For many people, the word “hybrid” is often associated with boring, slow, uninspired and (let’s face it) less-than-cool cars. Even the newer hybrids have been exercises in compromise – lacking horsepower or fuel economy or, in some cases, both. In the M35h, Infiniti set out to change this equation and has succeeded in building the first hybrid with almost no compromises: a luxury vehicle with the performance of a V8, but the fuel economy of four-cylinder engine.
Infiniti’s M-series sedans are on a winning streak, with sales more than doubling and best-in-class residual values. The marque is now a serious contender in the premium segment. And the M35h brings a brand new sense of dominance to the Infiniti range.
The special nature of the M35h lies in its schizophrenia. With a combined output of 360 horsepower from a 3.5-liter V6 mated to a 50-kilowatt electric motor, there is no other car currently on the road that can get from standstill to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, but can also return 32 mpg (highway). The M35h delivers the serious poise and restraint luxury customers demand in daily use, but, when needed, is able to outperform the V6-powered M37.
Although the M35h is rated at 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway – with a combined fuel economy of 29 mpg – careful driving in city traffic can result in an average of 30.4 mpg, with much of that time spent in electric vehicle (EV) mode. The M35h can drive in EV mode at speeds up to 60 mph for distances of one mile at a time, and regenerates electricity for the battery while braking and when the engine is idling. Driving aggressively or zipping up steep hills without a care for fuel economy will return about 18 mpg – but even a Prius will do that in the same circumstances (although it will be far less fun).
The seven-speed transmission provides a driving experience perfectly suited to a performance luxury car; it’s often hard to remember this is a hybrid. This might seem unimportant, but one of the main reasons people find hybrids dull is because most of these vehicles use a continuously variable transmission (CVT). CVTs have no fixed gears and often feel mushy or unresponsive when accelerating while already on the move – like stepping on a marshmallow. When passing, there’s no marshmallow in the M35h.
Although the car has incredible performance, the steering does feel a bit slow when changing lanes under heavy acceleration. Ordinarily, this might be corrected by purchasing the upgraded M sport package, but this isn’t available on the hybrid. Also, because of the way the engine and electric motor are mated into the final drive, the M35h (like most hybrids) suffers from a slight lag between pressing the gas pedal and the car accelerating from a standing start as the drivetrain “clicks” over from EV to full hybrid mode, although Infiniti has done a good job of minimizing it. Chance are these issues may not even be noticed by most people, but engineers at Infiniti certainly have something to shoot for in the next generation.
The only visual cue that the M35h is any different from its conventional siblings is the unassuming “hybrid” badge. Other than that, it still carries its trademark bulbously attractive front end with poise. And still suffers from a rather uninspired rear. Interior styling, like all the M sedans, is posh and sleek – from the silvered wood paneling to the supple leather.
Regardless of fuel economy, the M35h is a car many luxury customers might choose as a step up in performance from the M37. Yet they will also be able to point to its frugal traits as a statement on how they feel about the environment. Beyond the M35h’s target market, the motoring world can point to it as the first hybrid to blend fuel economy and performance into a package that makes hybrids cool.
Pricing for the M35h will be announced shortly, but Infiniti says the base price will fall somewhere between the M37 and the M56 – roughly $53,000 to $54,000. The car will start reaching dealers in early April 2011.