Test Drive: 2013 Infiniti M35h Hybrid

Test Drive: 2013 Infiniti M35h Hybrid

A Hybrid That Has It All

By: Lynne Hall and Larry E. Hall

If you believe performance, luxury and fuel economy is an oxymoron, then you haven’t driven Infiniti’s 2013 M35h. The h is for hybrid… and horsepower.

Performance? The 360 combined horsepower of the V-6 engine and electric motor blasts the hybrid sports sedan from 0 to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, and the quarter mile in a time of 13.9031 seconds—a Guinness Book of World Records (for a hybrid).

Luxury? The interior is detailed, refined and awash in wood trim and high-grade leather with creature comforts befitting its luxury status.

Oh yeah, fuel economy? Considering its performance capabilities, the Infiniti M35h has an astonishing EPA fuel economy rating of 27/32 mpg city/highway, with a combined rating of 29 mpg. That’s a huge leap beyond the gas-powered M37’s (the 2011 replacement for the M35) numbers of 18/26 and 21 combined.

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Infini’s M35h Hybrid Has It All–at a price

The hybrid system, called “Infiniti Direct Response Hybrid,” was developed and engineered solely by Nissan, Infiniti’s parent company. This is the Japanese automaker’s first foray into a home-grown hybrid propulsion system and uses technologies developed for the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle, including the lithium-ion battery and electric motor. (Nissan’s first hybrid offering, the discontinued Altima Hybrid, was developed by licensing Toyota’s gas-electric technology.)

Nissan engineers designed the M Hybrid system to fit all of Infiniti’s rear-wheel-drive models, including the G sedan and coupe and the EX and FX crossovers. That suggests a strong hybrid path for the Infiniti luxury line.

If Nissan, the most ardent of electric car champions, is trumpeting the benefits of a gas-electric hybrid, it must say something about the enduring role that hybrids can play in improving the fuel efficiency of faster and more spacious cars that fuel up at the pumps instead of the plug. Its meaning to the green car movement shouldn’t be easily dismissed

Available in a single edition with three option packages, the 2013 Infiniti M35h has a base price starting at $54,200, a $500 increase over the outgoing model. For its sophomore year, the M Hybrid adds standard features including, auto-dimming sideview mirrors and auto-trunk cincher, and the addition of a rear sonar system to the Premium Package.

A “P2” Hybrid System

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The Infiniti M35h is the first fully Nissan hybrid

Infiniti’s hybrid system gives consumers another flavor of hybrid technology—to compete against full hybrids from Toyota/Lexus, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Ford and others. Bearing some resemblance to the two-mode hybrids from General Motors, the system design incorporates a single disc-shaped electric motor/generator, two clutches and a standard seven-speed automatic transmission with the torque converter removed. Called a parallel two-clutch system, hence the name P2, it is aimed at a blend of power and efficiency.

The “full-hybrid” architecture allows the M35h to operate on the electric motor only, the gasoline engine only, or a combination of the two depending on driving conditions and driver demands. It also saves gas by automatically shutting off the gas engine when the car is stopped. As in other hybrid vehicles, the motor doubles as both a propulsion unit and a generator that recovers energy otherwise lost during deceleration and braking.

The powertrain embodies the 3.5-liter V-6 engine from the previous M35 and works with the single electric motor and two clutches. The engine uses the Atkinson-cycle valve timing that trades some power output loss for improved efficiency.

The twin overhead cam, 24-valve V-6 is rated at 302 horsepower and 258 pounds-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. The 346-volt motor generates 67-hp (50kW) at 2,000 rpm and 199 lbs.-ft. of torque. Combined output of the V-6 and electric motor is 369-hp. Whether powered by the engine, electric motor or both, the energy is directed to the rear wheels and controlled by the seven-speed automatic transmission.

The first of the two clutches is a dry clutch positioned between the engine and the AC motor, which is in-line with the front of the transmission. This eliminates the need for a torque converter and allows the full decoupling and shutting down the V-6 nearly any time there is adequate battery energy to power the car by electricity alone. The second clutch is a wet clutch at the rear of the transmission that allows the engine to turn the motor/generator to charge the batteries with the vehicle stationary. It also smooths the drivetrain during shifts and when the V-6 is turned on and off.

In addition to manual shift capability for the transmission, the M Hybrid has four driving modes selected by a rotary knob— Snow, ECO, Normal and Sport. Snow is for, well, snowy roads. Eco provides the best fuel economy, but performance is unexciting. Response sharpens in Normal while Sport confirms that the M Hybrid is a sport sedan.

Completing the hybrid system is a 1.4-killowatt lithium-ion battery pack positioned under the trunk’s floorboard. Like Nissan’s electric Leaf, the battery pack uses the company’s proprietary laminated-cell configuration that enhances battery cooling. Infiniti says the M35h can go 1.2 miles on electric power alone.

Most hybrid systems, including those built by Toyota/Lexus and Ford, are parallel systems, but use two motors and a planetary gearset. Since this type of system cannot decouple the engine and motor, efficiency is lower because of engine friction during electric drive conditions.

Infiniti isn’t the only carmaker to employ the P2 type of hybrid system, but its approach is different from the others. For example, Hyundai uses a separate belt-alternator-starter system, Volkswagen (Porsche and Audi) retains a conventional torque converter and BMW’s ActiveHybrid system does use a single-motor, 2-clutch, no-torque-converter system, but also (unlike Infiniti) adds a starter motor.

Lynne Says ….

First, I must extend a mea culpa to Infiniti for questioning their claim that the M35h “is able to drive in electric only mode for as much as 50% of the time.”  We selected Eco mode for the first three days of driving, tallied 113 miles of mostly in-town driving and — Wow!, the EV trip odometer recorded 55.4 miles—49.1 percent—solely on electric power.

In town, the hybrid system is an absolute paragon of smoothness, so much so that it is nearly impossible to feel the transition from electric power to engine power and vice versa. It surges impressively under full throttle, even in Eco mode, and delivers more than sufficient power to merge and pass, even with a full load of passengers.

On the highway, the car rides with supple smoothness. It’s neither BMW harsh or Lexus soft-edged comfort, and effectively soaks up bumps, expansion joints and other road irregularities.Call me old fashioned, but I like chrome, and the M35h has just enough to please the eye. Infiniti’s stylists added it like a woman adds pearls to a black dress.

A premium car needs a strong face, and what a face. Infiniti’s signature double-arch, low-slung chrome grille sitting below a bulging hood conveys power when spied in a rearview mirror. Swept-back crystal-look Bi-Xenon headlights soften the grille’s impact.

Its balanced, rear-wheel drive proportions and stance, along with Infiniti’s trademark short front overhang and long hood leading back to a coupe-like slope, says the M Hybrid resides squarely in sport-sedan territory. Viewed from any angle, the styling is decidedly striking with muscular haunches punctuating its powerful stance.

The exterior’s curvaceous lines are reprised inside, most notably the design of the dual-cockpit dash and the swoops on the doors. The dash is a little too busy for my tastes, but control central is blessedly free of complication.

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Luxury fills the Infiniti M35h interior

Switchgear feels substantial and operates with a smooth deliberateness. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes and the serially adjustable leather seats are supportive in all the right places.

Like most manufacture-provided test drive vehicles, our M hybrid was equipped with all of the option packages: Technology, Deluxe Touring and Premium. Of all the added luxury and whiz-bang techno features—Intelligent Cruise Control, Distance Control, Active Trace Control—my favorite was the Blind Spot Warning, something every car of the future should include. When other cars are in the lanes adjacent to the M35h, lights in the A pillars appear and will flash, accompanied with an audio alert, if the turn signal is activated.

But there’s more. If a vehicle is in a blind spot and you begin a move towards its lane, the Blind Spot Intervention system automatically applies brakes on the opposite side of the car, prompting you to move back to the center of the lane.

The M35h melds equal measure of power, sport, luxury, technology and exceptional fuel economy—features I think place it on top of the luxury hybrid heap.

Larry Says ….

On a stunning fall Saturday morning, we drove south on I-5 from Olympia, WA, and then headed east for some small town antique shopping. Mostly farmland, the two-lane blacktop roads were nearly deserted and lined with fields of yellow cornstalks, with occasional clumps of maples showing touches of autumn color.

The first sixty or so miles were near arrow straight with a few sweeping curves thrown in. During aggressive driving in the Sport mode, the M Hybrid hunkered down with the agility and enthusiasm of your favorite pooch on a dead run behind a terrified squirrel. The performance wasn’t a surprise, but lifting off the throttle was—the tach needle dropped to zero rpm, indicating that the car was running on electrons while in the Sport mode at speeds of 70-plus mph.

After finding a few “treasures” in a delightful small store, we altered our plans and drove northeast toward the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. The road quickly narrowed and ahead was several miles of tight, sweeping and off-camber corners with a discernible climb in elevation. The chassis answered each curve, each load shift and lateral thrust that was encountered. The rapid, upward climb brought out the car’s balance and the excellent match of chassis and powertrain. Understeer was faint, and there was enough power on hand to induce some throttle-on oversteer.

Slight body roll showed up during some cornering, but not once did I have to wrestle with the car. Infiniti’s electro-hydraulic steering was accurate, responsive and certain on center. Brakes had a natural feel rather than the pulsing, almost wooden feel of most hybrid regenerative brake systems.

We, reluctantly, said good-bye to the M Hybrid a couple days later after driving 283 miles, 121 of which were on battery power—an impressive 41 percent considering how hard the car was driven. Equally impressive was the gas engine’s fuel economy of 29.6 mpg, a tad better than the EPA’s 29 mpg combined rating.

The M35h is the antidote to the everyday mundane and joyless driving hybrids that poke along the streets and highways. Yes, it’s an expensive alternative, but with this hybrid, performance, luxury and fuel economy is not an oxymoron.

The Luxo Hybrid For You?

More stringent government regulations—lower emissions in Europe, higher fuel economy in the U.S.—are forcing automakers to turn to gasoline-electric hybrids as one of the solutions to meet the new rules. This includes cars in the luxury segment, which is beginning to fill up with powerful six-cylinder hybrid sedans, such as the BMW Active Hybrid 5, Lexus GS 450h, Porsche Panamera S Hybrid, Mercedes S400 Hybrid plus, the upcoming Audi A6 Hybrid and Acura RLX Hybrid, along with some equally fuel-sipping diesels.

The M Hybrid’s closest competitor is the Lexus GS 450h. All new for 2013, the Lexus sport sedan hybrid bests the Infiniti’s fuel economy with an EPA rating of 29 city/34 highway and 31 mpg combined. But sipping a little less fuel comes with a cost. Priced starting at $58,950, the GS 450h is nearly $7,000 more than the M35h. For the extra money you also get a car that isn’t as quick, is less engaging to drive and has a continuously variable transmission that feels like a rubber band when forced to accelerate.

Power is part of Infiniti’s persona, and putting muscle in the M35h doesn’t undermine the raison d’etre of gas-electric technology: saving fuel.

Infiniti M35 Hybrid Price As Tested*

Manufacturer’s Suggested

Retail base Price                           $54.200.00

Technology Package                        3.050.00

Deluxe Touring Package                  3,900.00

Premium Package                             4,200.00

Destination Charges                             895.00

Total                                                  $66,245.00

*at time of test midyear 2013

Kia Optima Hybrid Car Test Drive and Review

Kia Optima Hybrid Car Test Drive and Review

Kia Optima Test DriveBy John Addison (1/9/12)

It’s an ideal California day for this test drive of the Kia Optima Hybrid. As the day warms, we will be able to open the sunroof, even though it is January. The sky is so clear that we can see the Farallon Islands 26 miles from shore. The drive will combine city streets, freeway acceleration, hill climbing, and navigating curves over steep cliffs descending to the ocean. It will be interesting to compare this to my test drives of other midsized hybrids including the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid.

I have driven this Optima Hybrid a few times during the week. My wife joins me on this drive. As we approach the car we admire the distinctive styling, the butterfly shaped grill, and the black roof contrasting with the satin metal body. I easily sit because the drivers seat has automatically slide back for added room. When I touch the start button the driver’s seat returns to the position of my previous drive – nice touch. My wife and I both enjoy the wide comfortable seats. The Optima Hybrid is a four-door, five-passenger, midsize sedan. Three can sit in the backseat, or the armrest can be lowered giving added comfort for two.

Test Driving the Kia Optima Hybrid

Kia Optima DisplayThe model I’m driving has the Premium Technology Package. The backup camera adds to the safety. The navigation system includes a bigger screen and voice controls. Dual 12-volt adaptors are handy for portable electronics. I use the special adapter for the Apple iPod/Pad/Phone and my playlist and album menus appear on the bigger screen. With a button push, the moonroof for front and backseats opened, letting the filter sunlight stream inside. I select a favorite playlist and away we go.

The car defaults into Eco mode, instead of making you select the mode like other hybrids. Going quite slowly, the Optima Hybrid stays in EV mode, but quickly leaves it. It’s easier to stay in EV mode in a Ford Fusion Hybrid and much easier in a Toyota Camry Hybrid. In city driving, the 2.4L gasoline engine and electric motor work together. The hybrid car battery is a 270V, 5.3Ah, LG Chem lithium polymer battery.

Kia Shift The sedan easily accelerates on the freeway. On an 8 percent grade, the Optima Hybrid accelerated to 80 without working. Electronic steering is responsive as we reach windy curves overlooking dramatic cliffs to the ocean. I pull the shift to the left and power shift down to avoid breaking. For fun, you can shift manually or have the automatic take care of it for you. Our drive is rewarded with an invigorating hike.

Kia Optima SunroofWhen back in the car, I explore other music choices. Unlike some competition, Pandora is only available from mobile devices that can be connected with audio output, USB, or Bluetooth. I USB connect my Droid and settle from a random selection from my MP3 files. The day has warmed so with a single touch I open the sunroof for both front and back seats.

Like other sedan hybrids, the trunk size is a bit small and the back seat does not lower if you want to load lots of cargo such as work projects, school sports, or luggage. There is a pass-thru slot when the backseat armrest is lowered.

The Kia Optima Hybrid has a suggested price of $26,500 plus $750 freight. The model that I drove had an extra $5,000 of options.

Midsized Hybrid Car Comparisons

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is quite similar to the Kia Optima Hybrid, although I think that the Kia’s styling is a bit more distinctive. The Sonata has a 5-star NHTSA rating; the Optima Hybrid is not yet rated. Both have roomy interiors. The Sonata has 11 cubic feet of trunk space to the Optima’s 10. It’s worth comparison-shopping the two cars.

Toyota Camry Hybrid LE achieved much better fuel economy in my test drive. It is rated 43 city mpg, 39 highway and 41 combined versus 37 combined for the Optima Hybrid. It has 13 cubic feet of trunk space to the Optima Hybrid’s 10.

2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid is available as a conventional hybrid and as the Energi Plug-in Hybrid. The Fusion Hybrid is rated at a record setting 47 mpg city, 44 highway and 46 combined 46 mpg – far better than the 26 mpg of my Optima Hybrid test drive or its 37 mpg rating and far better than the 2012 Fusion Hybrid’s 39 mpg combined. The new Fusion Hybrid will have more interior space than the Optima Hybrid and 15 cubic feet of trunk space. The downside is that you won’t be able to order the Fusion Hybrid until the fall, probably not get delivery until 2013, and pay more than the Optima Hybrid.

Toyota Prius Liftback offers as much interior room as a midsize sedan plus the ability to lower the backseat for much greater cargo. Many prefer the classic look of sedans; others like to proudly display their fuel economy with the Prius look. The Prius will save hundreds each year at the pump and can cost a bit less than midsized hybrid sedans.

Kia Takes Market Share

In 2011, Kia and its sister company Hyundai continued their strong growth, taking market share from Toyota, Honda, Ford and several others. This Kia hybrid is made in Korea and has benefitted from availability at a time when Japanese makers have suffered from the earthquake and nuclear meltdown problems in Japan and floods in Thailand.

The Kia’s 10-year / 100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty will appeal to many. It may well achieve the same top ratings as the similar Sonata Hybrid. Availability, reliability, and safety will appeal to drivers who have had problems with their last Toyota, Honda, Ford, etc.

The Kia Optima Hybrid is a beautifully designed midsized hybrid inside and out.  It has all the electronic goodies that most need. Although its fuel economy is not best in class, it is good. With a 10-year warranty, buyers get good value for their money. Take one for a spin. You’ll enjoy the drive.