered partial vision.

Shifty behavior

Ford’s Lincoln Division revealed to trade publication Automotive News last week that the much-anticipated LS mid-size sedans it is developing jointly with U.K. sibling Jaguar will feature two different all-aluminum, twin-cam powerplants. A 3.0-liter V6 will deliver a respectable—and competitive—210 horsepower; a V8 will rate 252 HP. The big news for aficionados, however, is in the transmission department. The V6-powered LS6 will include a five-speed manual option alongside the de rigeur automatic. This makes the first manny-tranny to appear in a Lincoln since the ’51 Cosmopolitan. The LS8, moreover, will offer a base-level automatic as well as a “Select Shift” option that allows semi-manual gear changes á la Chrysler’s AutoStick or the Porsche/Audi/VW TipTronic.

Go with VHS. . .

Auto enthusiasts and computer nerds waited in vain last week for decisive word that automakers had decided on uniform computer system standards for vehicle data-processing. In an effort spearheaded by General Motors and Toyota, the world’s automakers were considering a standard set of configurations to allow in-car computers to handle such diverse tasks as reporting road condition and processing e-mail. In the U.S., Ford and Chrysler have also pledged support for standardization, while in Europe, Daimler-Benz and Renault are likewise on board. Not surprisingly, however, early rumors of consensus proved ephemeral.

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. Or by fax at (615) 385-2930.

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