Shuddering in anticipation of increasing federal fuel economy standards, luxury car manufacturers that traditionally paid little attention to gas consumption are finally paying heed. Take Nissan's up-market marque, Infiniti, which for 2012 introduced its first-ever hybrid, the M.
Few green-leaning people of means want to swap their prime rib for soy patties, so it follows that Infiniti would design its hybrid luxury sport sedan for drivers who want better fuel economy and performance too.
Let the less financially endowed downsize with Nissan's low-budget Versa. Moneyed folk still want to revel in climate-controlled leather seats and a vehicle with enough power to keep lesser cars in rear view.
Starting at $54,595, the 2012 Infiniti M Hybrid costs $6,000 more than the V-6 version of Infiniti's M37 — the car the M Hybrid is based upon. In hybrid form, the mid-size sport sedan is the first car to achieve 360 horsepower and a fuel economy rating of 32 miles per gallon on the highway from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The M Hybrid is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, a 50-kilowatt electric motor and a 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery. The M Hybrid is the first car on the market to employ a one-motor parallel hybrid with a double clutch that feeds power directly to a seven-speed automatic transmission for better accelerator-pedal response. It gets 30% better fuel economy than the gas-powered M37.
Actual results, of course, vary. There are four different drive modes in the M Hybrid — Standard, Snow, Sport and Eco. Being a bit of a green jeans, I spent my first day or so in Eco mode, which was surprisingly responsive despite the car's design to reduce throttle sensitivity when driving in that mode.
Flooring it, however, my right foot engaged in a wrestling match with the accelerator pedal. When I pressed the pedal to the floor too hard, it actually pushed back. Part of the technology package on the test car I was driving is a so-called eco-pedal, which works as a training mechanism for the lead footed. In the best of circumstances, i.e., feather-footed driving, the Eco mode yields as much as a 10% fuel economy gain.
The M Hybrid drives as a pure electric vehicle as much as half the time. It can travel as a pure electric up to a speed of 62 mph when accelerating and up to 85 mph when coasting. That's enormously significant. Many hybrids get better fuel economy in the city because of a lower top speed in pure electric mode. The M Hybrid, with its higher top electric speed, enables it to get 32 mpg on the highway versus 27 mpg in the city.
In an ideal world, the frequent transitions between the gas-powered engine and electric motor would be seamless, but that isn't always the case with the M Hybrid. I was often startled by the shimmy of the gas engine as it took over the car's propulsion, especially at low speeds and when idling.
On a lesser car, that shimmy would be a deal breaker, but there's a lot of deep thinking to the details of the M Hybrid.
Aesthetically, the M Hybrid's exterior design is quite va-va-voom. It's athletically curvaceous.
It's quite come-hither. Approaching the car at night, the presence of the key fob triggers an illumination of the door handles. And once the door is opened, the car lights the way through start-up, washing the door frame in light as the driver settles in, then illuminating the ignition button.
There is a single trim level for the M hybrid, though several upgrades are available. The test car was outfitted with technology, deluxe touring, premium and 18-inch wheel packages, which added $10,800 to the car's price altogether.
For those who appreciate artistry and elegance, the deluxe touring package is especially worth the money. I was particularly enamored with the Japanese white ash wood trim, which made its debut on the 2011 M37. Finished with silver dust, the inlaid wood in the center stack and dash has an alluring metallic sparkle unlike any I've seen on a wood surface, either inside a car or in furniture.
The M Hybrid's optional Forest Air system is an intriguing take on ventilation, alternating the vents through which the air flows to mimic a natural breeze, while twin speakers in the shoulders of the driver's and front passenger seats upped the amplification and surround sound of the car's premium Bose audio.
Most of the tech package is overkill, including the lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems, which beep whenever the car senses it's in danger. For drivers awake at the wheel, the beeps will be as welcome as a nagging spouse. All the beeping just made me feel like a bad driver, especially when I was carrying passengers.
I took the M Hybrid to San Diego for a long weekend with a fellow mom. Together, we were carrying three kids and three major pieces of luggage, all of which fit comfortably in the back seat and trunk. Overall, I found the ride quality comfortable, but the road noise was ever-so-slightly more than I would have liked for a car at this price point.
Still, the M Hybrid hits a sweet spot, marrying enough luxury trimmings to satisfy the hedonistic with great off-the-line performance and fuel economy that won't make luxury-oriented greenies cringe.