The Infiniti M35h proves that the first time can be the charm -- even if it really is the second. The luxury sedan is the Nissan family’s first homegrown hybrid and an impressive inaugural effort.
“But, wait,” you say. “I live in California or one of the other eight states where Nissan sells a hybrid version of the Altima! What’s up with that?”
Well, here’s the thing. The battery-powered technology in that car was licensed from Toyota, so the car adds a little double entendre to the word “hybrid.” On the other hand, the M35h is 100 percent Nissan.
For proof, you need only to look at its very unique specifications. Along with a rear-wheel-drive layout, the M35h has a 3.5-liter V6 engine connected to an electric motor and a seven-speed automatic transmission via two automated clutches that juggle the car’s motive force between internal combustion, electric and all points in-between.
The power to do this comes from the latest lithium-ion batteries. The pack is smaller and more efficient than old-fashioned nickel-metal hydride batteries of equivalent capacity, but also more expensive. More on that last point in a moment.
Total combined output is a whopping 360 hp, which is more than you get from the twin-turbocharged 6-cylinder in a Lincoln MKS. Alone, the electric motor can propel the M35h up to 62 mph, or a distance of just over a mile, but don’t expect it to do both at the same time.
Nevertheless, Infiniti has crafted one of the most robust hybrid systems in the world. During my time with it, the M35h spent more than 25 percent of the time in electric-mode, often at speeds exceeding 40 mph. If you’re not flooring it, this will happen often on the slightest downgrades, and even level roads.
The result is an EPA rating of 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. That’s fantastic for a car this powerful, especially given how large and luxurious it is. At one point, when I was dawdling along, the M35h had a quarter of a tank left and its range was listed at 200 miles.
More important, the operation of the system is nearly seamless, switching through its various modes without a shudder. It’s only when you hit the accelerator hard enough from a standstill to start the engine before you get rolling in electric mode that you feel the transition at all.
The brakes are a different story. The pedal action is rubbery and reminiscent of the one in the Nissan Leaf. Engineering regenerative stopping systems that don’t have this kind of artificial feel has perplexed automotive engineers for the past decade, and only a few have gotten it right. Between the experience with the Altima Hybrid and all-electric Leaf, you’d think Nissan/Infiniti would be better at this, but it’s only noticeable because the rest of the car is so good.
The M line of sedans -- which includes the six-cylinder M37, V8-powered M56 and all-wheel-drive versions of both of those -- is one of the best mid-size luxury car lines available, and the only thing the hybrid gives up is a couple of cubic feet of trunk space. But what’s left is more than adequate.
Keep in mind, this shouldn’t be approached as a sport sedan in the Bavarian sense. It’s more American-inspired performance. Press-you-in-your-seat quick in a straight line, the ride favors comfort over carving. That’s not to say that it can’t hang -- the platform it is built on is based on the same one the 370Z uses and is balanced nicely -- but it prefers smoothing out bad roads to tearing them up.
In either case, the interior is all creamy leather and organic shapes and a very nice place to experience it all. It’s light, airy and very spacious for the mid-size class. The only glitch is that the controls for the power seats are so close to the door that you have to squeeze your hand in pretty tight to use them. Hate those chaffed knuckles, don’t you?
All of the electronic safety equipment on offer in the rest of M line is available here, too. That includes a blind spot warning and intervention system that can help steer you back into your lane if you turn into another car coming up alongside you, ditto if you start drifting over the line. The navigation system is also excellent, with redundant touch screen, control knob, button and voice commands. Unfortunately, direct sunlight washes out the display.
At its base price of $54,595, the M35h costs $6,000 more than the M37. That’s a very premium hybrid, and largely attributable to the pricey batteries, but the payoff is twofold. Not only do you get better fuel economy – 29 mpg combined vs. 21 mpg – but also 30 hp more than the M37 has. So, even though it’ll take eight years to make the money back at the pump, the hybrid is arguably the better car and certainly not any worse.
With the M35h, Infiniti is entering an increasingly crowded marketplace of mid-size luxury hybrids that includes the new Porsche Panamera and upcoming models from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi, not to mention an all-new GS sedan from its old friends at Toyota-owned Lexus. Getting in on the ground floor here may prove to be a nice competitive advantage.
As for the Altima Hybrid, it goes away next year and, with it, the Toyota tech. But, fear not NYPD traffic enforcement officers. Rumor has it that the model will return in 2013 using some of the equipment from the M35h, which means no more royalty payments to Toyota.
Given how hard it is to make money off of these things, I wouldn’t expect the savings to get passed on to you.
2012 Infiniti M35h
Base Price: $54,595
Type: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
Engine: 3.5L V6 plus 50-kW electric motor
Power: 360 hp combined
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
MPG: 27 city/32 hwy