1999 Infiniti G20 Road Test

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1999 Infiniti G20 Sedan

(2.0L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

Entry-Level Luxury or Exit-Level Economy?

Infiniti has re-entered the market for entry-level luxury transportation by reviving the car they killed just two years ago. The G20 - five-passenger compact sedan - is back, and this time, well, it's an updated version of the last G20.

During its hiatus, the G20 received a lesson in handling. Sold overseas as the Nissan Primera, this sport sedan knows how to handle itself, thanks to a suspension that's tuned for negotiating tight switchbacks as well as cruising along the open road. The front suspension is of the independent, multi-link variety, meaning that a pothole or bump won't throw the car's line of progress off in another direction. The rear suspension is what Infiniti calls a Multi-Link Beam, which was designed to keep the rear tires of front-wheel-drive cars perpendicular to the road. Because it's more compact than a strut suspension setup, the Multi-Link Beam gives the G20 added trunk space, up to the current luggage capacity of 14.2 cubic feet.

As for how the suspension works, the feel is solid yet comfortable. Our test car may have been dubbed the "Touring" version, but don't be misled: This is not a touring car in any traditional use of the word. The shocks are tuned for a softer ride, but stiff antiroll bars and the G20t's P195/60R-15 all-season Bridgestone low-profile tires keep the car firmly planted to the tarmac. Complementing the tires are 15-inch multi-spoke aluminum-alloy wheels, which add upper-class flair to the otherwise sedate looks of this sedan.

Touring trim does little to improve how the car acts. To the competent driving characteristics of the G20, the G20t adds a viscous limited-slip differential and a revised axle ratio, which is the extent of the notable mechanical differences between base model and Touring. The G20t also gains some pounds (up 23 pounds to its 2,936-pound curb weight), thanks to items such as a showy rear spoiler, fog lights, heated side mirrors and a leather-wrapped gearshift knob and steering wheel. Our test car also came with optional leather seats and a sunroof, two extras we could probably live without.

The manual shifter is tall and wobbly, though clutch action is light and the shift pattern is easy to navigate through the gears. All center stack controls are within easy reach, and the interior as a whole is well-designed and feels like it was fastened together carefully. Our one interior design complaint is that the passenger-side airbag cover looks a little out of place, glued as it is on top of the dashboard.

The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope, which can result in some discomfort if the driver possesses long legs and must sit with the seat in its aft-most position. Part of this problem in our test car may have been due to the moonroof, which probably intruded on some of our headroom. Available space is lessened for rear passengers. While headroom is adequate for most people, legroom can be a problem: There are 41.4 inches of legroom up front and 34.6 in the back, so rear passengers should be less-than-average in size if you want them to be comfortable for any length of time.

A premium six-speaker Bose® audio system with in-dash CD player and cassette is standard equipment, but a high-quality Infinity® audio system might have made more sense, at least from a poetic point of view. Halogen headlights make the road visible at night, but that's not the only safety technology you'll find on the G20. Front passengers benefit from seat-mounted airbags, which are designed to protect the head and chest in the event of a sideward collision. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are also standard.

Leather seats are not standard in the G20t, but our test car came with the leather option, which, in this case, was black. In fact, the entire cockpit was black, including the plastic controls, the carpet, the leather, and the vinyl trim. Thankfully, Infiniti did not decide to decorate the instrument panel with white gauges, as such a sporty highlight may have been a bit pretentious.

Powered by a 2.0-liter inline four - the same engine that resides in the Nissan Sentra SE - the G20 gets up to speed in rather underwhelming fashion. The available 140 horses don't enter the equation until 6,400 rpm, and that's a bit late to keep us interested. If you're not a big fan of high-revving engines, it's easy to become frustrated with the time it takes the G20 to reach redline. Of course, we may have just been bored with the slow torque delivery, which peaks at 132 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm. Testing this car at high altitude on steep hills probably did not help matters, but we don't remember losing patience with the Ford SVT Contour or Audi A4 under the same conditions.

Perhaps because of the lack of fun provided by the motor, we sought out some excitement from the road. Twisty two-lane roads quickly put the G20 back in its element. The G20 is so nimble that the driver can toss the car into a turn and recover with almost no loss of composure. An athletic suspension, front-wheel drive, grippy tires and steering feedback all conspire to neutralize handling, so even a poorly judged apex won't get you into any serious trouble. Lift off the throttle or stab the brake in mid-turn, and the G20 centers itself nicely and somehow stays on track. That must be what the guy in the commercial means when he boasts, "Educated in Europe." Even when driven on icy roads, the G20t was undaunted by any of our on-the-fly bonehead maneuvers.

Infiniti plans to sell the G20 to up-and-coming urban professionals who have been enjoying the success of America's booming economy. The target market is folks age 25 to 45 with incomes of between $35,000 and $80,000 per year. The reasoning is that, no, these people didn't buy the G20 the last time it was offered, but now that America has some disposable income... But substantial improvements have not been made to the car, and Americans tend to be a performance-oriented bunch of motorheads when it comes to defining the term "improvements." You mean to say that your new car has the same engine as your old car, but they traded in the fully independent suspension for a longer wheelbase and solid rear axle? No thanks.

Without even looking at other manufacturers, the competition is fierce. The Nissan Maxima SE comes with an extra 50 horsepower and an extra 73 foot-pounds of torque, for a little extra money. And remember that the Maxima was developed in America, for American consumers, so its dimensions are better able to fit a large American family. Then take a look at the Nissan Sentra. A comparably equipped Nissan Sentra SE is just as powerful as the G20, yet costs about $5,000 less than its Infiniti sibling. The benefits of owning a luxury marque are not so clear when you count all the way to five thousand.

O.K., Infiniti, listen up. This is our list of demands for a sport sedan of the G20's price: Drop in the powertrain from the Maxima SE. That's all. Cram a 3.0-liter engine over the front wheels, get us from zero to 60 in six and a half seconds, and we'll be happy. Keep everything else the same, including the price, and you'll have a car that could boast one more attribute: excitement. We can hear the commercials now: "Born in Japan. Educated in Europe. Born again in America." The sad truth is that there's a reason the G20 failed here before, and the marketing department was not to blame.

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