Joy rides such as this sport coupe dash from Alabama to Michigan are hard-earned. To qualify, Automobile Magazine editors suffer endless hours in crowded airliners harassed by surly flight attendants. While jetting coast to coast in pursuit of grist for the editorial mill, frustration swells like the national debt, because the America best suited to car fun--lonely roads through lush forests, sprawling deserts, and beguiling mountain passes--lies less than six miles below cruising altitude.
To vent some of our air-travel anxiety, managing editor Amy Skogstrom and I exploited the road warrior's award option by bailing out of the aluminum tube to test drive an Infiniti G37S and a BMW 335i coupe--the long way home--on the finest back roads no money can buy.
Infiniti picked the original fight five years ago, when the first-generation G35 coupe was born with its sights fixed on BMW's roundel. Back then, what amounted to a Nissan 350Z with a back seat topped the then-current 3-series, but the margin of victory was as thin as the tire tread left after those two squared off for their road ruckus.
The rematch we've arranged pits an all-new 3-series against a comprehensively re-tuned G37. BMW raised the bar with--no surprise--an engine to die for: six turbocharged and intercooled cylinders fed by direct fuel injection and optimized with variable valve timing. The fruits of Infiniti's G37 homework include a 36 percent stiffer unibody, a larger and more potent V-6 engine, and a chassis fortified with larger brakes and tauter suspension. The S's (S is Infiniti's not-so-secret code for Sport) armory is well-stocked, with a six-speed manual transmission, quicker steering, larger brake rotors with opposed-piston calipers, nineteen-inch wheels and tires, more supportive seats, a viscous limited-slip differential, and battle-hardened suspension. Punch the start button, and the sizzle in the G37S's exhaust tells you that it's ready to rumble.
As intended, the fur was flying within a few miles. The G37S stepped into an early lead by racking up style points before we crossed the Georgia border. The new Infiniti--with its rakish stance, flamboyant fenders, and ten-spoke aluminum wheels--decisively upstages the more demure Bimmer. On its own, the BMW is a handsome sculpture, but the Infiniti's sparkling headlamps, Gatling-gun taillamps, and four-inch exhaust cannons fire visual salutes like a rolling fireworks exhibition. Every angle beckons an appreciative glance.
There's also plenty to admire inside the G37S. The feel-good begins when you slip into the perforated-leather, French-seamed, highly adjustable seats. While both contenders present critical information with clear red and white markings on a classic black background, the Infiniti trumps the BMW on two counts: One is the captivating purple glow accenting its dial centers and control knobs. The other is the handy lever that allows you to elevate the G37S's cluster and wheel as an ensemble. A detail that is practically indistinguishable in this pair is the handshake you receive from their three-spoke steering wheels. The subtle spoke-to-rim transitions feel as if both wheels popped from the same mold.
While Alabama was planned as a transit stage to whisk us expeditiously toward the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee and Kentucky, we couldn't resist the urge to slip off the superslab so that we could investigate the Lookout Mountain Parkway. Tracking the Little River toward the DeSoto State Park, this pleasant secondary road is rife with elevation changes and unencumbered with traffic, but the curve count was too low for our tastes.
The yard cars, on the other hand, were delightful. This southern specialty ranges from collectibles unworthy of garage space to dilapidated pickups patiently awaiting their trip to the scrapyard. Not far from a Trust Jesus sign posted high in a dead tree, we spotted a rusty 1955 Studebaker sedan slowly succumbing to a full vegetation embrace. A lovely white Chevrolet Corvair coupe smiled pleasantly from its owner's well-trimmed yard a few miles later.
Back on Interstate 59, we merged into light semitruck traffic anxious to leave Alabama a parting gesture. On a downhill run for the Georgia border, the Infiniti G37S found sufficient running room to twist its speedometer to an indicated 157 mph. At this velocity, the G37S needs no more than subtle changes in finger-tip pressure to maintain a bullet-straight trajectory.
Our first two-hour stint revealed a BMW that's always competent and supremely comfortable versus an Infiniti harboring a couple of warts. Upholstery seams running down the seat's center chafe at the driver's spine, and it's difficult to work a hand down between the seat and the door panel to operate adjuster switches. A finger-pinching fight occasionally erupts between the Infiniti's backrest release and its shoulder-belt support. What BMW's motorized seatbelt presenter lacks in simplicity, it makes up in functionality.
After a night's rest in Chattanooga, we were pleasantly surprised to fill thirsty fuel tanks with premium gas costing barely three dollars per gallon. We also discovered an irresistible souvenir at the gas station: a packet of Horny Goat Weed "dietary supplement" capsules, said to bring out the animal in men and women.
Forty miles east of our second day's starting point, we entered the Cherokee National Forest near Cleveland, Tennessee. Routes 30 and 315 heading north toward Tellico Plains were the pay dirt we sought--curve after tight curve, impeccably surfaced pavement, no cars for miles. The lack of shoulders, deep drops on one side of the road and sheer rock faces on the other, called for lower gears and rapt attention.
The BMW relished the opportunity to flaunt its fine breeding. Like sweet cream, energy pours out of the 335i's engine throughout the rev range. Step deep into the throttle with only 2000 rpm on the tach, and there's but a hint of hesitation before the rush to the redline. The charge continues with gusto to 7000 rpm, where the payback for interrupting the surge with an upshift is another satisfying dash up the dial.
Without the muffling effect of the 335i's turbos, there's more commotion when the Infiniti tackles its speed-generating task. Take the BMW's cream, toss in a helping of Grape-Nuts, and you've got the G37S's breakfast bowl. The 3.7-liter V-6's gritty bottom growl morphs to a savage howl at the 7500-rpm redline. The Infiniti works harder achieving what the BMW makes look easy, but one coupe is as likely as the other to seize the lead at the end of every short straight.
Throughout Appalachia, ancient trailer homes suffice as the standard accommodation. More prosperous families reside in factory-built dwellings. While the days of tar-paper shacks have passed, rusty corrugated metal and rough-hewn siding are still commonplace. Bricks and white paint are generally reserved for the Southern Baptist churches that, by our count, outnumber schools ten to one. In some of the more populous rural areas, we spotted three houses of worship per mile.
Route 30 hands off to Route 315 at Reliance, where the Webb Brothers Texaco station has stood guard for more than seventy years. As we ventured north, the wisdom of plotting a path paralleling America's eastern mountain range became clear. What the Appalachians lack in sheer altitude (North Carolina's 6684-foot Mount Mitchell is the highest peak), they more than make up with perseverance by sprawling over most of the eastern seaboard. The Appalachian range's western plateau is not surging peaks and towering summits in the usual mountain sense but rather rugged terrain that heaves and dips like an angry sea.
This tumultuous surface constitutes the perfect storm for entertaining roads. Add winding creeks establishing the path and mild winters to keep the asphalt pristine. Then factor in a low population density and depressed economic conditions to hold the strip malls and the truck traffic at bay. Let the tourists enjoy the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the glories of Dollywood--all not far to the east--we'll take the road to Tellico Plains.
What looks like a straight shot on the map is a route chock-full of second- and third-gear bends. Densely packed hardwoods toil by day, converting carbon dioxide into green leaves and fresh oxygen. We pass the ultimate yard car, a faded vintage fire truck, in situ with a Ford Bronco, a Mustang, and a Pontiac Firebird in full hood-feather regalia.
Wouldn't you know it, our motoring bliss was interrupted by a warning lamp in the BMW. Stopping to inspect revealed a double catastrophe: a flat right-front tire and a trunk that was missing a spare tire, a jack, and a lug wrench. Luckily, the 335i rides on run-flat radials, and a service oasis was located only a few miles ahead, in Tellico Plains.
Ren McDaniel sprung to action at the Tellico Tire shop. Her jack and air-wrench expertise were up to Wood Brothers performance standards, so our tire was plugged and we were rolling in a jiffy. The bill was four dollars; Ren reluctantly accepted the tip added for exemplary pit-stop service.
Following a quick lunch west of Oak Ridge, we turned north on 116, passed the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, and were greeted by our favorite road sign: a black squiggle over a Next 25 Miles notation. The stretch that followed was delightfully free of homesteads and any hint of enforcement, although we did encounter the occasional slow-moving coal truck.
Our last Tennessee leg was a less pleasant twenty-mile run up a wet gravel road in search of Norma (a town) and an exit from the Volunteer State. After three passes through car washes, our wheels still shook from the mud packed into the rims.
Before turning in for the night at Hazard, Kentucky (two states north of the notorious Dukes' stomping grounds), we took a detour and vectored south off the gorgeous but unchallenging Daniel Boone Parkway. On highway 66 near Peabody, we were impressed by a young stunt artist buzzing down the road at 40 mph while standing--helmetless--on an ATV that was poised in a perfectly stable, near-vertical wheelie. Tracking the Red Bird River a few miles before turning northeast toward our motel, we enjoyed a satisfying run of fourth- and fifth-gear sweepers, the perfect way to end a long day in the saddle.
The following morning, while mapping a fresh menu of fine driving roads, several oddball town names caught our attention. Within a twenty-five-mile radius of Hazard, you'll find Dwarf, Fisty, Gays Creek, Hardshell, Hindman, Krypton, Lackey, and Rowdy. Consider this neck of the woods blissfully immune to the nuances of political correctness and social sensitivity.
To focus on the fine points of handling, we ventured east of Quicksand on byroad 1098, which runs out of pavement at Decoy. There, the G37S demonstrated just how aggressively tight bends and climbing sweepers can be attacked with a high-caliber road weapon. The Infiniti's combination of instant steering response, taut suspension, brawny brakes, and a hell-bent engine kept the stability control warning lamp winking. The G37S felt as if it left the road in its wake bruised and bleeding.
The BMW exhibited a gentler touch with its lyrical approach to speed. Technically, the Infiniti should have the edge, thanks to superior horsepower, a more sophisticated front suspension, quicker steering, and stouter brakes, but the Bimmer knocks stats and specs in the ditch with the way it carves the road into savory, bite-size chunks.
Instead of the Infiniti's series of rapid reactions, the 335i's moves all flow gracefully to make even mediocre drivers feel like road stars. Each mechanical bit is such an integral part of the whole that the BMW forms an exclusive alliance with the pavement. Car and asphalt gambol in a romantic embrace.
Answers in hand, we blitzed the top half of Kentucky, all of Ohio, and lower Michigan to speed the trip's conclusions to your attention. With its highly entertaining dynamic aptitudes, near-BMW speed, and hot appearance, the Infiniti G37S easily tops the value chart. Anyone seeking a passionate fling will be well served in this seat. Those more interested in a long-term relationship should dig several thousand dollars deeper into their wallets for the 335i. Thanks to BMW's fanatical pursuit of driving excellence, not to mention increased pressure from the likes of Infiniti, the 335i has a death grip on Automobile Magazine's back-road crown.