After years of barking up different trees, recent redesigns of the 2006 Infiniti M45, 2006 Lexus GS 430 and 2005 Acura RL have landed this trio of luxury-laden super sedans at the foot of the same birch.
Not only are all three built in Japan to an unquestionable high level of quality, each packs at least 300 horsepower, an automanual transmission, keyless ignition, an electronic stability system and enough interior volume to haul five Grave Digger fans and their full foam coolers to the monster truck jam. Oh yeah, and all three cost about $50 grand.
But which one should you spend your hard-earned money on? To find out we ordered up one of each and lived in them for one week. We also took them to the track and performed our usual battery of instrumented testing.
And after all that, the winner was clear. Sort of. Meet the cars.
2006 Infiniti M45 Sport
The Infiniti is the hot rod of this group. It has the largest and most powerful engine, the largest wheels and tires, the most powerful brakes, the firmest suspension, and it outaccelerates the others like they're tied to a post. It's also the most entertaining to drive, with a transmission that actually matches revs like a good driver does when downshifting a true manual, and a well-balanced chassis that rewards advanced driving technique.
Our Infiniti M45 Sport was also sportier on the inside than the others, with the firmest and most heavily bolstered seats, a prominently placed tachometer and real aluminum trim instead of the more traditional wood that adorns the interiors of the Lexus and the Acura.
On the downside? Some on staff feel too much tire noise makes it into the Infiniti's interior and its steering isn't as refined as the GS 430's or the Acura's.
2006 Lexus GS 430
The Lexus carries a base price of $51,125, which makes it almost $2 grand more than the others. But that extra expense is more than justified by traditional Lexus attention to detail and sweet workmanship. The GS 430 is built like a fine watch and runs just as smoothly. Its interior is a wonderful mix of fine leather, rich wood and simplistic design. Its forms may not be as artful as the other two, but the materials used and its ergonomics are far superior.
With 300 hp from its 4.3-liter V8 and the only six-speed transmission of the group, the Lexus performs as well. It accelerates hard enough to push you back into the seat, and leaves the equally powerful Acura in the dust. Its suspension, which can be adjusted firmer with a switch on the console, is also tuned to near perfection, delivering a supple highway ride and athletic reflexes.
Flaws are limited to very grabby brakes, which make it hard to stop smoothly, and a very aggressive stability control system, which cannot be shut down.
2005 Acura RL
The Acura's story is value. For the as-tested price of $49,470, the RL comes with such luxuries as a navigation system with voice-command capability, satellite radio, a power sunroof, a power rear sunshade and a premium 10-speaker audio system, all of which cost extra on the Infiniti and the Lexus. And it's the only car in this test with all-wheel drive (the Lexus and Infiniti are rear-wheel drive).
The Acura is quick, and it can be surprisingly fun to toss around, but it's just not as focused on performance as the other two. It's powered by the only V6 engine in the test, and it doesn't have as much grunt off the line as the V8s in the other cars. It also doesn't handle as well as the others despite its all-wheel drive, and its brakes are the most easily overheated.
Some also feel the Acura's interior materials and décor aren't up to the RL's $50,000 price tag, and its seats, which are the softest and least bolstered of the bunch, just aren't sporty enough for a sport sedan.
Lexus Wins a Close One
Here's the reality: Anyone from Tony Stewart to Martha Stewart would be happy owning any one of these three cars. They're all that good.
So good, that after all our driving, after all our note taking and score keeping and track testing and long-winded discussions about cupholders and trailing-throttle oversteer and rear-seat legroom, all three finished within four points of each other. Four points out of 100.
Basically, for all intents and purposes, it was a tie.
Still, on paper, it's the Lexus that comes out on top. Its combination of performance, luxury and astonishing attention to detail cannot be ignored. It's a car worthy of its price premium over the others, and it's a car anyone would be proud to own. But the Acura RL has run a very close second, very close, and the Infiniti M45 Sport a close third.
Third Place: 2006 Infiniti M45 Sport
If your driveway is shaped like the Nurburgring, and your commute includes a few laps of Laguna Seca, your $50,000 should be spent on the 2006 Infiniti M45 Sport. It's the hot rod of the bunch, outaccelerating, outbraking and outhandling the other two with ease.
The M45 Sport, which carries a base price of $50,160, is powered by the best engine and transmission in this test. Its 340-hp, 4.5-liter, double-overhead-cam V8 is as good an engine as you'll find in any sedan anywhere in the world. It provides gobs of low-end torque, it loves to find its 6,800-rpm redline and it's smooth enough to be in a car that costs twice as much. Power delivery, either out on the highway or off the line, is downright explosive.
This is partly due to the Infiniti's five-speed automatic transmission, which is not only the best gearbox in this test, but it's the best automanual we've ever driven. First of all, it's controlled by a perfectly placed and perfectly designed little shifter. It also upshifts more quickly than the transmissions in the other cars and matches revs on the downshifts like a good driver would with a true manual.
At the track, that drivetrain combines with the M's big 19-inch wheels to get the sedan from zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 14.4 seconds at 99.6 mph. Quick by anybody's standard.
Likes to Turn
Infiniti backs up that thrust with a firmly tuned suspension and excellent balance. The M45 is built on the newest version of Nissan's Front Midship platform, which also forms the basis for the Nissan 350Z and Infiniti G35 Coupe. It places the engine behind the axle point of the front suspension for improved weight distribution and better handling. The result is a sharper turn-in than you get in the Lexus or the Acura, and a sedan that tackles a mountain road like a car half its size.
Quick steering and a very powerful set of four-wheel disc brakes, which stop the M45 from 60 mph in just 111.9 ft., also make this the car to take on a late-night run up Mulholland. Infiniti has also equipped the M with an active rear-steering system, which attaches an electrically powered actuator to the lower links of the rear suspension and adjusts the rear toe up to 1 degree in either direction depending on speed, yaw angle and whether the car is entering or exiting a corner.
But the best thing about the Infiniti on a curving road is that you can turn off its stability control so a skilled driver can push the car to its maximum. The stability control on the Lexus cannot be disabled, and the Acura's all-wheel-drive system makes it hard for the car to respond to advanced driving techniques.
With its stability system off, the M45 is downright tossable.
Has a Hard Edge
The trade-off for all of this fun is a bit less refinement than is found in the Lexus, and a lot fewer luxuries than the same money gets you in the Acura.
Compared to those cars, the M45 is noisy on the highway, its steering can feel a bit raw around town and its suspension is the only one that crashes over large road irregularities. Our tester, which cost $600 more than the Acura, was also a little light on the luxuries, with no navigation system, no satellite radio and no wood trim. These items cost extra on the Infiniti, but they're standard on the Acura.
With that said, the Infiniti is comfortable enough to drive from Maine to Miami. Its firm seats are infinitely adjustable, universally comfortable and bolstered more heavily than the bucket seats in the Lexus or Acura. Overall, the M's interior is well built and attractive, but its décor can be a bit busy compared to the simpler Lexus. The Infiniti's seats are covered in two kinds of leather; its dash wears two kinds of aluminum trim, plus chrome; and the Infiniti name and logo are embroidered on the seats, which borders on tacky.
We eventually made peace with the orange night lighting of the gauges, but never really got used to the keyboard of buttons and the giant knob that works the climate controls and the trip computer. We do, however, like the way the rocker panels light up at night. Cool touch.
In the End
And so the M45 lands in third place, albeit by just a few points. If its superior driving dynamics and Infiniti-G35-meets-Infiniti-FX45 styling appeal to you, this car can be purchased without shame.
Second Place: 2005 Acura RL
It's fitting that the RL finishes in second place, because it's not as luxurious or as refined as the Lexus, or as sporty or as thrilling as the Infiniti. But it is an impressive car, with its own unique recipe. And it's a car we can recommend with a crystal-clear conscience to almost anyone.
Not as Athletic
The longest car in this test by an inch, the RL also has the shortest wheelbase, which gives it long overhangs and an unaggressive stance. Add its "small" 17-inch wheels and tires to the equation, and the Acura looks like the slowest and least athletic car of the three, and it is.
Despite its 300 hp, the RL's V6 just doesn't have the low-end grunt of the V8s in the Lexus and Infiniti. Plus, the Acura weighs 240 pounds more than the Lexus, which is the lightest of the three, probably due to the extra hardware of its all-wheel-drive system. That mass, and the V6's peaky power band, make the RL significantly slower off the line than the other two. Even the Lexus, which also has 300 hp, leaves the RL behind like it's run out of gas.
Zero to 60 mph takes 7.6 seconds in the Acura, and just 6.4 in the Lexus. And the RL's quarter-mile time of 15.8 seconds is way off the pace of the other two cars. When you need speed in the RL, flooring the throttle is almost a necessity. It's never really too slow for any real-world scenario, you just need to be more aggressive with the throttle than you do in the Lexus or Infiniti.
But all that throttle mashing negates one of the benefits of buying a V6 over a V8 — fuel mileage. Acura says the RL should get better mileage than the Infiniti and the same as the Lexus, which has a six-speed transmission. But during our week with the cars, they all averaged the same 15 mpg — well under the 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway Acura says the RL is capable of.
The Acura's five-speed automatic transmission is also tuned less aggressively than we would like. Despite the ability to change gears with small paddles mounted to the steering wheel, just like your favorite Formula One ego, upshifts take a tick too long, and downshifts aren't nearly as smooth as they are in the Infiniti.
Comfy but Cluttered
That same sorta-sporty-but-not-really schizophrenia applies to the rest of the RL's interior. Its seats, while comfortable, are too pillowy and too flat once you begin to explore the Acura's handling limits. Even the dashboard design, which is arguably the most dramatic with its modern waterfall center stack, is a cluttered mess of buttons, and its nav/climate/audio display screen reflects too much in the windshield at night. None of which you want while driving fast.
All-Wheel Drive Is All Good
And you can drive the RL fast. In fact, the harder you drive it the better this car feels. Its Super Handling all-wheel-drive system works as advertised, and makes the RL pretty much idiotproof. Leave its stability system on and it's super-duper idiotproof. A sleeping drunk blind guy with one arm would have trouble driving the RL off the road.
The cool part is, a really good driver can shut off its stability system and have a great time tossing this big sedan around. It'll even rotate on the brakes if you get things just right. Usually it just carves through the corners with a bit of understeer, and pulls out hard under full throttle with absolutely zero wheelspin. And it does this while kicking the life out of its front Michelins. We literally wore the brand name off the RL's sidewalls.
Through all that, the Acura's steering, which is perfectly tuned for daily life, starts to feel a bit slow, and its suspension can get a bit soft, allowing the car to bob a bit and lean more than we would like. In less severe conditions, the RL's suspension tuning feels fine.
The same can be said for its brakes, which feel great in the city and stop the RL from 60 mph in a very good 119 feet, but fry like morning bacon on the downhill stretches of twisting Mulholland Drive.
More Good and Bad
Other strong points are a large trunk opening and by far the greatest list of goodies for the money on the market, including the only navigation system with real-time traffic information.
Other bad points are heated seats that toast up quickly but then seem to turn themselves off; odd blue interior lighting, which is a bit too Vegas for us; and interior material quality that is a touch behind the Infiniti and way behind the plush Lexus.
In the End
It may not be the fastest car or the most stylish or the most exciting, but the Acura RL is more car than most people will ever need.
First Place: 2006 Lexus GS 430
Here's your winner. This is the car your $50 grand should be spent on. Well, your $60 grand.
Although the GS 430 carries a base price of $51,125, our test car was loaded with stuff, from an optional navigation system to a pre-collision warning system to rain-sensing windshield wipers, and its sticker price climbed accordingly to over $60,000.
To be fair, we should point out that the options list on the M45 Sport is nearly as long. Check every box and its sticker would also zip past $60 thou.
The difference is that the Lexus just feels better than the Infiniti. The Lexus feels special. Although not as powerful, its engine is smoother and more refined, its interior is quieter and more elegant, and its suspension tuned more precisely. Driving the Lexus makes you feel like your money has been spent on the very best, and the car will reward you for years to come.
But the Lexus isn't flawless, in fact its brakes are so grabby and hard to modulate they border on maddening. Stopping this car smoothly is near impossible, but only for some.
A few editors who drove the Lexus grew accustomed to its odd brakes, while others never did. Plus, they needed over 120 feet to stop this sedan from 60 mph, which is longer than required in the Infiniti or Acura.
The steering is better than that. In fact, this is the best steering in any Lexus today. It's perfect. Plus you get to control it with a perfectly shaped three-spoke steering wheel covered in a combination of walnut accents and buttery leather. By comparison, the steering wheels in the Infiniti and Acura feel like they're covered in sandpaper.
Lexus has worked the same magic with the GS 430's bucket seats. They're soft but firm at the same time, bolstered just enough and they're swathed in leather so supple you swear you've dropped yourself into a giant Coach wallet. The inside of the Lexus even smells of leather, and we can't say that of the Infiniti or the Acura.
Another cool thing about the Lexus' interior is its hidden controls, and this is where the now legendary Lexus attention-to-detail comes in. Lexus has hidden many of the lesser-used secondary controls — like the power mirror switches and the dimmer switch for the interior lights — into a retracting panel that hides itself away in the dash to the left of the steering wheel.
All three of these sedans offer about the same rear-seat room, amenities and comfort, so we can't give the GS any points for that, but we do want to praise the Lexus for its superior ergonomics. Lexus is one of the few remaining carmakers that hasn't gone to a big knob that controls everything and confuses everyone, instead it keeps things simple with a touchscreen and controls so straightforward they border on the uninteresting.
Lexus is also a step up in safety technology. Its Pre-Collision System (PCS), which is packaged on the options sheet with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and costs $2,850, uses a millimeter-wave radar sensor to detect obstacles in front of the car and a computer that reads vehicle speed, yaw rate and steering angle. If the computer decides a collision is unavoidable it preemptively stiffens the suspension, retracts the front seatbelts and preinitializes BrakeAssist so increased braking is applied the instant the brake pedal is depressed. Sounds cool, but we're glad we didn't sample the system.
Lots of Engine
Although this car is new from its tires to its top, it's powered by the same 4.3-liter V8 that powered its predecessor — a double-overhead-cam all-aluminum engine that makes 300 hp. And it's still one of the sweetest engines on Earth with the power delivery of an electric motor. Lexus has teamed it with a new six-speed automatic, however, which is not quite as slick as the gearbox in the Infiniti, but works well enough.
Let Us Drive
Too bad its manual mode isn't all that manual. Sure, Lexus lets you flip the shifter over a gate and the transmission will upshift and downshift at your command, but it still upshifts itself when the engine nears its redline. Wait a minute. We thought this was manual mode.
We have similar complaints about the very aggressive electronic stability system in the Lexus, which cannot be shut off. As soon as the system senses the front tires sliding, which happens when you're driving a car quickly, the system basically shuts the car down. A few times during one particular canyon run the car actually came to a literal stop in a few very slow, very tight corners. No fun.
Too bad, because the Lexus has the only adjustable suspension in this test, and it feels like it's tuned to handle as well as, if not better than, the Infiniti. We think body roll is well controlled and turn-in is sharp and overall balance is right on. We think. It's hard to tell with the computer constantly slapping your wrists like an angry schoolmarm. Lighten up, Lexus.
Another flaw we found with the Lexus is its small trunk opening, which is also a problem with the Infiniti. The trunk itself is large enough, but you access it through a mail slot.
In the End
This is quite a car. It's the best sport sedan from Japan in its price range. It may even be the best sedan in its class. Nice job, Lexus.