After a decade of domination by Toyota, Lexus and Honda, many other manufacturers are in the process of launching their hybrid cars in the coming months.
It is surprising that the first alternative to a Toyota or Lexus full hybrid (where a vehicle can be driven exclusively on electric power, rather than the electric motor being used only as a power boost for the engine) comes from Infiniti, Nissan's luxury car division.
The Infiniti M35h pairs a 302- horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine with a 67-horsepower electric motor, resulting in a combined power output of 360 horsepower, and giving it the torque to match a powerful gasoline or diesel V8 engine.
The result is a vehicle that first and foremost delivers the exhilarating and refined power of a V8, with the fuel efficiency of a four-cylinder engine. More importantly, Infiniti's Direct Response Hybrid System helps the M35h achieve an estimated fuel economy of 32 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway and 27 mpg in the city.
FAST AND FUEL EFFICIENT
The M35h's 0-62 mph sprint time of 5.5 seconds is faster than any other hybrid currently on the market, and gives it the edge on six-cylinder diesel models in its class segment.
As a matter of fact, the Infiniti M35h is the only car you can buy today with more than 350 horsepower and fuel efficiency surpassing 30 mpg.
Unlike Lexus, whose hybrid models use a Continuously Variable Transmission, or CVT, Infiniti has chosen a conventional torque-converter automatic gearbox for the M35h. This should appeal more to driving enthusiasts, as the M35h drives and feels more like a regular gasoline engine-only vehicle than a hybrid.
In addition, while other manufacturers have adopted electric power-steering systems to save fuel, Infiniti's M35h uses an electro-hydraulic setup that helps reduce fuel consumption by 2%.
The single electric motor and compact Lithium-ion battery pack in the M35h boosts efficiency further by keeping the weight gain over the gasoline-only M37 down to just 257 pounds. By having the battery pack behind the rear passenger seat, however, the M35h loses some trunk space compared with the gasoline-only M37.
In an era where the performance of a car is often exaggerated by oversized wheels, it is an odd feature of the M35h that in view of the need to keep emissions to a minimum, the fastest M car in the Infiniti lineup runs on 18-inch wheels.
Yet 18-inch wheels are large enough, even though the M35h's sweeping profile seems to accentuate its length, which is a tad longer than an Audi A6, BMW 5 Series or a Mercedes- Benz E-Class.
Step inside the hybrid M and it is hard to imagine a cabin with a more luxurious feel.
Leather is of the same quality as expensive upgrades found on other cars, while a powdered silver coating, in combination with hand buffing brings out the appearance of the grain in the wood panels, making the dashboard seem more like an expensive musical instrument.
The M35h also offers heated 10-way power driver's and front passenger's seats, including two-way lumbar support, and dual-occupant memory system for the driver's seat, steering wheel and door mirrors.
Fine Vision electroluminescent gauges, gear-like rings on the instrument cluster meters and an analog clock complete the elegant interior design.
The M35h's instrument panel features hybrid-unique instrument meters, meter display and IT screen display, providing battery and other essential system information. The vehicle's information display has a function that helps the driver keep count of EV (electric vehicle) mileage.
The M35h has a full complement of safety technology available, including blind-spot warning, lane departure warning and prevention system, adaptive cruise control, intelligent brake assist and frontal collision control that will allow the car to release and apply the brake to automatically keep pace with the vehicle in front of it.
The M35h's electric motor is capable of powering the car on its own for short distances, and will also allow the car to run in engine shut-off mode at a higher speed. The M35h can drive on electric power alone at speeds up to 62 mph, traveling solely on electric propulsion for up to 1.2 miles at a time.
Tests by Infiniti have shown that in mixed driving, the M35h is able to drive in electric mode for as much as 50% of the time. During our three-day test drive, it ran in EV mode as well as in hybrid mode, while the interaction between both modes was seamless.
LEADER OF THE PACK
Before other premium cars in this sector get in on the hybrid act in 2012, the only current, direct hybrid rival for the Infiniti M35h is the Lexus GS 450h. Being a newer car and having a more driver-focused chassis, the Infiniti M35h will feel significantly more comfortable for most drivers, on both an emotional and rational level.
There is a new GS due out soon that will, no doubt, provide stiffer competition for this Infiniti, together with gasoline-electric hybrid offerings from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi next year. For now, the Infiniti M35h will certainly tempt a few company directors to step down from their gasoline- and diesel-only luxury cars.
The 2012 Infiniti M35h raises the bar for luxury hybrid sedans and, for the first time, brings a big dash of driver appeal to the segment.