Steve Sharpe drives the Infiniti M35h
PEOPLE being as they are, are always looking for improvements. When the first steam train went above 25mph and the driver failed to implode, and the passengers dismounted from the carriage with all their limbs still intact, engineers didn’t say: “Ah right, job done, let’s go and have a nice cup of tea and congratulate ourselves on defying the laws of physics.”
They returned to the drawing board and set about going faster, further and better.
Hundreds of years on, automobile manufacturing boffins sit around their high-tech offices thinking of travelling in better, smoother, more efficient and faster cars.
Now that hybrid cars are becoming more regular sights on our roads – and will continue to be so over the coming years as petrol prices soar into the stratosphere – the race is on to improve performance in these eco-friendly automobiles.
Which brings us to the M35h, the hybrid version of the M35 saloon.
With 0-62mph figures of 5.5seconds, it’s the fastest hybrid on the market and is following a path that others will be keen to navigate.
But it has some strong competition in its sector and it needs more than powerful acceleration to establish a firm grip on the market.
Infiniti is the luxury arm of Nissan and of course will be featuring more and more in the lives of Wearsiders in the coming years as a new model will be built in the Washington Nissan plant.
The M35 is the brand’s luxury saloon and the M35h is the hybrid version of that car.
It’s an impressive car to look at. Big, yet not bulky, it has a fluid, sculpted look with hints of a coupe due to the sloping roof. It looks expensive and luxurious, from certain angles not too unlike a Jaguar.
Inside, as well, there is an air of quality. Slip inside and you notice the fit and finesse of the interior. The doors have a reassuring clunk and the plastics used are soft to the touch.
Its design is attractive, too. The driver and passenger seats are divided by a wide centre console, so the front seats are two distinct spaces.
Everything is well laid out, although there is a lot going on in the centre console, with the media and heating controls, and the touchscreen satnav requires a stretch to reach, although this can also be controlled by a dial in front of it.
The seats are electronically adjusted and extremely comfortable, the steering wheel whirrs up and down electrically and there are memory settings for driving positions, which is useful if more than on person is a regular driver.
There is plenty of headroom and legspace in the front, although not as much as some rivals in the rear, but there’s enough.
Storage space in the boot, however, is hit by the battery pack that’s stored there, and the whole area is surprisingly shallow.
There’s enough for a good week’s shopping but a family going on holiday for a fortnight is going to have to employ some seriously effective bag packing tactics.
It’s on the road that the M35h becomes really interesting. It’s packed full of so much technology that I doubt the people that designed it fully understand it.
Like all hybrids, the electric battery supplies power up to a certain speed in certain conditions, and then the petrol engine takes over.
When pulling off, the M35h is silent, only making a sound when the petrol engine kicks in. And even that is well muted.
What is impressive is that the electric motor powers the big saloon up to quite high speeds – Infiniti say up 60mph and I regularly found the rev counter dropping to zero, which indicates that the motor had cut in, at speeds not far from this.
Many hybrids I’ve driven are fine at trundling at crawling speeds in heavy traffic, but this Infiniti travels at much higher speeds through town while using no petrol and giving off zero emissions. Even at higher speed motorway driving, the battery kicks in when you take your foot off the pedal to save fuel further.
In trials in the USA, the Infiniti M35h was apparently able to drive in electric-only mode for up to 50 per cent of the time over a mixed route that included highways as well as congested city streets.
Yet it also has the power to fly off the mark if needs be at a seriously quick pace, faster than rivals like the Lexus 450h and the Porsche Panamera hybrid.
It even beats diesel competitors like the BMW535d, Jaguar XF and Mercedes 350 for 0-60 figures.
There’s a number of modes which can be selected, including sport, snow and an eco mode for long distance cruising.
But it’s not all perfect. The battery regenerates when you break, which can make for jerky braking, especially at very low speeds. It results in sometimes unpredictable braking. And the seven-speed gearbox, while generally extremely versatile, can be caught out occasionally.
The eco mode on motorways too is there just for non-accelerating cruising, and is reluctant to respond to a call for power up even moderate gradients.
But it’s on the motorway that the M35h feels at home. The cabin is quiet, with just a hint of road and wind noise coming through, and it cruises effortlessly.
But even around town, the Infiniti is happy.
True, it’s a big car but it handles well. Steering is crisp and it corners as you would expect a big saloon to.
Infiniti’s relative freshness acts as both an advantage and an obstacle. There aren’t many of these on the road and their relative rarity will be an attraction for some, whereas many will be reluctant to stray from established contenders like BMW and now Jaguar.
It’s a shame, because although the M35h, and the M Series in general aren’t cheap – the range goes from £39,00 to £46,000, with the hybrid around the middle of that price range – you get a huge amount for your money.
The hybrid comes in GT trim and has all manner of great things on board, including a top-notch Bose stereo system, sat nav, electric everything and much more, plus safety measures like lane departure warning, pedestrian alert, parking sensors and cameras.
It all makes for a comfortable and classy ride. We drove down to South Yorkshire and emerged from the cabin as relaxed as we got in.
As Infiniti establish more of a presence in the UK, and especially here on Wearside, the sight of one of these hybrids should become more of a common sight, and rightly so.
Comfortable, well-built and benefiting from parent company Nissan’s fine reputation for reliability, the M35h has to keep on going in the same direction to make the big hitters in the class start getting concerned.
Engine: 3.5litre petrol/ electric hybrid
Transmission: Seven speed automatic
0-62: 5.5 secs
Top speed: 155mph