First Drive: 2011 Infiniti M37S and M56S answer many questions

2011 Infiniti M56S – Click above for high-res image gallery

What is an Infiniti? That's a pretty harsh question to be asking 20 years after the brand's debut, but sadly, it's pertinent. To be fair, the possible answers to this question got much narrower in 2003 when Infiniti introduced a legitimate BMW 3 Series competitor, the G35 (now G37). The situation further clarified that same year when the "Bionic Cheetah," known to the rest of us as the FX showed its (then) quite handsome face. But it was the 2005 introduction of the second generation M sedan that announced most loudly Infiniti's luxury-performance aspirations: to kick BMW in the back of the pants.

When it debuted, the M (specifically M45S) was a better sporting sedan than the BMW 545i. It had more power, it arguably handled better, and the heavily larded-on high-tech gizmos were worlds more user-friendly than BMW's first-generation iDrive (two minutes to tune in a radio station sucks). Only problem was father time, who simply wasn't kind to the ultimately frumpy looking M. While the rest of the world's sporting, mid-size sedans evolved into better, sharper, faster machines (see the astonishingly good Mercedes-Benz E-Class), the Infiniti M languished on the vine. A good car? Yes, for sure, but by its less-than-notable refresh in 2008, the M had became an also-ran. All it really had going for it was a lower price than the competition, which isn't exactly a strong selling point in such a cachet-conscious segment.

Recently, Infiniti invited the U.S. motoring press down to mostly-sunny San Diego to meet and drive its new 2011 M cars. Lo and behold, we think we may now know what an Infiniti is.

Photos by Jonny Lieberman / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

From the outside, there's little question Infiniti has stepped up the M's game in a major way. Drawing swoopy inspiration from the Essence concept, the new M is lower, wider and just a smidgen longer. Infiniti hammered home the point that the new car is the first Infiniti product to sport Essence-derived lines, but by no means will it be the last. They showed us a few pictures of the new QX56, and while we sadly can't share them with you, please take our word for it that the new QX is world's better looking than the frankly obscene old version.

Back to the M. The 2011 model looks unabashedly Japanese from its organic curves to its low-slung stance, and is a welcome return to the avant-garde sedan gauntlet thrown down by the original Q45 two decades prior. We find the heavy-looking, overly wrought grille to be a little much, but at least it's distinctive. The car's best side is either the right or the left. We love the long front doors, the relatively short (but still plenty big) rear doors and the rising, falling and then rising again belt line that terminates into a truncated-looking trunk. Squint hard enough and you can see what the Porsche Panamera should have looked like. The stance is just about perfect, the only flaw being that the 20-inch wheels somehow look slightly undersized. Go figure. The big picture is that with the exception of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-lookin' FX, Infinitis are fairly anonymous. The 2011 M changes that.

Inside is an evolution of what we've come to expect from Infiniti. Not a lot of bling or wow, but solidly business class, clean and arguably luxurious. In the negative column is button creep. For better or for worse, the new M lacks its German rivals all-in-one controller pucks (iDrive, COMMAND, MMI) and instead chooses to mimic Lexus by covering nearly every non-wooden surface in the cabin with a button. Including the starter, we counted 55.

On the good side are large patches of leather covering the instrument binnacle and acting as driver and passenger center-tunnel knee bolsters, the latter being key for when you're banging the car around a back road. Speaking of carving out corners, the leather-wrapped steering wheel is nice and chunky, though perhaps a touch too wide in diameter. We're also happy that Infiniti upgraded the nav screen (now eight inches) as the old, illegible, tiny screen was the previous car's sorest spot.

Like the third-generation Q45, Infiniti will put some really nice wood into the new M if you opt for it (side note: there were internal rumblings concerning an all-new Q flagship, but the 2009 economic tsunami nipped 'em in the bud). In the case of our photo subject, you're looking at silver-impregnated, sunburst white ash (part of the Deluxe Touring Package). While that particular wood is very nice, some of the plastics and rubbery compounds used elsewhere in the cabin aren't. For instance, there's a long strip of aluminum-look plastic inlaid into the fancy pants wood that kinda screams "Not quite."

Back to all those buttons. The new M, like the old M, is simply dripping with technology. We'd need an Infiniti M-sized owners manual worth of space to explain them all. Instead, we'll cover our favorites. Forest Air is Infiniti's attempt to make air conditioning luxurious once more. Essentially, Forest Air (depicted by a button covered with trees) oscillates the speed of the air coming out of the vents. It's supposed to mimic a fresh breeze and therefor be more refreshing. While Forest Air sounds absolutely gimmicky, we really enjoyed it in practice.

Next, we've got Active Trace Technology, also known as ACT. Like a lot of new automotive technologies coming on line these days, ACT is yet another way to utilize the ABS. For you racing types, think of it as automatic trail braking. For the rest of you, ACT selectively unbrakes certain wheels depending on the angle of the steering wheel. In theory this allows you to transition out of corners faster and more smoothly. In practice, when you're in Sport mode (and we were absolutely in Sport mode), the level of ACT interference fades into the background. It mind sound a bit spooky, but like the other new M technologies we're about to mention, you can turn it completely off by fiddling around in the nav system.

Y'all ready for this one? Blind Spot Intervention (BSI). When another vehicle is detected in either of the M's rear corners, a yellow light illuminates on the A pillar as a warning. Nothing new there. However, should you then decide to steer into said obstacle – let's say you're trying to change lanes to the left – both right-side brakes are gently applied. Actually, forget gently. If you really cut the wheel, the brakes come on rather hard. The result is that you are pulled back into your previous trajectory. Though Infiniti assured us that if you really do want to smash into the car next to you, you can muscle your way through BSI. Obviously, we were extraordinarily skeptical of this (or any such) driver interference technology. But, we tried it out, and we're here to tell you that it works as advertised.

The 2011 M also can be equipped with Lane Departure Prevention (LDP), an evolution of the previous car's Lane Departure Warning, a technology that's carried over to the new car. LDP works exactly like BSI, only instead of reacting to a car in your blind spot, LDP reads the stripes on the road and oppo-brakes the wheels to keep you in line. This one we didn't like so much, but we can see its usefulness.

There's also Intelligent Brake Assist (IBS), which uses the radar cruise control system to detect an obstacle in front of the car and then gently moves the accelerator pedal up against your foot. Again, it's sounds frightful, but in the real world it works well, essentially nudging your foot from the gas to the brake. It's more of a recommendation than an actual intervention (it really is a gentle push as opposed to a vicious shove) and is probably best used in stop-and-go traffic. Like all that we've discussed, if you don't like it, switch it off. Being even more fair to Infiniti, the new M ships with all the driver intervention tech in the off position, requiring you to turn it on in the first place.

The 2011 M comes in two main flavors, the M37 and the M56. The M37 (finally) gets Nissan's righteously good VQ37 3.7-liter V6 that's been in use for some time in the G37 and Nissan 370Z. For M duty, the VQ is tuned to 330 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 270 pound-feet of torque at 5,200 rpm. The big news is what's lying in wait under the hood of the M56 – a 5.6-liter direct-injected V8 that produces 420 hp at 6,000 rpm and a brutal 417 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. Both engines are mated to Nissan's seven-speed automatic transmission that features rev-matched downshifts. If you opt for the Sport Package on either car, you also get proper column-mounted, leather-covered aluminum shift paddles.

For the purpose of this review, we're talking about cars equipped with said Sport Package that include bigger brakes and calipers front and rear, 4-Wheel Active Steering, upgraded springs and shocks, more highly bolstered seats, 245/40/20 summer tires and a big fat red S on the trunk lid. Caveat emptor: The Sport packs aren't cheap. Not only does the Sport Package cost an additional $3,650 over the $46,250 and $57,550 base prices of the M37 and M56 respectively, but you are forced to also get the Technology Package that lists for around $3,000. Is the $6,650 worth the stretch? To us, yes, but you've been warned.

It was quite eye-opening to drive the two Ms back to back. The M37S is a high-reving freak that's more than happy to spend an hour spinning along at around 5,500 rpm. Even though Infiniti's boffins managed to make the new M37 weigh six-pounds less than the outgoing M35, 3,858 pounds is still quite a chunk of car. That said, the impressive 3.7-liter V6 had enough power to motivate the big sedan quickly and satisfyingly. Yeah, you have to get on the pedal to get to the power, but that's the good part. Infiniti doesn't give out performance numbers, but we'd guess 5.5 seconds to 60 mph is about right. One quick note about the transmission, and this applies to both cars, is that it's a shame Infiniti didn't pull the trigger and put in a dual-clutch system. While you as the driver do get to pull the trigger (fine, paddle shifter), the shifts take way too long. Also, gas mileage is up by 1 mpg compared to the old M35 – 18 city/26 highway.

By contrast, the hulking M56S is much more of a grand tourer than the rev-loving M37. Torque comes on way lower down the rev range and there's so much more of it. The 5.6-liter V8 also makes more guttural, low-frequency sounds than the buzzy V6, so much so that the two cars hardly sound (let alone feel) related. Curiously, and despite its impressive power numbers, the V8 didn't come across as explosive as we thought and hoped it might. For comparison's sake, the Audi RS4 also makes 420 hp (and one hundred fewer torques) yet feels like it's being shot out of a cannon. A big cannon. The M56 on the other hand, feels more like the Lexus LS600hL. There's endless, inadequacy-compensating power on tap, it's just not a quick car. We suppose you could blame the M56's 4,028 pound curb weight (up 70 pounds over the M45), but we suspect that gearing and sound insulation is to blame. Still, the M56 probably hits 60 mph in five seconds flat, it just doesn't feel all that explosive. Mileage is unchanged compared to the M45 at 16 mpg in the city, but a vastly improved 25 mpg highway (the M45 clocked 21 mpg on the road).

While the new engines are no doubt welcome news to enthusiast types, the biggest improvement (and really this car's killer app) is the 4-Wheel Active Steering, or 4WAS. Unlike the more aggressive (and in reality, not that great) systems you might remember from the late '80s and early '90s, Infiniti's 4WAS only moves the rear wheels in phase with the front wheels by a maximum of one degree. Admittedly, that doesn't sound like much and at low speeds you simply don't notice it. But crank up the engine's volume and get ready to be impressed. 4WAS helps eliminate both under- and oversteer, but more importantly the M just feels planted when you reach a turn's apex. Not just planted, but nimble, athletic and confident, especially in conjunction with some left-foot trail braking. Put it like this: We knew going in that both Ms would be fast, but an honest to goodness handler? Color us remarkably impressed. If you're wondering, the optional four-wheel-drive systems offered on both cars kill the handling. They also add weight and aren't available with the all-important Sport Package. We're sure that traction control alone (plus snow tires) will see you and your new M through the winter.

Now comes the hard part – which one to buy. We suppose it depends on what you're into. For the corner-carving set, there's no question that the lighter, much more tossable M37S is the Infiniti to get. The M37 changes direction better than its V8 sibling, sounds crazier, behaves more predictably and is lots of fun to pound around a winding road. However, if big, wafting, luxurious road trips are your thing, you've got to choose the M56S. Its smoother, more refined and quieter V8 nicely satisfies the first part of the luxury-performance descriptor.

Which one would we drive home in? After about ten minutes of consideration, we're saying the The M37S. Surprised? We suspect that on a race track the M56S would be able to pull on the M37S in the straights, but that the lighter, more nimble M37S would make up all the time lost in the corners. And if the roads you like driving don't have any straight parts, well, the choice is that much easier. Either way, the 2011 M almost totally answers any questions we may have had about Infiniti. Almost.

Photos by Jonny Lieberman / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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