Infiniti M35h First Drive: Making Efficient Hybrids Hot
As the luxury brand of Nissan, Infiniti has built its name on the back of its parent company—often benefitting from the larger organization’s research and development. But with the Infiniti M35h Hybrid—a vehicle designed from the ground up to meet the demands of luxury customers—the tables have been turned.
Merging Performance Beast With Efficiency Beauty
After several hours of driving in both L.A. traffic and on winding, less-traveled back roads, I can say without a doubt that the Infiniti M35h Hybrid sedan is a brand new type of beast—merging performance and efficiency in an unprecedented package. When I drove it gently, I was able to return about 30 miles per gallon and spent about 57 percent of the time in EV mode. But when I needed to pass or get around a sticky traffic situation, the torque and power that provides a 5.5 second 0-60 mph time was incredibly useful…and provided heart-pounding exhilaration.
With a 7-speed, sport-tuned transmission, the M35h shifts seamlessly and smoothly. Due to the added benefit of an electric motor, it has such high gear ratios that it can drive at 65 mph in 2nd gear—giving you a sense of what kind of maniacal driving this car is capable of.
Certainly if you drive the M35h Hybrid like a race car you won’t see nearly as good fuel economy; my spirited driving session returned, eh, about 18 miles per gallon. But if you drive it with even a slight concern for efficiency, it will reward you in droves. The EPA rates the Infiniti M35h at 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway.
“It’s the only vehicle with more than 350 horsepower and greater than 30 miles per gallon on the highway,” said Kyle Bazemore, Senior Manager Infiniti Communications, in an interview with HybridCars.com. “It has best-in-class fuel economy, V8 power and we don’t have that rubber-band CVT transmission.”
Infiniti’s First In-House Designed Hybrid, But Not For Nissan?
While the Nissan Altima Hybrid was built on top of a modified Toyota Prius system, the M35h Hybrid features Infiniti’s—and Nissan’s—first in-house designed hybrid drivetrain. Although the one-motor, two-clutch parallel hybrid system is considered last-generation technology by some, the fact that Infiniti was able to squeeze such amazing performance and decent fuel economy out of it is testament to both the engineers’ skills and the amount of life left in such a system.
Underneath the hood, a 3.5-liter V6 engine is mated with a 50 kW electric motor, providing a total output of 360 horsepower—placing it right in between the V6-powered M37 and V8-powered M56. Using its high-power lithium ion batteries, the M35h can travel in EV mode at speeds up to 60 mph (85 while cruising) for distances of one mile at a time and recharges the battery while braking and when the engine is running.
Interestingly enough, although Nissan is the parent company of Infiniti, company officials told me that the only platform that Infiniti shared with Nissan was the Z and therefore it is unlikely that the M35h drivetrain would make its way into any Nissan vehicles.
Solid First Generation, But Second Gen Could Benefit From a Few Changes
The M35h has a huge amount of flexibility in how you can display all the eco-statistics of the car including when it’s in EV mode, how energy is fluxing throughout vehicle, and fuel economy—but drivers of this car will never need it and likely never use it. In fact, looking at this car from the a luxury performance driver’s perspective, many of these items that would be considered “features” by people who are concerned with fuel economy are likely to instead be complicating annoyances.
Even the Eco mode is superfluous. In that mode, the car provides physical feedback to limit the amount of pedal travel and stop you from accelerating like you would want to. I used it for two hours straight—even though I got annoyed with it after about a half hour—and found that my right foot started to hurt from having to exert so much pressure. In a conventional non-luxury vehicle this feature would likely be ignored by most, but in a luxury performance vehicle nobody will ever use it. It’s just another unneeded layer of complication.
When pushing the car to pass and under heavy acceleration, the M35h has slow steering response—I occasionally felt like I was having to push where I wanted it to go. Also, as with almost all parallel hybrids, the M35h exhibits a bit of a lag time when accelerating from a standing start after coming to a stop. It’s not nearly as bad as with some other hybrids, but this is a feature that performance drivers may find slightly annoying.
No Compromises, But Will it Be a Hit?
The M35h is almost indistinguishable from its M37 and M56 brethren. The only difference between them is the rear badge and the “hybrid” label—otherwise they have the same paint and interior choices. They also have the same package choices with the exception that the sport package isn’t available on the Hybrid. This similarity is something Infiniti was shooting for, so mission accomplished.
“Key to our customers is that they’re not looking for a hybrid that feels different,” said Dusty Pierson, an Infiniti Vehicle Performance Development Engineer, in an interview with HybridCars.com. “To them, ‘Hybrid’ is a subtle statement that they make—in fact they don’t really want to give up anything to gain the fuel economy.”
So why make the changes as all? An important driver for Infiniti right now is meeting new stringent fuel economy regulations around the world. The regular Infiniti customer is incredibly isolated from fluctuations in fuel prices and won’t be swayed by the fuel economy argument alone—until it reaches a much higher threshold than for the average consumer. Even so Pierson acknowledged that Infiniti needed to start planning for the future now saying, “We know that things are going to change so that when prices do get up to that level that customers have the right choices and we have the right business plan to adapt.”
By building a vehicle with “no compromises,” Infiniti feels they’ve entered uncharted territory, but thinks there will be a significant market for it. “I think there’s an opportunity here given the fact that—if you can bring a technology like this to market that gives great fuel economy, gives performance and there are minimal tradeoffs in the premium segment—there’s a large opportunity,” said Pierson. “It’s not just the hybrid customer—our whole goal is that we are not sacrificing performance for the brand or this car and we wanted to get both. I think we’ve done that.”
“Recent Infiniti focus groups with a small sample of luxury customers thought the M56 was over the top for them with the V8 and opted for M37 with V6—not because of cost difference, but just because they didn’t feel they needed the power,” said Pierson. “Several of them came away after driving the M35h and said that’s the car they want—and it had nothing to do with the hybrid and everything to do with performance. The M35h has better horsepower and better torquefeel, and they said that they would consider this car over the V6 or the V8 for that reason alone.”