Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Shunk / AOL
This comfortable leather-lined roost is hiding a secret. We are sitting behind the wheel of the new 2012 Infiniti M35h piloting the sedan up California's Pacific Coast Highway. From the driver's seat, and to those in the city of Santa Monica, this full-size sedan appears no different than its M37
and M56 siblings – it's just another commonplace mid-size luxury sport sedan crowding the Los Angeles basin. Unknown to the drivers stuck in traffic around us, this 4,129-pound four-door masquerading as commonplace is Infiniti's first hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle.
The automaker's third-generation M sedan
was launched in late 2009 (for the 2011 model year) with two traditional gasoline combustion engines. The flagship M56 boasts a 5.6-liter V8 (VK56VD) rated at 420 horsepower and 417 pound-feet of torque while the volume selling M37 has the brand's familiar 3.7-liter V6 engine (VQ37VHR) rated at 330 horsepower and 270 pound-feet.
Brand-spanking new for 2012 is the M35h, a hybrid gasoline-electric variant. As expected from its badging, the new frugal sibling is fitted with a slightly smaller 3.5-liter V6 (it's the VQ35HR, also found under the hood of the previous-generation M35). The all-aluminum four-valve powerplant is rated at 302 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Bolted to the back of the engine is a seven-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission, identical in type and ratio to the gearbox in today's torque-laden eight-cylinder M56. Sandwiched between the engine and transmission is a 50 kW electric motor with a power rating of 67 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque (it is a one-motor, two-clutch parallel hybrid system).
According to Infiniti, the engine/motor package develops a combined 380 horsepower (Infiniti isn't releasing torque figures, but combined we figure they are making an easy 400-plus pound-feet). The power is sent solely to the rear wheels, as Infiniti's adaptive "Intelligent All-Wheel Drive" isn't offered on the new hybrid M.
We can't blame those around us for not noticing the M35h, as Infiniti has tastefully kept the "hybrid boasting" to an absolute minimum. In fact, it's only mentioned twice on the exterior – mid-mounted on each front quarter panel, just the behind wheels, is small "HYBRID" lettering. The rear decklid merely says "M35h." We like the low-key approach.
Of course, the cockpit has a few minor changes. The tachometer has a reduced redline of 7,000 rpm (the M37 redlines at 7,500 rpm) and the temperature gauge at the far left side of the cluster has been replaced with a small "efficiency" indicator. The center-mounted eight-inch touchscreen display also features the obligatory "Energy Flow" graphics designed to micro-manage power usage.
Those loyal to the brand and sports car enthusiasts will also spot the smaller standard 18-inch wheels (wearing 245/50R18 tires at all four corners), instead of the optional 20-inch wheels offered on its combustion-only siblings. There's no Sport Package offered for the hybrid either, but the dual chrome exhaust tips are identical to those used on the M37, giving the overall design a clean, tasteful appearance.
While there's plenty to like about the barely-touched exterior and wonderfully-appointed cabin, the real surprise comes on the road. The M35h drives just like we want it to – fast and frugal.
Infiniti's parents at Nissan consistently do powertrains right, and its first in-house hybrid is no exception (before you shoot us an e-mail, remember the Nissan Altima Hybrid
The strong VQ engine and traditional geared seven-speed transmission make a great pair, delivering strong off-the-line power with a kick of boost from the electric motor. The electronically controlled gearbox allows the distinctive-sounding V6 to spin up the tachometer a bit before grabbing the next ratio. Press the accelerator with authority, and the abundant torque launches the sedan off the line with gusto. Infiniti isn't releasing numbers (it never does), but we bet that the rumors of a sprint to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds are not only true... but possibly conservative.
The steering (a custom electric system for the hybrid) and brakes (identical to the gasoline-only models, with the exception of a regenerative braking system that turns kinetic energy back into electricity) work well, and exactly as advertised. The non-sport suspension (only modified for the higher curb weight) gives the M35h surprising sure-footed agility. Thanks to the batteries hidden behind the second row of passengers, the weight distribution of the hybrid is actually better than that of its siblings. Infiniti quotes 51/49 (percentage front/rear) for the M35h, compared to 54/46 for the M37 RWD (the M56 RWD is 56/44).
Completely out of sight, but taking more than their share of trunk space, the bank of high-output lithium-ion batteries offers 50 kW of output at a nominal 346 volts – enough power to propel the Infiniti sedan to 62 miles per hour on electric power alone.
When the driver's aggression is under control, the M35h shows its softer, environmentally conscience side. As expected, the M35h is equipped with auto start/stop to save fuel when the vehicle isn't in motion (the only Infiniti configured with the fuel saving technology, as of today). Even better, at lower speeds the combustion engine shuts down placing all propulsion duties firmly in the hands of the electric motor. With the exception of a slight hum from the all-season tires, things get eerily silent. Infiniti doesn't want owners to run over hapless pedestrians around town, so they've equipped the M35h with a strange electronic noise that is emitted at low speeds. It doesn't sound like a car. It sounds... like a sound (we honestly can't describe it, and neither can Infiniti).
We spend just a couple hours with the new sedan, but we really start to like the Kool-Aid. Compared to its closest rival, the Lexus GS 450h, the M35h provides comparable acceleration but without the numbing (and boring) continuously variable transmission power delivery. The stepped gearbox simply makes the M feel sportier in nearly every driving situation – it's genuinely fun and engaging to drive. Finally, and most important to everyone in the green segment, the Infiniti absolutely slaughters the Lexus when it comes to fuel economy.
Official EPA fuel economy figures for the 2012 Infiniti M35h come in at 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, or 29 mpg combined. (During a full day of aggressive media test drives around Hollywood and Santa Monica, our test car averaged an impressive 25.3 mpg with 47.2 percent of our driving in pure electric-only mode). According to the EPA, the 2011 Lexus GS 450h will earn 22 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, or 23 mpg combined – blame its six-year-old technology for those embarrassing numbers.
When it comes to nitpicking, we could only find two small idiosyncrasies with the M35h. First, the trunk is – as you'd expect – compromised as the batteries are stored in the wall behind the rear seats. There is no longer a fold-down seat option, or a pass-through, meaning long items must go directly into the cabin. The second oddity, only discovered once we deliberately probed, was a slight hesitation when the accelerator was floored while in pure-electric mode. Most vehicles take a moment to drop a couple gears before the power shoves occupants back into the seats. But, due to its hybrid nature, the M35h needs to ignite the combustion engine and then drop a couple gears before the power comes on (don't fret, as most owners will never deliberately try to confuse the system as we did).
With a base price of $53,700, the hybrid M35h sedan commands a $6,000 premium over the standard six-cylinder M37 sedan, but undercuts the eight-cylinder flagship M56 by $5,400. And this is where things get interesting.
It seems that Infiniti is now offering consumers a hybrid luxury sedan that is nearly identical, both inside and out, to its combustion-only siblings. Thanks to its innovative VQ-based hybrid powertrain, it is more efficient than the M37 and it delivers its power better than the M56. And, when it comes to luxury and technology, the hybrid may also be saturated with the Premium Package, Technology Package and Deluxe Touring Package just like its peers (again, the hybrid isn't offered with the Sport Package or all-wheel drive).
The all-new "have your cake and eat it too" M35h hybrid isn't flawless, but it is one of the best arguments we can come up with to convince a passionate driver to sit behind the wheel of a green-themed vehicle. For the record books, the 2012 Infiniti M35h just may be the first hybrid carrot worthy of capturing the appetite of an enthusiast. Infiniti has a winner on its hands – and it could be the best M in the automaker's lineup.