2003 Infiniti M45 First Drive

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2003 Infiniti M45 Sedan

(4.5L V8 5-speed Automatic)

A Bargain Fare in Business Class?

Inevitably, the sort of overwhelming concerns that arise from viewing cable network news or rereading the issues of Harper's on the bathroom floor fall away gently, forgotten in our efforts to keep on with the everyday routine — I must fulfill obligations, maintain appearances and not stop to think until bedtime when I can give all of my attention to a best-selling hardcover book. New problems may nag at us during the day, but at least they aren't so insurmountable. For example, you want a rear-drive luxury sedan propelled by a V8 that puts out 300 horsepower but don't want to spend more than $45,000. Forget option A (settle for a less powerful car) and B (find an extra $5,000 to $10,000 in the budget) for the moment, if you don't mind, and consider our subject here: Infiniti's 2003 M45, a rear-drive sedan worthy of 340 horses priced at $42,845.

Like you, Infiniti wants to fill a void in the driveway. The company fears it's missing out on buyers who want something more than a G35 or I35, both of which start out under $30,000, but something less than a Q45, which starts out above $50,000. Possessing quite a bit more in the way of financial resources than you, the hypothetical luxury car buyer, Infiniti has come up with the all-new M45. On the outside it's about the same size as the Q but offers somewhat less interior room (think of it as a midsize luxury sedan) and feature content, and happily, more in the way of performance. With exterior styling identical to that of its Japanese market-equivalent, the Gloria, and similar to that of the Cadillac DeVille, the M is unlikely to offend upon a first sighting — or invoke a strong reaction of any kind. An Infiniti executive pressed us for our thoughts on whether its sheet metal would appeal to American consumers; we hemmed and hawed and took another sip of wine.

Once we were seated behind the wheel, the M45's exterior aesthetics ceased to matter to us. (Whether feelings of indifference are acceptable at this price, we leave you to decide.) Certainly, the power train offers much to like. Mash the accelerator pedal in any situation and witness the soundless awakening of the sedan's 32-valve DOHC 4.5-liter V8, which, as in the Q45, puts out 340 hp at 6,000 rpm and 333 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. A five-speed automatic with automanual capability is standard, and gearing is identical to the 2003 Q's (new for the year). A shorter 3.133:1 final drive ratio gives the M45 a bit more zip than 2001 and 2002 Q45's, and during our short drive through California's Napa Valley, acceleration to extra-legal speeds was an effortless process. Engine sounds were hushed, and the exhaust note wasn't noticeably boisterous — a good thing for those who want an alternative to the Lexus GS 430 but possibly disappointing for those who prefer a show of flexed muscles. One thing to keep in mind: the M45 weighs in at 3,851 pounds (about 50 more than a Q45) and has almost the same drag coefficient. While still fast, the M doesn't have a significant advantage over the Q in this regard. Fuel economy is rated at 17 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway.

Upon reaching the winding two-lane stretches of roads, we soon realized the M45's edge in handling. While the Q is a cruiser replete with a comforting ride and light steering, the M really could be called sporting. The M is a couple inches shorter (in terms of overall length and height) and narrower than the flagship, and it has a 110.2-inch wheelbase (compared with 113) and a 59.4-inch track front and rear (compared with 62.2 and 61.4, respectively). It also rides on a much firmer version of the Q's fully independent front strut/rear multilink suspension. At the product launch, an engineer explained that virtually every component had been altered in some way to provide the sportier ride that the company believes will please the target audience (80 percent male, 80 percent married, median age of 48 and median annual income of $145,000, by the way). This tightened setup is under consideration for inclusion in the Q45's sport package, a nearby executive added, to give buyers more substantial gains in performance.

In any case, our M45 test vehicle definitely had a taut ride and felt balanced and stable through the turns, though you still get some body roll. A standard set of 18-inch wheels and 235/45WR18 high-performance Bridgestone Turanzas (all-season tires of the same size will be a no-cost option) contributed to the effort, as did the steering, which had more progressive weighting, such that the wheel offered ample amounts of heft as speeds increased. While we're not prepared to call the M45 the end-all sport sedan in its price range after this preliminary drive, buyers who find the pricey V8 versions of the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Jaguar S-Type and Mercedes-Benz E-Class out of comfortable reach may appreciate the value this Infiniti offers.

Ride quality was sufficiently smooth on the highway, but the suspension allowed quite a bit of harshness to invade the cabin during quick acceleration over bumps and broken pavement along our route — to the point that we felt Lexus-type buyers might be put off. In addition, the M45's 40-foot turning radius made it a bit cumbersome in parking lots (the Q45 turns a 36.1-foot circle).

The M wears a full set of vented disc brakes, supplemented by ABS and the usual luxury car fare — electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. Infiniti's VDC stability control system is also standard. This system should help out on slick roads where skids are likely to occur; on dry roads, it seemed a little too eager to put a damper on the fun, so we switched it off temporarily.

Inside the cabin, the emphasis is on luxury and technology. As such, every M45 is furnished with leather upholstery and real bird's-eye maple accents. Stereo, climate and trip computer functions are managed by an LCD screen that uses a truncated joystick in favor of a touchscreen system (the same setup as in the Q45). An optional technology package ($2,700) will set you up with a DVD-based nav system, laser-based intelligent cruise control (when in cruising mode, this system senses vehicles ahead and adjusts your speed to maintain a selected following distance) and a 7-inch LCD in lieu of the standard 5.8-inch display. None of the M45s on hand were equipped with this package, however, and we found the LCD setup labor-intensive to use while driving, even when making the simplest stereo and climate adjustments. We wish that Infiniti had used standard sets of controls, at least in cars without the navigation system. One can offset this difficulty by opting for the Premium Package, which includes Infiniti's voice recognition technology.

In spite of this ergonomic irritation, we found the rest of the interior mostly to our liking. The controls were easy to find and use, and while unable to impart the sumptuous, airy feel of the Q45, the cockpit has a dignified business-class aura and should be roomy enough for most. The standard wood inlays are a dark smoke color — we examined a car with a light interior and found the contrast pleasant enough. We then drove a car with a dark gray interior with traditional maple-color wood accents (a $300 option) and thought they added warmth to what would otherwise have been a dour interior. Overall, the interior materials seemed acceptable for this price class with ample soft-touch surfaces on the dash and doors; we did find a few plastics and rubbery materials that seemed out of place, but an Infiniti exec assured us that they would be replaced by higher-quality textiles in production models.

The front seats include a moderate amount of bolstering on the seatback and seat bottom to hold you in place during enthusiastic driving, as well as standard 10-way power adjustment for the driver (including a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel). The front passenger gets only four-way power adjustment. Both seats feature active head restraints to help prevent whiplash if the M45 is rear-ended. Spring for the Premium Package, and you'll be able to heat or cool your backside as desired. We weren't overly impressed by the rear seat's accommodations. While the bench provides sufficient cushioning and thigh support, legroom is sparse at 32.5 inches and the front seatbacks would benefit from additional padding. Additionally, in spite of the car's lengthy rear overhang, engineers could only carve out 13.4 cubic feet of trunk capacity. On the plus side, the trunk latches shut on its own so that it's not necessary to give a good slam every time.

Other standard features on the M45 include one-touch up and down driver and front-passenger windows; dual-zone automatic climate control; a 225-watt, seven-speaker Bose sound system with steering-wheel controls and (unfortunately) a glovebox-mounted six-disc changer; a vehicle security system and xenon headlights. Passive safety features include side airbags for front occupants and side curtain airbags for the front and rear. If you're looking for useful items like auto-dimming mirrors, seat memory and a full-size spare tire, then you'll want to make sure your M has the Comfort and Convenience Package ($950). Only cars that have this package qualify for Premium Package treatment ($2,200), which buys the voice recognition, climate-controlled seats and a sunroof. Satellite radio is a $400 option and you can choose either XM or Sirius.

There are other things to spend your earnings on besides a luxury car, so we won't insult you with the suggestion that buying an M45 makes good financial sense. But if you've already decided that your next car will be a rear-drive luxury car that makes at least 300 hp and has a fair amount of athletic ability and fun technology, you should put this Infiniti on your test drive list.

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