Infiniti's new M35h is easily the best hybrid I have driven to date. Think of the electric motor as a new age turbocharger and not an economy option, because this carreally goes.
That's not to say the car's not economical, because it is at less than 7.0 litres/100km. But thinking of the hybrid in strictly these terms does the car a grave injustice - because it's much more than that.
The rear-wheel drive Infiniti M sedan is one of two models that will lead the Japanese luxurycarmaker's return to our shores in August. The other is the all-wheel drive FX crossover.
Infiniti is the luxury arm of Nissan, in much the same way as Lexus is the luxury extension of the Toyota brand. It's been around for over 20 years, but until now has made cars primarily for the US market.
It did however sell a single luxury model here in the early 90s called the Q45, a sedan that retailed for $145,000 of which the company sold a grand total of 132. Over the years successive Nissan CEOs have vowed Infiniti would one day return, but not until it had a full range of vehicles to offer. That day has finally arrived.
WHAT WE GET
Nothing brand spanking new in gloal terms but certainly nothing we've laid eyes on before. Ironically the crescent-shaped badge bears a passing resemblance to China's Great Wall Motors which unfortunately has been on the scene longer.
The fourth generation M sedan was launched overseas in 2011 and is the newest of the vehicles coming our way. It will arrive in 3.7-litre petrol V6 guise, 3.0-litre turbo diesel form and the aforementioned 3.5-litrepetrol-electric hybrid petrol.
Surprisingly, the hybrid with a 0-100km/h time of 5.5 secs is the fastest of the trio and billed as the fastest accelerating production series hybrid in the world. The other car at launch will be the FX, a large SUV about the size of a Nissan Murano.
Launched 2009 the second generation FX will be available with a 3.5-litre petrol V6, 5.0-litre petrol V8 and 3.0-litre turbo diesel. Both vehicles share the same platform and both are built in Japan. They will be followed in November by the G sports coupe and convertibles.
These are luxury vehicles and as such don't expect them to be cheap. They are designed to go head to head with the Germans (Benz, BMW and Audi), not to mention Lexuswhich by virtue of its Japanese origins will by default be seen as its natural enemy.
Infiniti however argues its cars are sportier, driver-orientated cars that will appeal to a wider crosssection of buyers, especially younger buyers looking for something other than what the establishment drives. Infiniti has not revealed pricing yet, but its competitor models provide a strong indicator.
Think $80K and upwards for M and probably around the same mark for the FX. Like the price features and final specifications are still to be determined, making it difficult to say what is or is not standard at this stage. Some models will come with 4-wheel active steer, sports suspension and 20 inch alloys.
We only got to drive the M35h hybrid at a preview event in New Zealand this week. The drivetrain consists of a 3.5-litre petrol V6 that puts out 225kW of power and an electric motor that adds another 50kW to the equation, for a combined total output of 268kW (6.9 litres/100km).
Maximum torque from the petrol engine is 350Nm, with another 270Nm available from the electricmotor - but no figure is provided for the total torque output which is difficult to quantify. It's a parallel hybrid that provides full decoupling of the V6 when the car is in electric mode orregenerating power.
The M37's 3.7-litre V6 puts out 235kW of power and 360Nm of torque (10.2 litres/100km), while the M30d turbo diesel is good for 175kW and 550Nm of torque (7.5 litres/100km). Neither provide the same kind of performance or economy as the hybrid.
All three are fitted with a 7-speed automatic with a facility to change gears manually, although the hybrid's auto is a little different with an electronic clutch instead of a torque convertor.
We were able to drive the FX37 and FX50. Like the M37 the FX37's 3.7-litre V6 produces 235kW of power and 360Nm of torque (12.1litres/100km). It's basically the same engine as in the superb Nissan 370Z along with the 7-speed tranny too.
It's interesting they didn't opt for a CVT which seems to be the preferred option in the Nissan-Renault Alliance. Similarly the diesel generates the same 175kW and 550Nm (9.0 litres/100km) while the grunty 5.0-litre V8 pumps out an impressive 287kW and 500Nm (13.1 litres/100km). The petrol engines all prefer top drawer 98RON unleaded but will accept 95 Premium.
The FX has been crash tested in Europe where it scored five stars, but has not received a rating from the Australian authority yet which has even more stringent regulations these days that have seen some vehicles score only four. The M is yet to be tested.
Suffice to say the cars come with a full complement of safey equipment, including six airbags, stability control and forward collision warning with intelligent brake assist that automaticly applies the brakes if a collision with the car in front is imminent (and the driver hasn't braked).
The FX takes lane departure warning to the next level with Lane Departure Assist that automatically applies the brakes on one side of the vehicle to bring it back into the confines of the lane if the driver strays.
The 16-speaker Bose sound system in the hybrid we drove is the most advanced Bose system available in any car in the world, with active noise cancellation just like hi-end headphones.
It includes two personal speakers mounted in the top of each front seat and can be teamed with a satnavguidance system that provides a 9.3Gb worth of music storage to which you can download your CDs or stream audio from Bluetooth phones or audio devices like iPods.
The roads around Queenstown in New Zealand's South Island provide plenty of scope to put the cars through their paces. Of the three cars that we drove the hybrid M35h stood out in terms of performance and refinement.
NZ's coarse chip roads generate a lot of tyre noise, but the hybrid was noticeably quieter and morerefined. Straightline performance is strong, with plenty in reserve for quick, sharp overtakes and the carremained surefooted in often damp conditions.
A console mounted dial allows the driver to select from four driving modes: Standard, Eco, Sport and Snow. The steering in the hybrid is electro-hydraulic and feels direct and responsive, with wheel mountedgear change paddles.
The result is a car that is engaging and satisfying to drive, and its appeal grows the more you drive it. We don't normally get excited about hybrids but we'll make an exception in this case. Of the two FX models that we drove, the V8 was by far and away the nicer drive, not just because it has more power but because it was more refined, more composed and held the road more confidently.
In normal operation the FX remains predominantly rear wheel drive, with torque transferred to the front wheels as required. Both cars were fitted with the sports pack that includes sports suspension and 21 inch wheels, with 265/45 series rubber.
The active damping system modulates the shocks, allowing the driver to dial in a firmer ride - with auto and sport settings. On the downside we found the transmission a little slow to hook up, more so in the V6 and the stability system cut in too early at times. We look froward to driving the diesels when they become available.
The jury is out on the styling. At the very least it is going to get the cars noticed and that for a new entry is not such a bad thing. The M looks generic from some angles while the FX with its long bonnet and chromed side ventsexudes an air of aggression.
We note however the boot in the hybrid is hatchback size and could be an issue while it is necessary to watch your head getting in and out of the FX with its plunging roofline. There's certainly a smorgasboard of features available but which we will have to pay extra for remainsto be seen.
Infiniti concedes it will not be trying to undercut competitor prices, but rather float a value for money arguement, with a strong emphasis on delivering a rich flexible customer experience. Lexus of course is stifll trying to crack the German nut so it will be fascinating if nothing else to see what impact the new comer has?
2012 Infiniti M35h
Price: from $80,000
Engine: 3.5-litre petrol V6, 268kW
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Thirst: 6.9 litres/100km