When you’re a car maker selling luxury, you’re actually selling features beyond plush seats and a smooth ride. Powerful engines, crisp handling and handsome styling are all part of the overall package as well. And increasingly, technology helps sell luxury cars too.
And one technology that’s finding its way onto more luxury buyers’ shopping lists is hybrid propulsion. Toyota’s Lexus division already has a very strong lead in this arena, as it was much easier to transfer the technology from Toyota-branded models to their upscale siblings that wear the Lexus badge.
Today, you can also find luxury hybrids from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lincoln. Audi has a hybrid model in the works, and each year on the auto show circuit we are teased by hybrid concept cars from makers such as Jaguar.
Now Nissan’s upscale brand Infiniti has entered the hybrid race with a gas-electric version of its M sedan. The M35h follows the usual formula of offering a small-ish engine supplemented by an electric motor, and combined they give the feeling of having a larger engine without the increase in fuel consumption.
In Infiniti’s case, the official company line is that the M35h provides “the exhilarating and refined power of a V8 with the fuel efficiency of a four-cylinder engine.” This is due to the fact that the 3.5 liter V6 is able to rest at times, letting the electric motor move the large sedan along on stored battery power.
And when it’s time to move quickly, the gasoline and electric parts combine to offer the equivalent of 360 horsepower, which is plenty in a 4100 pound car. I’m not sure Infiniti can back up that word “refined” in its description, as there’s a coarse growl which finds its way from the engine compartment to the driver’s and passengers’ ears. It’s odd, as Infiniti’s V6 engines are known for their smoothness.
Part of the excess roar may be from the way the power is delivered. Nissan engineers came up with a system called Infiniti Direct Response Hybrid, which combines a 7-speed automatic transmission and single motor/dual clutch parallel hybrid system, driving the rear wheels. The advantage is that the engine can de-couple from the rest of the drive system when it’s not needed in order to reduce drag.
But there’s a lot going on as the engine de-couples and re-couples, the electric motor provides power and also recovers energy for the battery, and so on. In the M35h I drove, there was some lag and an absence of smoothness in the throttle control of the engine. It may have been that this car was an early production or late prototype model that hadn’t had its software tuned exactly right.
All this mechanical and electronic complexity pays off at the gas pump. Official ratings for the M35h are 27 mpg in city driving and 32 on the highway, with a combined figure of 29. That kind of mileage was once unheard of in a car of this size and weight. And almost as important to many luxury buyers, carbon output is greatly reduced over the non-hybrid versions of this same car.
Beyond the hybrid system, all the other things that make Infinti’s M a very nice car to be in remain. Lots of features and gizmos, including things like an alert to let you know if you’re about to drift out of your lane. This car also has some of the most comfortable and supportive front seats that I’ve experienced in a long time.
To drive green and luxurious at the same time will cost you, of course. Base price for the M35h is $53,700. Options can be piled on, and the example I tested would sticker price out at $64,745. Pricing for the hybrid falls right in between the conventional V6 M37 and the V8 M56.
There will likely be more hybrid models from Infiniti in the coming years, as well as other luxury brands. You can just add hybrid gas-electric technology to your list of luxury car must-haves.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 8 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz