Phoenix - Nissan
's luxo-brand has been on a regular rollercoaster ride since it arrived on the scene in 1990, as its products, great and indifferent, collided with confused marketing schemes and its parent corporation's mounting financial woes. Could there really be a bright future for Infiniti
Having driven pre-production examples of its new G35, a V-6-powered, rear-wheel-drive sport sedan due out next month, we think so.
Notwithstanding the ready audience for its Maxima-derived, front-wheel-drive I35, Infiniti believes its salvation lies in the new, rear-wheel-drive FM platform on which the G35 is based. The FM--for "front-midship"--is the expensive, first key building block to the division's rear-wheel-drive future. In addition to the G35 sedan and Nissan's upcoming 350Z, the FM chassis will underpin a G35 coupe (due in the fall), a larger sedan, and, in 2003, a performance-oriented 4x4, the FX45.
Supplying the sport to the G35 equation is a pleasingly robust version of Nissan's highly regarded 3.5-liter, all-aluminum V-6, producing 260 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. The engine is longitudinally mounted and mated to a new five-speed automatic transmission or, in the near future, a six-speed manual. Although the automatic offers a Tiptronic-style manual shift mode, speed merchants and diehard stick-shifters will want to wait for the six-speed gearbox. Somehow, the G35s we drove, which were very rapid transit once under way, didn't feel that bothered to get off the line, their accelerative tendencies blunted by their automatics and electronic "drive-by-wire" throttle arrangements.
With its wheels placed toward its extremities, the G35 takes full advantage of its longest-in-class 112-inch wheelbase, offering impressive trunk space (14.5 cubic feet) and cabin room (101.4 cubic feet). The space windfall is particularly noticeable in the rear seat, which, unlike those in some sport sedans we admire, compares not to the brig on a pirate ship but rather to a seat in a much larger luxury automobile.
Credit, too, the G35's long wheelbase for aspects of its faithful roadholding. When the tail stepped out in hard cornering at Nissan's Arizona Test Center, it did so in such a leisurely fashion that reeling it in was simplicity itself.
The G35's composure further benefits from its 52/48 percent front-to-rear weight distribution. The company hastens to point out that the chassis was developed by Kazutoshi Mizuno, formerly head of Nissan's Le Mans and Group C racing efforts. The G35's fully independent multi-link suspension is made almost entirely of aluminum, bringing a significant reduction in unsprung weight. As is de rigueur these days with rear-wheel-drive sedans of sporting intent, an advanced Vehicle Dynamic Control is on permanent guard duty to keep lawsuits from would-be Michael Schumachers to a minimum. So, too, are ABS, load-sensing electronic brake-force distribution, and brake assist.
As a racer, Mizuno took his high-speed aerodynamics seriously. Thus, the G35 has an ultra-low 0.27 Cd (0.26 with an optional spoiler). Thanks to scrupulous attention to underbody airflow, the standard car suffers zero front-end lift. With an available Aero package, rear lift also is eliminated.
Designed inside and out by Nissan in Japan, the G35 has moments of aesthetic interest. Peaked front fenders (with stacked headlamps) give the car an unusual catamaran look. But the rear window line and the G35's C-pillar/rear-quarter-panel region seem deeply derivative of recent Audi efforts--late-'90s Teutonic style totems but, by now, a little bland.
The taillamps, by contrast, are in-your-face fresh. Lit by eighteen light-emitting diodes, they lend a nice Tokyo-at-midnight feeling to the posterior, recalling some of Japan's more psychedelic '70s efforts at rear lighting. As an added bonus, they're brighter than hell and last forever.
Inside, the instrument binnacle tilts with the steering wheel, but other than that (and the fact that rear seats can be had in bench or bucket configurations, both with a trunk pass-through), there are few surprises in the G35's handsome, well-trimmed interior.
One last question: What's it like to drive? Rapid, classy, and possessed of what may turn out to be a brilliant chassis. First impression, however, is that it's still not quite as much fun as, say, a BMW 3-series and is a delight-factor notch beneath a Lexus IS300. Thus far, the defining interplay between engine and gearbox has yet to gel. Some more lively steering is also required to help telegraph that most essential message--"Hey, bud, let's party!"--the way our favorite fun-to-drive machines do.
G35s will be available in Luxury (cloth seating) or Leather editions and may be equipped additionally with Premium, Sport, and Aero packages, so the price range will be wide. But all G35s should cost thousands less than an equivalently equipped Bimmer, with prices expected to start north of $26,000.
It's fast, it's fleet, and its reliability is presumed. And that six-speed is coming. We're not betting against the G35.