2011 Infiniti M56 Road Test

Pity Infiniti. After 21 years on the market and an amount of cash spent on advertising to at least equal this season’s Yankees payroll, Nissan’s upscale brand is still often misspelled with a “y.” One day last March, the Los Angeles Craigslist website had 79 ads for used “Infinity” vehicles.

Poor Infiniti. The brand lurches along, mainly on sales of the divine G sedan and coupe, but it’s quietly getting its clock cleaned by Acura, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. Each of those last three brands outsells Infiniti by more than two to one.

Deck chairs have been rearranged. The brand dropped its saleproof Q45 flagship in 2006 and moved the mid-level M into the top spot. But that last M, bobtailed and chiseled and called the Nissan Fuga in Japan (where Infiniti doesn’t exist), couldn’t really move the needle. Carrying a $50,000 ticket, the V-8 Infiniti M45 drove well—witness comparison-test victories in ’05 and ’06—but it had the plain interior of, well, a Nissan. The M, in both V-6 and V-8 dress, currently accounts for just 10 percent of Infiniti sales. The superstar G supplies more than half.

Where is Infiniti headed in its quest for identity and success? Toward extroverted styling and greater horsepower, judging by the new M.

The 2011 M37 and M56 slide out of the product dispenser with essentially the same “FM” rear-drive platform as before but sheathed in new skin. The 114.2-inch wheelbase remains unchanged, as does the bountiful interior space. M37 prices hardly budge: The entry point rises only $450, to $47,115 for the base M37 equipped with a 330-hp, 3.7-liter V-6 from the Nissan 370Z.

The car being pummeled here is a $64,065, rear-drive, V-8–equipped M56 (all-wheel drive is available). It’s the base $58,415 M56—that’s $5400 more than last year, in part because navigation is now standard—fitted with the $3650 Sport package and the $2000 Sport Touring package (more about those forthwith).

The M is the most beguiling example yet of Infiniti’s latest, highly organic, almost halibiotic styling thrust. No angles were employed. From the bluff prow, the metal contorts over the skeleton like the tentacles of an octopus over a rock. In fact, various forms of swimming and wiggling ocean proteins are evoked in the profile—if you squint hard enough—all to alluring effect.

An Austrian rather partial to German cars was riding in the passenger seat during our test. He ran probing fingers all over the dash and door panels, pushed some buttons, pulled a few handles, and said, “Look at that: The Japanese are finally getting it right.” Indeed. The basic interior layout remains unchanged, with large gauges under a thick hood and a center navigation screen operated by a keyboard angled toward the ceiling.

But in the new M, the plastic doesn’t look so much like plastic as a sort of leatherish-like wrap, and nowhere do the eyes trip over some weed of cheapness, even in the back seat. Every millimeter has been combed through to ensure tight fits, low-gloss sheens, and the exactitude of perfectly aligned ornamental stitching.

Horsepower has long been an Infiniti selling point, and the M56 has a mustang ranch onboard. The V-8 has 95 more horses than before, and the car needs just 4.7 seconds to hit 60 mph, 0.8 second less than before. Don’t expect anything at this price, including the new 5-series, to be any quicker. The 14-inch front brakes of the Sport package bring 4060 pounds to a hasty halt in just 164 feet, excellent in this class.

Infiniti wants to be about handling as well. The Sport package slots in double-piston shocks and firmer springs, as well as 20-inch wheels wearing 245/40 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A summer tires. In the past, this also meant ride harshness, but here, Infiniti has again attacked a weakness. The 20-inchers roll over pavement breaks with an audible slap of rubber, and the ride is still crisp, but it is no longer jarring. We’re witnessing an evolutionary step here, toward the secret ride-and-handling balance that BMW has long profited from.

What prevents the M from passing for a grown-up G are a few odd traits. The Sport package includes an electric rear-steer system. Actually, “rear-steer system” slightly overstates it. The mechanism employs an electric motor mounted behind the rear differential to adjust the toe-in angles in back. Yes, it’s steering, but by no more than one degree. As before, it’s an in-phase type, meaning the rear wheels pivot in the same direction as the fronts, only at road speeds—it’s inert below 25 mph. The system, meant to hasten the helm response, felt hyperactive on occasion to this driver. The car can veer toward a corner’s inside line as if drawn by gravitational forces. The M is pulled around ruts, and it wanders on the freeway, always keen to explore other lanes and nuzzle with other cars. It’s a pity because the M’s grip and body control are solid, the basic chassis with its aluminum control arms up front and latticework of links in back well suited to hard play. Yet, even when you get comfortable tossing the car around with its highly kinetic wheel, the computer intervenes to prevent fun from breaking out.

All M cars now have a dial to select among four driving modes: “Eco” attempts to save gas by reducing throttle response and upshifting early; “snow,” even more so. “Standard” is the no-hurry mode, and “sport” is the hoon setting, with throttle response and shift strategies suited to fast getaways.

In every mode, the stability control is too intrusive, the threshold set so low that the brakes are fired and the throttle stunted just as the tires (and the driver) are coming up to temperature. Long, fast sweepers where the M should be hunkered down and stroking nicely near the limit are ruined as the panicky computer seizes control. There’s an off button, but we could never fully disable the system, and we shouldn’t have to. If Infiniti wants to run with the Germans, it has to think like them and give the driver more freedom to master the machine.

If you are of a more cautious nature, there’s always the $3000 Technology package. It wires the car with sensors and alarms to warn of cars in blind spots and when you’re straying across lane markings. The system will even work the brakes on one side to pull you away from danger on the other, and it has radar-monitored cruise control that automatically spikes the brakes if the M gets too close to the cars ahead.

When driving the M equipped with this package, rarely do 10 full seconds pass without the “Ding!” of a concerned chime, the flash of an early-warning light, or the jerk of brakes being applied by a diligent microprocessor. This option is strictly for people who fear getting out of  bed and not for those who in any way value their sanity.

We’ve buckled into versions of the M without the Technology package and found everything to be far more natural. In fact, unless your station in society requires that you be ferried around by a 420-hp V-8, the 330-horse M37 shines as a better value.

To sum up, here’s our handicapper’s guide to Infiniti M56 option packages:

If you’re loaded, vote “yes” on the $3800 Deluxe Touring package because it includes a 16-speaker Bose stereo that will bake a potato; lots of interior-trim upgrades, such as very striking silver-infused wood trim and a suede-like headliner; and various cabin-air filters and purifiers, as well as a function called “Forest Air,” which is supposed to mimic the breeze through a stand of mighty sequoias by varying airflow through the vents. It alternately puff-puffs and blows odorless air in a random rhythm but is mostly too subtle to be noticed.

Vote “Hell, no!” on the $3000 Technology package.

Vote “maybe” on the $3650 Sport package. You get the firmer suspension and big wheels. But you also get strange superkinetic steering paired with computers apparently programmed by Amish buggy makers. And you are then required by Infiniti’s pricing structure to vote “yes” on the $2000 Sport Touring package, which includes the hot stereo, the cabin-air filters, and Forest Air.

Almost since the day it started, Infiniti has been busy reinventing itself. As you see, it remains a work in progress.

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