First Drive: 2011 Infiniti M [Review]

Infiniti chief designer Shiro Nakamura first introduced us to the automaker's latest flagship sedan, the 2011 M, last August at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Well, sort of. We were shown a virtual mock-up of the sedan and we had to wait until just recently to first sample the real thing.

And were we impressed? Let's take a look.

The stork cometh
In November of 2009, we had a chance to see a full-blown steel version of the M as it was revealed during the Los Angeles International Auto Show, but it took until the automaker's official media launch for us to get some time behind the wheel. Rarely are we given a chance to follow a car from early concept to production model. But this was one of those situations. In a sense we felt like friends of a pair of expectant parents. Let's see what the stork has brought.

Borrowing from design themes previously seen on the svelte Infiniti Essence concept car, this new M is light years away from the original slab-sided hot rod we saw back in 2003. The classic rear drive, long hood, short deck appearance is accentuated by the lower, wider, more aggressive stance. The inside volume is significantly larger than before, and despite the added mass built into the M, the overall vehicle weight is approximately the same as before.

High-end craftsmanship
The one thing that struck us about the new M is the many disciplines of skill its interior exhibited. From the fluid shapes of the steel to the wood detail in the dashboard and center console, to the leather in the cabin, the quality of workmanship and detail were impeccable even on the early production models we sampled.

In fact, small details like the interior door panels with their fluid shapes, leather applications and hand-buffed silver powder finish are works of art unto themselves. The attractive white ash wood trim is color treated, buffed and then rubbed crosswise over the grains with a silver powder finish before being clearcoated for final installation - this level of craftsmanship is normally reserved for cars costing two, three or four times what an M will sell for.

The look and feel makes you feel like you've acquired something genuinely special when you sit behind the wheel.

Rolling in silence
The M's NVH engineers have equipped this Infiniti so that it's a set of noise cancelling headphones on wheels. Using microphones to analyze low-frequency engine sounds, the M's Active Noise Control (ANC) generates sound waves that counteract any distracting background noises. It truly shines when equipped with the Bose 5.1 surround sound 16-speaker audio system, which debunks any complaint we've had with a previous Bose-branded system.

Another innovation in interior design is the use of Infiniti's new Forest Air system, which uses a Plasmacluster air purifier and grape - yes, grape - polyphenol filter to reduce allergens and odors. Add in an advanced auto recirculation keep bad smells out and we found it did a good job during our brief time behind the wheel.

Yet we had our complaints: The HVAC's Breeze mode was either interesting or annoying, take your pick. Creating subtle airflow variations like a forest breeze, it sounded at times like an A/C unit that was turning on and off every few minutes. Perhaps if it had an audio track of the sound of rustling leaves"¦but that didn't work so well for Sharper Image, did it?

The navigation system was equipped with an 8-inch monitor, and includes XM NavTraffic, XM NavWeather, a Zagat Restaurant guide and streaming audio via Bluetooth. That's in addition to XM Satellite Radio and the system's 9.3 GB Music Box hard drive. The M pampers as well as any luxury car should - but we wanted to know if it had the soul of the G37 sports sedan.

Inspired performance
The new M is available in four flavors, each named according to engine displacement and the number of drive wheels. The line starts with the M37, which includes Infiniti's ubiquitous 3.7-liter VVEL V6 engine producing 330 horsepower and 270 lb-ft .of torque. Available with rear or all-wheel-drive (making the M37x), it has EPA mpg numbers of 18 city/26 highway for rear drive while the AWD package comes in at 17/24.

The second available engine/drivetrain package is the 5.6-liter VVEL Direct Injection V8, which is a brute at 420-horsepower and 417 lb-ft. of torque. Mated to the rear-drive system, the EPA expects mileage ratings at 16 city/25 highway. The AWD M56x punches in at 16/23.

Both engines are equipped with a standard seven-speed, rev-matching automatic transmission with adaptive shift control and available magnesium paddle shifters. A control dial on the center console allows the driver to change drive parameters from Standard, to ECO, Sport and Snow settings. Of these four, the most intrusive is the ECO which actually pushes the accelerator back against your foot to let you know you're getting a little too heavy with the go-pedal. It's a fun killer for sure, but it might make sense for some drivers these penny pinching times. At the very least, it might lure in a disgruntled Prius driver or two.

On the other, the more sporting side of the dial is the hidden Active Trace Control feature, which enhances braking into corners and then optimizes acceleration on the way out. In an effort to increase steering response, it applies selective (reduced) braking to load up the front end on turn-in for quicker acceleration out of the turn.

During our preview drive, we actually found ourselves enjoying the drivability of the V6 more than the sheer power we found in the 5.6-liter V8. With the V8's higher tip-in, it was constantly reminding you of the power underfoot.

Tightly sprung
The M's four-wheel independent suspension was probably more taut than any luxury sled we have seen from Japan. Able to convey us tightly through the turns on Otay Lakes Road (Otay, Buckwheat!), it transmitted good road feel to us regardless of the surface, which ranged from coarse to smooth to gravel. An available Enhanced Sport Package, which outfits the Infiniti flagship with sport brakes, four-wheel active steering (4WAS in Infiniti-speak), allows the rear wheels to turn "in-phase" with the fronts up to 1-degree, and a sport suspension upgrade with new springs and double piston shocks were, we found out, responsible for the improved ride and handling.

With the M, the company continues the bundling of technologies to make up the safety shield package. Incorporating the firm's Lane Departure Warning/Prevention (LDW/LDP) programs with Intelligent Brake Assist and carryover systems like intelligent Cruise Control (ICC) and Distance Control Assist (DCA), the Infiniti M gives forth more letters than a can of Campbell's Alphabet soup.

Leftlane's bottom line
After following the design evolution from its conception to production stages, and after a day of hurtling this big but surprisingly lithe sedan around San Diego, we can safely say that Infiniti finally sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the best techno-sleds of Europe and Asia. By focusing on craftsmanship, but not forgetting the smaller G37's fun-to-drive attitude, Infiniti has finally given the M the credibility to stand on its own.

Infiniti M37 base price, $46,250.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.