DEL MAR, Calif. — About two or three corners into driving the G35, you get the feeling that Infiniti dealers are in for trouble.
Not because of the G35’s road manners or styling, which are nearly flawless. And certainly not for pricing: at $27,100, the base G35 so undercuts the German and Japanese competition while overdelivering on performance, it’s difficult to imagine the zealot that won’t be pleased.
The dealers are in trouble because cars like the G35 inspire fervid enthusiasts — you know, people who carry on entire relationships on message boards and read the details in spec boxes. And while it might surprise some of you, not everyone wants to spend his Sunday on a two-hour test drive with a car nut and his or her newfound obsession.
They’re probably already talking about whether Infiniti was trying to ape the BMW 5-Series at two-thirds the price or simply drop an Altima-esque shape over Group C suspension bits. The answer is that Infiniti has done a little of both — and has probably brought a world of gearheads upon themselves for it.
Leading the wave
The G35 isn’t the replacement for the I35 mid-size front-driver based on the current Maxima — that is, unless you read between the lines. Infiniti is two cars into a renaissance and the new product wave is moving in a different direction: “We need to re-establish the Infiniti brand here in the U.S.,” says Mark McNabb, vice president and general manager, Infiniti Division, and the reinvention of the brand will “put an emphasis on rear-drive vehicles.” With the addition of another unspecified rear-drive mid-sizer to the stable (you can see pictures here on March 29, live from the New York Auto Show), and with the gut-check pricing of the G35, the I35 looks every bit like a has-been.
2003 INFINITI G35 Sedan
2003 Infiniti G35
At least it has the grace to donate a version of its V-6 engine to the G35 on its way out the door. In this iteration the workhorse Nissan V-6 spills out 260 hp and erupts with 260 lb-ft of torque. Since it first worked its way into early Maximas, the Nissan V-6 has been a paragon of mid-range power, and in this application it shows the newly honed edge displayed as vividly in the hotter Altimas. It gets there through a heap of technology, including an aluminum block, variable valve timing, and electronic throttle control.
A five-speed automatic does all shifting. Cringe if you must at the lack of a manual, but it’s a good gearbox, with clean, quick shifts and not much hunting so long as you keep it out of fifth gear on your favorite test roads. Too, it’s not tough to picture a six-speed manual gearbox in a top-end G35, a possible version that no Infiniti folks would confirm.
Muscular and refined, this powertrain could lift an ordinary sedan into contention — but in the G35 it doesn’t have to carry the load. Infiniti teams it to an extremely capable, supple suspension penned by Kazutoshi Mizuno, the former team manager of Nissan’s Le Mans and Group C racing programs.
Mizuno says his team put a priority on a very “flat” ride, with little body roll and good ride quality. To that end, the engine is positioned behind the front wheels for a better weight balance. The G35’s front suspension has multiple links in front, while the rear has a more egalitarian shock-and-coil setup, although not shock-over-coil MacPherson struts. Aluminum suspension pieces reduce the unsprung weight for better handling, and Nissan claims its home-penned shock absorbers control small vibrations better than off-the-shelf components.
2003 INFINITI G35 Sedan
In whole the tuning is honed to the level that BMW aims its 5-Series models. There is, in fact, very little body roll, and with sharp, linear steering, the G35 feels instantly comfortable to drive above posted limits. It sweeps into curves beautifully, takes a set as swift as Venus Williams, and doesn’t thump your behind at every bump, reminding you of the reason the Germans can command a premium. The feeling is in fact close enough to BMW’s lofty standard that just the merest sliver of self-proclaimed drivers will say they feel a difference. Trust them but feel free to doubt their opinion.
All G35s come awash in safety equipment. The most obvious, at least when you crash, are the G35’s dual front and side airbags, and side air curtains. Pre-tensioned seatbelts and child-seat anchors, too.
The G35’s brakes are controlled by enough computer power to offer Vehicle Dynamic Control, Infiniti’s version of yaw control, plus Electronic Brake Distribution (which varies brake force depending on suspension load) and Brake Assist. But even better is the sheer power of the brakes themselves and their ideal pedal feel. If you’re not convinced about the sporting intentions of the G35 by its dynamic goodness, one arresting 70-to-zero halt will educate you.
The G35’s long, lean proportions are a classy counterpoint to its performance. The design themes it shares with the Nissan Altima — the C-pillar’s arc, the headlamp profile — play out even better here. The sole awkward line cuts a rectangle into the decklid. Nissan says the design is “zero lift,” which either means it’s very stable at high speed or you should wear some sort of support garment. Maybe both.
2003 Infiniti G35
2003 INFINITI G35 Sedan
The cabin’s also sharp, and a great place to work. The front seats are fairly firm and comfortable, although some seat controls on the side of the bottom cushion press insistently into your leg. The rear seats are easy, four-hour affairs even for strapping Germanic adults who favor toaster pastries. The trunk is fairly large, too, mostly because the fuel tank is formed under the rear seat.
For a base price of $27,100, the G35 sports a comprehensive list of equipment: all power features, cruise control, air conditioning, and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. A leather-upholstered model with an eight-way driver’s seat and 17-inch wheels goes for $28,950. Option packages list a 200-watt Bose stereo, twin climate controls, a sport suspension setup, high-performance 17-inch wheels and a rear spoiler.
Once you get past decidedly minor quibbles with the trunk cutlines and the seat comfort, it’s difficult to find the soft underbelly of this taut, lithe sport sedan. No doubt the G35 will bring a whole new set of shoppers into Infiniti stores where former Buick drivers used to wander. The brand’s numbers were down slightly in 2001 — from 78,351 to 71,365 in 2001 — but the G35 and other coming models, including a new mid-size luxury sedan to be unveiled later this year and a new American-made sport-utility vehicle, are in the pipeline, along with a G35 coupe. Packing one instant classic and promising more to come by its goodness, it’s difficult not to see momentum at what used to be known as the third most important Japanese luxobrand.
Base price: $27,100 (with leather package, $28,950)
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 260 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 186.2 x 68.9 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Curb weight: 3336 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 19/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side impact airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, Vehicle Dynamic Control, Electronic Brake Distribution, Brake Assist
Major standard equipment: Power windows, cruise control, in-dash six-disc CD changer
Warranty: Four years/60,000 miles