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Infiniti M45. Massive.

03/31/2006
It really was an innocent prank. I'm sure my friend Steve didn't mean any harm when he programmed the Infiniti M45's navigation system to have the car go straight to his house in San Francisco when I left The Chronicle building one evening. I was trying to go to Berkeley. The car wanted to go to Steve's house in the Miraloma Park district.

So there I am in the 2-ton M45, barreling down Fifth Street, headed for the bridge, with a woman's voice hidden some place in the car's nether regions yelling, "turn right, turn right," when the ramp to Berkeley was coming up on the left. I shoveled a CD into the Bose eight-speaker stereo, hoping that Bonnie Raitt would drown out the soprano-metallic-computer voice, "in two-tenths of a mile, turn right." No such luck. When the navigation lady wants to speak, the stereo automatically goes sotto vocce. After all, who's in charge?

All the way across the bridge, the M45's navigation system wanted me to turn around -- she told me to turn right in the middle of the bridge and make a U-turn at Yerba Buena Island. When I ignored that, she got even more peeved and told me to make the U-turn at the Bay Bridge toll plaza. Every time there was an off-ramp, she wanted me to turn around and head back for San Francisco. I finally started shouting at her to shut up. That, of course, really helped.

Finally, I pulled off the freeway and hauled out the 292-page instruction manual (that's for the navigation system alone) to find out how to end the madness. The car is sitting there, purring, the Navigation Nag has once again told me to turn around and Get Back On That Freeway. Ah hah! Push the voice-actuation button on the left side of the steering wheel and say, "Voice Guide Off." Silence. The car starts to move, cautiously lest we wake up Navi-Nag, then up to speed. No freeway, no return. Sorry, Steve, this car ain't going to Miraloma Park tonight.

The lesson here: before you start punching buttons on the dashboard of today's techno-drenched upscale cars, either have a look at the car's instruction manuals (too thick for the glove box, they're now found in the trunk); or bring along a 12-year-old.

Once you're driving the M45, however, the tech stuff falls by the wayside as you start thinking about where this car fits in the greater scheme of luxo-cars. Infiniti (Nissan's upscale division, as Lexus is to Toyota and Acura is to Honda) introduced its blistering Q45 four-door more than 15 years ago, about the same time Lexus brought in the LS400. Both were go-fast, quiet, comfortable sedans.

But Infiniti tried to reach a moneyed market with precious TV ads that showed mountain streams trickling downhill with nary a glimpse of the car. Infiniti stumbled -- who's going to buy a car they can't see in the ads? At the same time, Lexus took off like a rocket and established itself as the new nonpareil Japanese luxury sedan, the Benz-beater. Ironically, it was all to the Infiniti buyer's advantage later on. With its 4.5-liter, 278-horsepower dual-cam V8, the car was a rocket. On the used-car market, Infinitis have held up well and are cheaper than Lexus (Dept. of Full Disclosure: I picked up a pristine used 1998 Infiniti I30 -- essentially a quieter, rebadged Nissan Maxima -- nearly five years ago, and it's been a fine family hauler).

Persevering through the thin early days, Infiniti broadened its line and, starting around 2000, began losing its close-hewed similarity to whatever Nissan was putting on the showroom floor. The Q45 remained the flagship, competing with the Lexus LS400 (now LS430) and the G35 became the BMW 3-series competitor. But Infiniti had to come up with something that would plug the gap between those two cars.

Hence, the current M45, with its 335-horsepower V8, a car squarely aimed at such worthies as the mid-sized touring sedans made by Acura, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Lexus and Cadillac. What you get with this Infiniti is a car that easily competes with all of them on the standard criteria such as braking, acceleration, cornering, cabin creature comforts and the tattletale mirror test when you drive by a big plate-glass window... the curb appeal. None of these cars is really going to let you down, so the essence of the choice comes down to what particular thing in any of the cars appeals the most.

Driving the M45 is an exercise in quiet confidence -- the car feels heavy, somehow, and the weight is translated back through an indefinable aura of massiveness, but the M45, while weighing close to 2 tons, is not that big -- at 192.6 inches, it's only an inch-and-a-half longer than a new Honda Accord, which, after all, isn't thought of in this class at all. Despite the weight, M45 goes quickly, moves from lane to lane with agility and rarely complains. There's some tire noise at high freeway speeds, and you will definitely feel it when the car goes over the lane-dividing Botts' Dots.

The dashboard area, with the navigation and sound system and heating and air conditioning controls, "looks like a desk," as commuter Raul Reyes, who was catching a ride from Oakland the other day, said. "It has sort of an office look to it." Indeed, the flat-affect rosewood accents do look a bit like office furniture -- this is not necessarily a bad thing.

But Infiniti still doesn't have that cachet, that defining part of the language that says it is part of the zeitgeist, part of the car culture, which is too bad because Infiniti makes cars that don't have to apologize to anyone.

"It reminds me of a Jaguar, with all that wood," said Pascale Rebattet, another commuter in the M45 that day. "It's comfortable. A little on the firm side, but fine for me."

And in the back seat, Reyes said, "the ride is quiet and smooth, which is not surprising based on Lexus's reputation."

"What?" he said, when told it was an Infiniti. "It's not a Lexus?"

2006 Infiniti M45

Price: $46,750; as tested, $53,960

Powertrain: 4.5-liter V8 335-horsepower engine; 5-speed automatic transmission

Curb weight: 3,948 pounds

Seating capacity: 5

Fuel consumption (mpg): 17 city; 23 highway

Fuel tank capacity: 20 gallons.

Length x width x height (inches): 192.6 x 70.8 x 59.4; wheelbase: 114.2inches.

Warranty: Bumper-to-bumper: 4 years, 60,000 miles; powertrain: 6 years, 70,000 miles; corrosion: 7 years, unlimited miles.

Source: Infiniti USA; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( www.fueleconomy.gov )

E-mail Michael Taylor at mtaylor@sfchronicle.com .

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Infiniti M45. Massive.
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