There are three groups of people in the UK. There’s the majority who have never heard of the Infiniti brand and a small minority who know who they are and what they do. There’s also a group of people who’ve actually bought one, but that number is in the low thousands.
It’s all different in the US, where Infiniti has been selling their cars for around 20 years. The brand there sold just under 100,000 cars last year, almost as many as Audi managed and more than Ford’s American luxury brand Lincoln.
So why aren’t they selling in the UK? I got hold of an Infiniti M35h to see if I could find out the answer.
The ‘h’ at the end of M35 shows that this is the hybrid version of Infiniti’s luxury saloon, but don’t be fooled in to thinking that its hybrid credentials make this another unhurried, sleepy box of blandness. Not at all.
The 0-60 mph dash is done and dusted in just 5.5 seconds, with the 3.5 litre petrol engine and 50 kilowatt electric motor working in tandem to produce 359 bhp (364 ps) to propel the car to motorway speeds quicker than the 3.7 litre petrol or 3.0 litre turbo diesel engine options.
Maximum speed is limited to 155 mph, as is often the case, but I don’t doubt that the engine will keep pulling well beyond that. It’s shockingly quick in a way you simply don’t expect. That all comes at the expense of economy of course, as the 40.9 mpg (6.9 l/100km) won’t impress anybody. At least CO2 emissions come in at 159 g/km, just a single gram below that important break point for company car buyers.
Fortunately Infiniti isn’t selling this car as a planet saving green machine, but rather a performance saloon that just works more efficiently. That means I can put disappointment in the economy to one side and enjoy the car for what it is.
Before I do though, I want to come back to that hybrid system. I’ve driven a number of hybrids, from the Honda Insight through to the Lexus LS 600h L, and nothing else has ever been quite as happy to slip in to all-electric mode as the M35h. Cruising at speeds of 65 mph in pure electric was possible and frequent, while entire villages could be negotiated with the engine sitting idle.
The switch between different drives wasn’t entirely smooth though, with a noticeable clunk at times reminding you that the M35 wasn’t originally designed to take such a complex system. That design decision also shows in the boot, where there’s a huge chunk missing that’s now taken up by batteries.
There’s no indication in the cabin that there have been any changes though, and that’s a good thing. Sitting up front the surroundings are sumptuous. Thick leather hide covers many surfaces, with a love-it-or-hate-it Japanese white ash wood trim covering most control areas. That wood has an incredibly deep finish to it, apparently aided by genuine silver powder accents and hand finishing.
That traditional build is complemented by some modern touches. A Bose stereo system was fitted to our test model with 16 speakers spread around the cabin, including four in the front seats. Climate control included a Forest Air option that produces a gentle breeze around the interior rather than a straight blast of air from the vents. It sounds ridiculous, but it works impressively.
There is more equipment inside than you would find at a Curry’s superstore, but that’s probably expected when you’re paying in excess of £42,000. A seven-speed gearbox, cruise control, automatic lights and wipers, heated and cooled electric seats, reversing camera and so much more, all come as standard.
It’s every bit the luxury saloon that Infiniti promise it is and there is no doubting the raw performance figures, but can a close to five metre long car weighing more than 1.8 tonnes really be considered a sporting choice?
No, not really. There’s plenty of grip, but not much feel coming through to the driver. It’s a little like driving by remote control. In normal mode, the soft setting feels smooth and relaxing, but the car just can’t quite get to grips with the bigger bumps in the road. Turn the car settings to Sport and you’re presented with stiffer suspension but, despite the double piston shock absorbers and independent suspension all round, it still lacks the dynamic abilities of something like the BMW 5 Series. It sacrifices comfort but doesn’t provide a noticeable benefit.
That’s a surprise, as Infiniti’s are generally pretty sharp. The suspension on the M35h is slightly different to the normal versions, so something has obviously changed; perhaps the extra weight of the hybrid system is just changing the balance a little too much, while the suspension changes may have taken away some of the character of the car.
There’s little character on the outside though. It’s another love-it-or-hate-it moment, but to my eyes there is more than a hint of previous generation Hyundai about the styling that doesn’t mask its Nissan roots very well at all. That said, it attracted more attention on the driveway than any other car I’ve had on test, so I may well be in the minority.
I’ve ended up here with a mixed review. Seemingly the conclusion is that the M35h is a slightly ungainly, supremely luxurious, extremely rapid, reasonably economical, vague handling saloon. Honestly, I couldn’t buy one yet, but it all bodes extremely well for the next generation of M35, whenever that may appear. That model should be designed as a hybrid from scratch, with suspension tuned accordingly, rather than being the compromised solution it is now.
Should you buy one? For some people, this could be the perfect car. Think of the business owner who needs a company vehicle but doesn’t want to pay top dollar tax bills. They want luxury and power as it’ll also be the family car and, importantly, they don’t want to follow the crowd to the local Audi, BMW or Mercedes dealer. For that person, the M35h is a supremely capable car, a car for somebody with confidence to do their own thing.
The problem seems to be that there are not many of that kind of person around, which may go some way to explaining why Infiniti’s not working in the UK.