B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
Last winter, Edmund's editors conducted a comparison test of sport sedans. We assembled midpriced, fun-to-drive models from three continents and pitted them against each other for two days of grueling driving. When the dust settled, the Nissan Maxima SE emerged as the victor, knocking out impressive competition like the refined Volkswagen Passat, the redesigned Mazda 626, and the bang-for-the-buck bargain Ford Contour. It was no surprise, then, that our eyes lit up when Infiniti offered us the I30 Touring (I30t) for a week early this fall, since the I30t is merely a Nissan Maxima SE that underwent a little cosmetic surgery.
To some eyes, the Infiniti is slightly more attractive than the Nissan. The I30's sharp aluminum wheels, flashier taillight arrangement, and more imposing grille give the car a more refined appearance then the Maxima. The detail changes are minor enough, however, that one of our editors was confused when exiting a restaurant and found a like-colored Maxima parked in the slot next to our I30 test car. He actually walked up to the Maxima before realizing that it wasn't the car he would be driving home that night.
Despite its five-year-old design, the I30 is competitive against other entry-level luxury vehicles in terms of interior comfort. The driver and front seat passenger benefit from supportive bucket seats that easily adjust to fit almost any frame. Rear seat passengers are treated to a comfy bench seat that doesn't cramp the legs or head. Front and rear passengers get a nicely padded center armrest with storage compartments that make long commutes a little more bearable.
Drivers get the benefit of Nissan Motor's typically good dashboard and control layout. Our only gripe about the I30's ergonomics is the location of the cruise control activation switch; it is inconveniently hidden behind the left side of the steering wheel, and can't be activated without looking away from the road. Fortunately, the Set, Coast, Accel and Resume buttons are mounted on the steering wheel, so once the cruise is turned on, drivers aren't distracted from the road when they just need to change speeds.
Audiophiles will love the I30. The standard six-speaker Bose audio system sounds fantastic and puts most manufacturers' optional units to shame. Standard on all I30s is a healthy dose of faux-wood interior trim. While not everyone on Edmund's staff is crazy about wood trim, many of us feel that it gives the I30's cabin welcome warmth. Our Touring model also came equipped with buttery-soft leather upholstery that was as inviting as a favorite jacket. Upon settling into the soft hides, you could imagine that you were about to go for a ride in a car that was double the cost of the I30.
All I30s are equipped with a silky DOHC V6 engine that makes 190 horsepower and 205 foot-pounds of torque. Since Infiniti supplied us with the Touring model, we were able to row our own gears, thanks to a smooth, five-speed manual transmission. We have to recognize Infiniti for offering a manual transmission on their top-selling car; no other Japanese luxury carmaker offers sport sedan drivers the opportunity to change gears like grandpa did. The combination of the powerful V6 engine and manual transmission allows drivers to get the most out of this quick car. Whether launching from a stoplight or weaving through S-turns, the I30t gave our editors a smooth, progressive power delivery that kept on pulling right up to redline.
The I30t rewards aggressive drivers with its sport-tuned independent MacPherson strut front and multi-link beam rear suspension components. Coupled with the well-balanced rack-and-pinion steering gear, the suspension supplies quick turn-in and excellent tracking through corners. Some credit must also be given to the 215/55R16 tires that offer ample grip and a progressive departure attitude when lateral force overwhelms the tires' friction load. Moderate body lean gives the I30t just enough counterbalance to break the rear end loose when lifting off the throttle in a tight corner. As the weight transfers to the front of the car, the I30's tail comes around sweetly, tightening up the car's turning radius. A maneuver like that can take quite awhile to master in some vehicles, but in the I30t the learning curve is but a slight incline.
Our staff enjoyed their week with the I30t. Typically, a manual transmission can be a detriment for those dealing with the stop and go traffic of Los Angeles. However, the car's light clutch and velvety shifter were so easy to operate, that we didn't even receive complaints from those drivers who are more concerned with luxury than performance. The people and cargo moving abilities of the car are impressive, as is the fun quotient that can be tapped by just dipping into the throttle a bit. Furthermore, the Infiniti does a better job at impressing certain types of people than its downmarket sibling does. When discussing the differences between the I30 and the Maxima with his mother-in-law, one of our editors was surprised to find out that although his mother-in-law would buy the I30, she would never buy the Maxima. When pressed for a reason, she stated that the Maxima seemed common and boring, whereas the Infiniti was more exclusive and prestigious. When the editor disclosed the price difference between the two vehicles, she didn't budge; apparently, the Nissan name doesn't carry enough clout for some shoppers.
We like the I30t a great deal. We also like the Nissan Maxima SE a great deal. The reason we like the I30t is because it is basically a Maxima with a fancy facelift and a great warranty. We don't think, though, that the differences between the I30t and Maxima SE warrant the purchase of the Infiniti product. The base price for the I30t is $31,695. The base price for the Nissan Maxima SE is $23,989. Optioned to I30t-levels, a Maxima SE tops out at $28,875. Is the Infiniti badge, award-winning dealer network, and extended warranty coverage worth the nearly $3,000 price premium over a similar Maxima? Well, some of you may think so, but we'll take the Maxima and spend a week in Cabo San Lucas with the savings.
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