cars

2013 Infiniti M35h Hybrid: The Character Actor

In an automotive landscape devoid of personality, Infiniti's hybrid sedan is delightfully different.

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Introduction

If there's one thing missing from today's cars, it's character. Sure, a century's worth of research has led to best practices across the auto industry, but I sometimes long for the days when companies like Citroën, Studebaker, and Rover seemed to drive to the tunes of their own exhaust pipes.

In 2013, the Infiniti M35h (base MSRP $54,200, $66,245 as tested) is about the closest you can get to a car that's entirely unique. A design that's as shapely as it is aerodynamic, a hybrid drivetrain, and technology that seems lifted out of a comic book vision of the future combine in just about the strangest luxury sedan on the market today. Love it or hate it — and I grew pretty fond of it — you'll have to agree that the M35h is one of a kind.

Tech & Entertainment

The world of tomorrow

The M35h I drove was fully equipped with a staggering array of semi-autonomous technologies. While most luxury cars offer optional dynamic cruise control, the M35h goes a step further with Distance Control Assist (DCA). A single steering wheel control switches on DCA, which consists of automatic braking and steering assist. If you're tailgating, it'll push back on the gas pedal and even hit the brakes. If the car in front of you comes to a stop and you don't react, it'll do the same. Drift out of your lane with your turn signal off, and it'll gently coax the car back on track.

It may sound intrusive, but it's a blessing in heavy traffic. Consider it a stress-reliever as much as a safety feature, as it still keeps the driver in control of gas and brake, but acts as an extra pair of eyes. My only complaint? Shortly after the car brings itself to a stop, it'll beep, then accelerate again regardless of whether there's still an obstacle ahead. I've driven plenty of cars with automatic braking, and this is the only one that accelerates on its own after stopping.

One advanced feature that did aggravate was the Eco Pedal, a driving aide designed to enhance fuel economy by providing constructive criticism to leadfoot drivers. With the Eco Pedal turned on, heavy acceleration is met by a gas pedal that actively pushes back, resisting the driver's input. You can fight it if you really want to floor it, but it's an unnerving sensation—and fodder for a certain breed of automotive conspiracy theorist who assumes environmentalists all want to defang the automobile. I'm all in favor of higher gas mileage, but I left the Eco Pedal off.

Personally, my favorite feature by far had nothing to do with performance. Infiniti's Forest Air option mixes outside and recirculated air for air conditioning, cycling blowers up and down almost imperceptibly, to mimic an outdoor breeze. It sounds like a gimmick, but it seems to work: After a long trip, my eyes weren't dried out even though I had the AC blasting. If I were shopping for a car in this class, Forest Air might singlehandedly sway me over to the Infiniti. It's just that good.

Where the M35h lags behind is infotainment. The nav system is straightforward, with the option to use a touchscreen or jog wheel. But smartphone connectivity is limited to Bluetooth audio, and there's no way to reach online services such as Yelp, Pandora, or OpenTable—apps that are de rigeur in newer cars that cost tens of thousands less. Telematics services are provided through Infiniti Connection, a supplemental service that costs $179 a year for basic crash notification and safety services, and an additional $129 a year for more advanced "concierge" features.

Design

Looks that make a statement

The M has some sensual curves, the likes of which I haven't seen since Ian Callum took Jaguar's flagship XJ sedan in an entirely new direction a few years back. This car doesn't have fenders so much as haunches and shoulders, a predator that's ready to pounce.

Where most sedans have traded their proud visages for snub-nosed hoods in the name of aerodynamic efficiency, the view from the M's driver's seat is of a curvaceous and visible hood. Those arches over the headlights aren't just for show, however, as they help speed airflow over the front of the car.

Inside, things get a bit… weird. French-stitched seams swirl across the upholstery instead of marching in straight lines, and speakers are attached to either side of the front seat headrests. Dark wood trim is coated in flecks of purplish silver, like those puff-paint sweatshirts we all wore in kindergarten. It's a polarizing design, but it is well executed.

One hybrid peculiarity: Pop the trunk and you'll find that the added lithium-ion batteries take up the space where the fold-down rear seats would've been. You're left with a relatively small trunk in a very big car.

Driving Experience

I've had the pleasure of driving the entire Infiniti M lineup. The M37x is the all-around, all-wheel drive study in balanced compromise. The M56 is insanely powerful, an unleashed beast that only appears domesticated. The M35h, on the other hand, is a serene cruiser, in the mold of Cadillacs and Lincolns past.

With the benefit of a hybrid powertrain featuring lithium-ion batteries, the M35h can silently cruise on electric power alone, and gets combined city and highway gas mileage that's around 30 MPG. Acceleration is brisk enough for comfortable merging and passing, and handling was generally pretty well-composed, though we had some issues with oversteer (when the car's rear wheels lose grip in a turn) on wet roads.

Steering and suspension feel, however, are on the dull side, and the car feels just as large as it is. It's not as disconnected as many less-expensive hybrids—Infiniti's used a steering setup that combines traditional and electric power steering, but after driving other models in the M lineup, it's obvious that the hybrid is tuned for comfort. Depending on what you're looking for, that could be a good thing: Bumps and other pavement imperfections are hardly noticeable, and there's a little bit of a float to the ride.

Conclusion

As a kid, I took pride in my ability to distinguish one car from another. I wasn't particularly brilliant or observant—I was just paying attention. Back then, even related cars looked different enough that I could tell a Ford Pinto from a Mercury Bobcat, and a Buick Skyhawk from a Oldsmobile Firenza.

Kids today don't have it so easy. Focus groups, windtunnel research, European pedestrian-safety regulations, and a host of other factors have led to Hyundais that look like Fords that look like Jaguars that look like Toyotas. The resemblances are so uncanny, I'd be willing to bet that hit-and-run witness testimony is virtually useless.

That's why the M35h is so exciting. Not only does it include a whole host of semi-autonomous tech that would've been at home in a Tomorrowland display a mere decade ago, but it mates a hybrid powertrain with a design that looks like no other car on the market. With a curvaceous exterior, unique interior appointments, and a quiet, supple ride, it's a high-tech update of the classic American sedan.

Whether that's your idea of a dream car or just a yawn doesn't matter. Even if you never buy one, the fact the M35h is even on sale makes the road a more interesting place.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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