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Devilishly Good, Inside and Out

To customers and competitors alike, it must have seemed like Nissan had made a pact with the Devil when its VQ series of V6 engines were introduced a couple decades ago. They have always been class-leading powerplants and, as the industry has improved, Nissan has always managed another response to stay one step ahead as the V6 king.

The 2011 Infiniti M37 continues that trend, with an amazing 330 horsepower from its 3.7-liter V6. But it isn't just power that makes Nissan's VQ engines exemplary. It's also finesse and character – illustrated by the smoothness, inspirational exhaust note, low-end torque and silken throttle tip-in response that puts them in a league with Porsche's flat sixes and BMW's straight sixes.

However, while the powerplant portion of the mid-size luxury sedan equation is nailed down, Nissan's premium Infiniti division has lagged in other areas. The first-generation M-series was a mildly dressed up Japanese domestic market Nissan. The second generation brought the car up to contemporary expectations in terms of exterior styling, but fell a little short on the inside.

That outgoing model was an excellent car in virtually all respects, but facing competition from established benchmarks such as the Mercedes-Benz E Class and BMW 5 Series meant that Infiniti needed to make improvements.


Upper-class cabin

The most obvious opportunity for improvement was to the previous car's good-but-not-good-enough cabin appointments. Once an interior attains the same level of quality as its predecessor, it becomes more difficult to articulate what improvements are needed, but Infiniti has nevertheless made those upgrades.

While the old car's dashboard met all functional expectations and was made from high-quality materials, like the rest of the cabin, it lacked the certain 'je ne sais quoi' found in the very best examples by companies like Jaguar. Now the interior has a grace and elegance not usually present among vehicles assembled beyond Shakespeare's sceptered isle, at least not in examples costing less than six figures.

The wood trim around the brushed metal door release invites caress; that wood is real ash, not polycarbonate. And the steering wheel shift paddles are magnesium rather than the plastic more common in this segment.


Amazing grace

The outgoing M37 still looked fresh and contemporary… until the new car arrived. The sensuous curves of the 2011 M37 bring a new level of appeal. As with the interior, such traits have tended to be more commonly associated with heritage-laden English luxury brands than with Japanese newcomers. The sensuous curves of the 2011 M37 bring a new level of appeal.

Some credit for the improved appearance is due to the employment of the old "longer, lower, wider" trick, changes which give the car more aggressive proportions. The classic long hood/short deck layout is supported by an appropriate burble from the M37 dual exhaust pipes, as it motors away from the curb.


Power and control

With 330 hp and stand-out character, the M37's 3.7-liter V6 makes the available 5.6-liter V8 (in the M56) redundant, a promising sign for driving enthusiasts at a time when the future of mainstream V8 models is in question. It isn't unusual for contemporary six-cylinder engines to produce spirited performance, but it is (unfortunately) less frequent for them to yield a driving experience that is nearly as satisfying as that of a V8.

This engine also scores 18 mpg on the EPA's city driving cycle and 26 mpg on the highway. In mixed suburban driving, our test car returned 19 mpg.

A seven-speed automatic transmission enjoys programming by engineers evidently as smart as those in the engine department. While the benefit of additional speeds seems self-evident, in reality those extra choices can make it hard for the powertrain management computer to decide which gear to use. This is commonly manifested as too-frequent gear changes that annoy the driver while providing no benefit. The M37's transmission works well in full automatic mode, or the driver can opt to shift gears manually for more complete control during hard driving.

The only exception to this commendable unobtrusiveness occurs if the driver makes the mistake of selecting Eco mode on the center console-mounted Infiniti Drive control knob. Such modes are increasingly common and they typically boost fuel economy by making the engine a little less responsive to the gas pedal and by encouraging the transmission to use higher gears whenever possible. Under most driving conditions, they are normally innocuous. Not this one.

In this case, it causes the car to lurch, neither accelerating nor decelerating smoothly. No marginal improvement in fuel economy could be worth enduring Eco mode for long. Just leave the knob in the normal position or in Sport for acceptable driving. There is also a Snow mode for piloting this rear-drive hot-rod on slippery roads.


New kid in an old school

The M37's beautiful styling inside and out makes the BMW 5 Series look awkward and clumsy by comparison, and lacks only the three-pointed star on the hood to match the Mercedes-Benz E-Class for curbside presence. Conversely, its engine is a good match for the BMW's and easily tops the Mercedes-Benz V6.

The Mercedes-Benz E350, though, has lines that are almost as racy as those of the M37 and a leather-swaddled cabin that defies the stereotype of harsh Teutonic interiors. With a base price only a couple of thousand dollars higher than that of the Infiniti, at $50,275, the E350 will have status-conscious shoppers wondering why they should stray from the industry benchmark if the prices are nearly the same.

BMW's 535i is pricier, at $52,775 base, though the company has introduced an entry-level 528i with a smaller engine that starts at just $45,425, if customers can live with 90 hp less than the Infiniti. BMW's styling might still deter some and the interior is more characteristically spartan compared to that of the M37. One outstanding interior feature is a high-definition widescreen display that makes other companies' efforts look like Atari video games.

The Jaguar XF is a striking contender, probably closest to the Infiniti in ambience and design philosophy. No V6 option in the U.S., just a V8, but its starting price of $53,000 is only marginally higher than the BMW 535i. As an old European marque, Jaguar carries more weight at the country club valet line than Infiniti, but despite commendable recent progress, concerns about reliability and resale value linger after decades of problems in those areas.


The trouble in the prestige segment is that prestige is hard-won over decades of effort. Infiniti is still relatively new to the game and has become a serious competitor even more recently. So being best isn't enough by itself. The difficulty in winning fans means that Infiniti could have a hard time convincing shoppers that the $50,465 bottom line (including $865 destination) on the tested M37 (with the Premium Package) represents good value. Even if the M37 is the better car, a lot of customers want to see a more prestigious badge on the hood for 50 large.

For those who can see past the snob value, though, the M37 has the dynamic driving characteristics of a BMW, the sensuous lines and opulent interior of a Jaguar and the comfort of a Mercedes-Benz, making it a clear favorite in this segment.

author photo

Dan Carney is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, D.C.

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