Relaunching your flagship is a risky maneuver, but it is time for the 2011 Infiniti M. BMW's new 5-series has set sail; Mercedes-Benz's new E-Class has left the dock; Audi's latest A6 is motoring under its own power. The Infiniti M has had the Germans in it sights -- does this new edition torpedo the competition? The 2011 Infiniti M will arrive in four different configurations priced from $47,115 to $73,920 (including options), and EPA fuel economy estimates from 16 city/23 highway to 18 city/26 highway. Let's drive.
First Glance: Evolution of an M
The original Infiniti M, the M30 coupe, was part of Infiniti's birth in 1990, and lasted through 1992. The "M" marque went into hibernation until the 2003 M45 sedan emerged. In 2006 the second-generation M sedan emerged as a true contender, replacing the soon-to-be axed Q45 as Infiniti's flagship. 2011 brings us the third generation M, and it's a winner.
Where the second-gen M looked like a sedate, blend-into-the-background sedan from the outside, the 2011 M stands out in sharp relief as a fitting big brother to the distinctive G37. Infiniti's advertising and marketing emphasizes a silhouette that they like to refer to as "the gesture" -- a two-line brushstroke that recalls the elegance and flow of Japanese calligraphy. Muscular fenders and a bulging hood look like they can barely contain the beast within. The rear balances the front's muscularity with big LED taillights unifying rear corner and trunk lines. M has gone from a good-looking sedan to a gorgeous, exotic-looking car from the future.
Infiniti has always been praised for its exterior fit and finish, and M benefits from the very best levels of craftsmanship. I'm particularly enamored of Infiniti's paint jobs, which always look deep and rich to me, especially in grey tones. It's interesting to note that Infiniti has not expanded the application of the "self-healing" paint that was such a big deal when it was introduced on the EX crossover. Apparently, customers were disappointed in the functionality of the coating. In other words, it didn't work. Back to the drawing board.
In the Driver’s Seat: Seen and not seen
I've never quite understood the appeal of wood on a vehicle's interior, but I have to say that M's Japanese Ash trim was lovely, and the "Deluxe Touring" package upgraded to White Ash trim with real silver powder highlights. Photos do not do this trim detail justice. It is gorgeous and elegant. I wish that the thick coating of clear over the wood had been a bit thinner, so that I could feel the wood's grain in addition to seeing it. I guess I was looking for a furniture feel, as well as the look.
I'd certainly mount the M's front seats in my living room as furniture if I could. The heated and (optionally) ventilated leather seats can be upgraded to semi-aniline leather, which is buttery soft, yet tough.
The M retains the classic Infiniti control layout, with a banked array of buttons laid out in front of the recessed navigation screen at the top of the center stack. The signature analog chronometer sits mid-stack, dressed with a polished chrome bezel. The driver's instrument panel consists of clear, bold electroluminescent analog gauges with a small driver's information center in the middle. It's all business, and classy.
What you don't see in the cabin is a new Active Noise Control system. It works like a giant pair of noise-cancelling headphones: Two microphones monitor cabin noise, and the system produces corresponding out-of-phase sound waves to neutralize select frequencies. The technology is very effective, and totally transparent.
On the Road: Sophisticated technology
Two powertrains are available for the M. The 3.7 liter V6, which powers the rear-wheel drive M37 and all-wheel drive M37x produces, 330 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. The M56 and M56x are powered by a 5.6 liter V8 that produces 420 hp and 417 lb-ft of torque. Both feature a seven-speed automatic transmission with Adaptive Shift Control (ASC) and manual shift mode with rev matching. Both the V6 and and V8 make ample power to motivate the M, which can weigh from 3,858 lbs up to 4,224 lbs, depending on equipment. Handling is nimble and secure, if not as sharp as the cat-like G37 sedan. You're not going to forget that this M is a mid-size sedan in the corners, but you'll praise its serenity on the straightaways.
The M is an extremely sophisticated sedan, loaded with the latest technologies. I scarcely had a chance to try them all during my test drive. Some I found annoying, like Blind Spot Intervention, which uses selective braking to steer the vehicle back to the center of the lane of travel in order to help avoid unintended contact with a vehicle in the blind spot. Same thing with Lane Departure Intervention. Although, if I were driving coast-to-coast in a hurry, I might appreciate those features to help keep me on a safe path. One thing is for sure -- the Infiniti M has so many features and functions that you'll have to keep the owners manual close at hand until you master them. Otherwise, you'll be plagued with beeps and warnings that will mean nothing to you, and all that great technology will go for naught.
Journey’s End: Should BMW be afraid?
So, the $60,000 question: Has Infiniti built a BMW 5-series beater in the M37/M56? It's interesting to me that the latest BMW is more sedate and conservative than the previous 5-series, while the 2011 Infiniti M is wilder and more controversial than before. Infiniti has certainly loaded down the M with technology, including a mind-blowing Bose DVD surround sound system that trounces BMW's Logic7 stereo. The M's 5.6 liter V8 outpowers BMW's 4.8 liter V8 (420 hp vs. 360 hp), and the 3.7 liter V6 outdoes BMW's twin-turbo 3.0 liter V6 (330 hp vs. 300 hp). The M gets better fuel economy, has a better coefficient of drag (0.27 vs. 0.29), and costs less. Handling is a subjective category, but I'd put the M and the 5-series on very close footing. I'd say that the choice between a BMW 5-series and an Infiniti M has become much more of a coin toss than ever before, with subjective evaluations and taste weighting the coin in one direction or another. If it were my money, I'd go with the M.
But which M? I would probably opt for the M37. Though I found the power of the M56's V8 intoxicating, the V6 in the M37 is so great and so well-matched to the vehicle that I actually felt more confident behind the wheel when driving the M with the smaller engine. I would opt out of all-wheel drive because I love a pure rear-wheel drive experience (and because I'm cheap), but if you live in a rainy or snowy climate, you might make a different choice.
Whichever Infiniti M you choose, you're going to have a very nice ride. -- Jason Fogelson