Shuddering in anticipation of new federal fuel economy standards, luxury car makers that traditionally paid little attention to gas consumption are finally paying heed. Take Nissan's upmarket marque, Infiniti, which for 2012 introduced its first-ever hybrid, the M.
Few green-leaning people of means want to swap their prime rib for soy patties, so it follows that Infiniti would design its hybrid luxury sport sedan for drivers who want better fuel economy and performance too.
Starting at $54,595, the 2012 Infiniti M Hybrid costs $6,000 more than the V-6 version of Infiniti's M37 -- the car the M Hybrid is based upon. In hybrid form, the mid-size sport sedan is the first car to achieve 360 horsepower and a fuel economy rating of 32 miles per gallon on the highway from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The M Hybrid is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, a 50-kilowatt electric motor and a 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery. The M Hybrid is also the first car on the market to employ a one-motor parallel hybrid with a double clutch that feeds power directly to a seven-speed automatic transmission. It gets 30 percent better fuel economy than the gas-powered M37.
Actual results, of course, vary. There are four different drive modes in the M Hybrid -- Standard, Snow, Sport and Eco. I spent my first day or so in Eco mode, which was surprisingly responsive despite the car's design to reduce throttle sensitivity when driving in that mode.
The M Hybrid drives as a pure electric vehicle as much as half the time. It can travel as a pure electric up to a speed of 62 miles per hour when accelerating and up to 85 mph when coasting. That's enormously significant. Many hybrids get better fuel economy in the city because of a lower top speed in pure electric mode. The M Hybrid, with its higher top electric speed, enables it to get 32 mpg on the highway versus 27 mpg in the city.
In an ideal world, the frequent transitions between the gas-powered engine and electric motor would be seamless, but that isn't always the case with the M Hybrid, especially at low speeds and when idling.
Aesthetically, the M Hybrid's exterior design is quite va-va-voom. It's athletically curvaceous. There is a single trim level for the M hybrid, though several upgrades are available. The test car was outfitted with technology, deluxe touring, premium and 18-inch wheel packages, which added $10,800 to the car's price altogether.
For those who appreciate artistry and elegance, the deluxe touring package is especially worth the money. I was particularly enamored with the Japanese white-ash wood trim, which made its debut on the 2011 M37. Finished with silver dust, the inlaid wood in the center stack and dash has an alluring metallic sparkle unlike any I've seen on a wood surface, either inside a car or in furniture.
The M Hybrid's optional Forest Air system is an intriguing take on ventilation, alternating the vents through which the air flows to mimic a natural breeze.
Overall, I found the ride quality comfortable, but the road noise was ever-so-slightly more than I would have liked for a car at this price point.
Still, the M Hybrid hits a sweet spot, marrying enough luxury trimmings to satisfy the hedonistic with great off-the-line performance and fuel economy that won't make luxury-oriented greenies cringe.
2012 Infiniti M Hybrid
Price as tested: $65,395
Powertrain: Sequential multi-port fuel injection, DOHC, 3.5-liter, V-6, four valves per cylinder, Infiniti Direct Response Hybrid System with 50-kilowatt electric motor and 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, seven-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode
Curb weight: 4,129 pounds
Overall length: 194.7 inches
0 to 60: 5.4 seconds
EPA fuel economy estimate: 27 mpg city/32 mpg highway
Bottom line: Luxurious performance without the mpg guilt