-- Luxury brand Infiniti finally joins the gasoline-electric hybrid car market with the 2012 M35h that's rated 38 percent more fuel efficient overall than its non-hybrid, V-6-powered M35 sibling.
Drivers can get 9 more miles from a gallon of gas in city traffic and 6 more miles a gallon on the highway by driving the M35h rather than the regular M35, according to federal government estimates. And the M35h helps prod the driver to meter gasoline via an accelerator pedal that feels like it has a brick behind it whenever a computer in the car determines that the driver isn't being fuel-conscious.
This noticeably firm resistance as the accelerator is being pushed down comes only when the driver has engaged the car's eco mode. And, it's easily overcome with a bit more pushing on the pedal. But a driver can't ignore that some nagging is going on.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the 2012 M35h with V-6 and electric motor is $53,595. The government fuel economy rating is 27/32 mpg. That compares with the $48,595 starting retail price for a non-hybrid, V-6 powered, 2012 M35 that's rated at 18/26 mpg.
But the M35h isn't the highest priced M sedan. The 2012 M56 with 420-horsepower V-8 has a $59,995 starting retail price and is not offered in a hybrid version.
Competitors to the M35h include the 210-horsepower Mercedes-Benz E350 Bluetec sedan, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $51,775 as a 2011 model and has a government fuel economy rating of 22/33 mpg as it runs on diesel fuel. Lexus' 2012 HS 250h, which is a luxury gas-electric hybrid sedan, has a starting retail price of $37,030 and had a 2011 rating of 35/34 mpg.
The M35h is a mixed personality.
It's designed to be a luxury car like the other M sedans and so is swathed in leather inside and has many standard convenience features such as power moonroof, 10-way adjustable front seats, intelligent key access, push button start, Bluetooth phone connectivity and rearview monitor.
The test car even had optional deluxe touring package with genuine silver powder accents and Japanese white ash tree trim inside.
But the M35h can be much more resource conscious when it comes to fuel. I managed to get nearly the 29-mpg rating for combined city/highway driving that the federal government puts on the window sticker, and I wasn't in eco mode all the time and didn't try hard to maximize fuel.
Then, I switched to the sporty, shift-it-yourself mode, which doesn't use a clutch pedal but has a sporty shift gate in the center console for up and down shifts, and the mileage in city-only driving came to just 15.8 mpg.
In similar conflicted fashion, the M35h actually has significantly more horsepower than the non-hybrid M35: a maximum 360 horsepower from the combined working of the gas engine and electric motor compared with 333 horses with the traditional M35 V-6 shouldering the load by itself.
The electric motor gives impressive "oomph" quickly at low speed via its 199 foot-pounds of torque available at 1,770 rpm. It was enough to chirp the 18-inch tires on the test car.
The V-6 is a 3.5-liter double overhead cam, Atkinson cycle unit that can produce a maximum 302 horses by itself. Torque from this engine peaks at 258 foot-pounds at 5,000 rpm.
But even this hybrid Infiniti has premium gas as the recommended fuel to help achieve peak power performance.
To conserve fuel, the car can turn off at stoplights and when you're idling at the side of the road. But the test car didn't turn off all the time and even had a bit of a roughness at times when the engine automatically started up.
Compared with more common hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, the test car felt substantial and even a bit heavy as it traveled. It weighed some 4,200 pounds, while a non-hybrid, base M35 weighs 3,858 pounds, and a Toyota Prius mid-size five-door has a posted weight of only 3,000 or so pounds.
Thus, the sprightly nature of other, less pricey hybrids didn't exist in the M35h tester, and while I didn't dislike the heavier feel to the ride, it wasn't what I expected.
Also not expected was the seven-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode sans clutch pedal.
Typical hybrids usually have a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that maximizes fuel economy, and Infiniti's parent company, Nissan, has been a big user of CVTs. But no CVT is in this hybrid, and I liked that the M35h had fixed shift points that engaged smoothly in regular fashion, rather than the droning of a CVT.
Controls and knobs were within easy reach inside this hybrid, and the black, web-like design for the outer circles of the speedometer and tachometer is an intriguing and attractive touch.
My passengers and I slid across the seats with ease, and while I scraped the face of my watch every time I reached down between the driver door and the driver seat to adjust the seat recline or height, I had enough height adjustment to have decent views out.
The front passenger, however, looks at and over what appears to be a design that looks like a pushed-in bump at the front of the dashboard.
Standard safety equipment on the 2012 M35h includes six air bags, electronic stability control, antilock brakes and traction control, plus the rearview monitor. Other safety equipment is optional and includes lane departure warning and prevention system, managed, intelligent cruise control and blind spot warning.
Consumer Reports puts M car reliability at above average.