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 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.
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
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.
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*
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
*at time of test midyear 2013