By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Hybrids are getting interesting.
How about this 2012 M35 hybrid?
Infiniti says it’s got V-8 muscle and delivers four-cylinder fuel economy. Well, the first part is true blue. This thing hauls tail. Zero to 60 in about 5 seconds. Long legs on top.
And the second part?
Well, V-6 economy at least. (40 MPG on the highway is the new bar for four-cylinder cars.)
But still, this is no Prius, Capn’ Planet. Mid 20s (average) and 32 on the highway is almost too good to be true for a high-end hot rod like this, with 360 hp under your right foot near Mustang GT acceleration.
It’s also better than anything else in this class, including even the former class leading Benz E350 BlueTEC diesel — which by the way is nowhere near as quick.
Maybe this hybrid thing has some upsides. Let’s see now… .
WHAT IT IS
The M35 hybrid is a (yes, you guessed it) hybridized version of Infiniti’s slick (and fast) M-series medium-sized luxury-sport sedan. It is also an unusual hybrid in that it’s based on a high-performance rear-wheel-drive layout rather than the usual front-wheel-drive-based economy (or at least, semi-economical) car layout.
MSRP is $53,700 vs. $47,700 for the base (non-hybrid) M37.
Competition includes the $58,950 Lexus GS450h and (less directly) the $51,960 Mercedes E350 BlueTEC diesel.
It will also have to deal with the ActiveHybrid version of the BMW 5 when it rolls out in spring/early summer 2012.
The hybrid version of the M is new for 2012.
Pavement-ripping acceleration. Literally. It can do a burnout.
Costs a lot less than the Lexus GS450h — and gets a lot better mileage, too.
Beautifully crafted interior (especially with the available Japanese birch trim).
Terminator T1000 liquid metal menace exterior.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Occasional drivetrain abruptness when the electric side comes on.
The several hundred additional pounds of curb weight (vs. the non-hybrid M) musses up the high-speed handling some.
UNDER THE HOOD
The M35 hybrid has a 3.5 liter gas V-6 up front and — spread out over the rest of the car — an electric motor/battery pack. The combo generates a combined 360 hp (20 more than the nearly $59k Lexus GS450h).
A seven-speed automatic transmission with four selectable modes (Standard, Sport, Eco and Snow) drives the rear wheels — and you — to 60 MPH in just over 5 seconds flat.
But there’s another kind of go on tap, too. The ability to keep on going… and going… and going… without refueling.
The M35 can give you as much as 27 MPGs in city driving and 32 MPGs on the highway, courtesy of the hybrid side of the drivetrain — which is capable of continuously propelling the car at speeds up to 62 MPH with the gas engine completely off.
The M’s almost-four-cylinder economy also beats the snot out of its most immediately comparable rival, the Lexus GS450h.
While the Lexus gets to 60 just as quickly, its 22 city, 25 highway isn’t much to brag about — especially given the price premium for the hybrid equipment. Consider: The standard (non-hybrid) version of the GS, with a 303 hp V-6, is rated 19 city, 26 highway and costs $46,900. The hybrid GS costs $58,950 (that’s $12,050 more than the non-hybrid GS and $5,200 more than the M35) and it only gets 3 MPGs better mileage in city driving than the standard GS — and just 1 MPG more on the highway.
The GS is a very nice car, but it’s hard to see why anyone would pay the extra $12k for the hybrid version. Especially when you could buy the M35 for $5,200 less less and get 5 MPGs better city mileage and 7 MPGs better highway mileage without sacrificing any performance at all.
Another competitor — though more laterally — is the Benz E-Class diesel. It may not have a lot of horsepower (210) but — being a diesel — it does offer truckloads of torque (400 ft.-lbs. at just 1,600 RPMs) that is quite comparable, in terms of “right now” off-the-line thrust, to the hybrid’s electrically enhanced drivetrain. It’s also similarly fuel efficient — 22 city, 33 highway — and costs about $1,700 less.
But, buy the Benz and you will sacrifice performance. The E350 BlueTEC needs 7.7 seconds to get to 60, or almost 3 full seconds longer than it takes the M to do the deed.
ON THE ROAD
If you want a hybrid that really hauls the mail, this is the one for you.
It’ll do a burnout, for openers — being rear wheel drive. Not that you would. But you could… .
It can also run 60-plus MPH with the gas engine off — granted, not for very long and only on flat/downhill stretches. But still. And it can cruise for several minutes at a time at speeds of 40-plus on the batteries alone. But the best part is the way it jumps forward forward, air under the front tires, when your right big toe says go. Hold that toe down to the floorboards and you will find yourself running at speeds that would peel the paint off a Prius.
Now, by the numbers, the Lexus GS450h is just as quick — but it does not feel nearly as fast.
Lexus — being Lexus — goes to great lengths to mute the sound and fury of performance. Infiniti — being Infiniti — goes to great lengths to enhance the sensation that you are saddling a four-wheeled ICBM, kind of like Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove.
Yeeeehaw! Whooooooo! Drop the hammer and you will know it. The back tires will screech as they bite into the asphalt and — yes — the front end will lift just like a bracket racer as the power transfers rearward and everything hooks up.
Eighty is effortless. Like Arnold in his prime warming up with 135 pounds on the bench press.
The only downside is that it’s a kind of cruelty to have this much power — this much speed on tap — in a country where you can’t really use it. At 100, the M is just getting rolling. There is much undiscovered country yet to travel … if you’re willing to risk it.
The truth is that Infiniti might have been better advised, given the realities of driving in the United States, to dial back the ferocity just a tad and produced a car that truly did deliver four cylinder economy (35-plus, average) with current-era V-6 levels of power/performance — which, given that current-year V-6s routinely produce 260-plus hp and can propel a car to 60 in 7 seconds and 140-plus on top — is surely plenty.
V-8 power — the kind of power V-8s are making today — is the equivalent of packing a full-auto Uzi under your coat. It feels nice to know it’s there, I suppose. But what are you going to do with it?
We can look, we can listen, we can even touch. But use the M35’s power more than furtively and once-in-a-blue-Moon and you will be bunking with OJ faster than you can say anything over 80 MPH is statutory reckless driving — which it is, in Virginia (my state) and some others, too.
Beyond that, there are two driving-related issues with the M hybrid you ought to know about.
The first is there is sometimes a little stutter-step when the hybrid system engages. It’s light, but it is noticeable. The sensation is kind of like what you’d occasionally feel back in the early ’80s when torque converter clutches were just coming into widespread use. And the principle is similar. There’s a little surge, the feeling of something connecting/disconnecting — then it’s over. It’s brief, it’s not unpleasant… but again, it is there.
The other matter is handling. I should qualify that. High-speed handling. Driven within reason — that is, within 10 or 20 MPH of the posted speed limit — most people will probably not notice a difference between the M hybrid and the standard (non-hybrid) M. Both have sharp, positive steering feel and corner eagerly and confidently — like sports cars — even at 10 or 20 over the posted speed limit. But push it much beyond that and the hybrid’s almost 300 extra pounds of deadweight (4,129 lbs. empty vs. 3,849 lbs. for the regular M) starts to slosh around and the car heaves toward the outside of the corner you’re in. You’ll find yourself making corrections with either throttle or steering (or both) and deciding maybe it’s best to slow down a little for now. This is a problem for all hybrids, by the way. It’s a function of the higher curb weight and the extra weight in places where it would not otherwise be, which necessarily alters handling just like a BMW 3 would feel a little off with 300 pounds of bricks in the trunk.
But you have to be really moving to notice any handling hiccups. I mean, like track day moving. Infiniti deserves fulsome praise for engineering this thing to be so much fun to drive — so feral, really — right up to the place which few people who aren’t pro drivers on a test track running all-out will ever see the horizon of anyhow.
AT THE CURB
The M is a mean-looking thing, but in a quiet, not-in-your-face way. Like tough guys who don’t have to make a big deal about how tough they are — until they need to. It’s a man’s car — not a boy’s toy.
If we didn’t live in such a politically correct age, I’d call the M the H — for Hitman. It’s the sort of car that, if they remade Bullitt, I could see the two heavies who drove the ’68 Charger in the original driving today, complete with pump-action combat shotguns under the seat. There is a low-key menace about it. And, best of all, it is not as known to the Fuzz as, say, a BMW 5.
The interior is just as slick, with multiple individual sections of dash and door panel – each wrapped in form-fitting leather tightly stitched. Sandwiched in between (if you so order) are these striking Japanese birch wood inserts.
The gauge package in the M35 is slightly different than in regular Ms — with a “charge” gauge off to the left of the speedometer as well as a bar-graph fuel economy readout on the LCD display. That’s fairly typical stuff for a car in this class. What’s not typical are the other things the M offers — including a Forest Air purification system that not only provides merely cabin filtration, it is designed to recreate the intermittent flutter of a gentle natural breeze — as if you were lounging in a Redwood Forest. There is also a Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians (VSP) system that alerts inattentive pedestrians to the M’s presence when it is gliding along on battery power.
There is a lot of technology, but it’s not demanding technology or Big Momma technology. It’s not hard to figure out how the various stuff works — and then to actually use it. And even better, if you prefer no to use it, the stuff doesn’t tell you otherwise, pre-empting your decisions. Off means off.
This car doesn’t even bark at you if you fail to “buckle up for safety.”
The only thing you can’t get in this thing is all-wheel-drive, which while offered as optional equipment in the non-hybrid versions of the M is not available with the M35. Probably because it would have added some more weight and dampened the M35’s performance beyond the acceptable threshold. But, so what? This is not a snow car, either way. Neither, by the way, are other AWD-equipped cars in this segment. They may be more controllable on wet roads, but on snow, their minimal ground clearance and performance tires are not the hot ticket.
If you want a snow-day car, get a crossover.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It makes life easy for a car reviewer — and a car buyer — when a car is so clearly superior to its obvious rivals.