There's no doubt about it, in response to environmental concerns and new fuel economy regulations, hybrids are slowly taking over as the mainstream vehicle of choice. Yet for all of their promise, the encroachment of hybrids onto turf normally reserved for conventional vehicles has been met with its fair share of grumbling. But if hybrids like the new 2012 Infiniti M35h were used as the gold standard by which people judged themand not the Priusit's likely that every doubting soul on the planet would have a very different opinion.
Although the luxury hybrid market is only starting to come alivewith the venerable Lexus offerings now standing alongside newer contestants like the Volkswagen Touareg Hybridthe entrance of the Infiniti M35h marks something special: it's the world's first car to offer good fuel economy, incredible performance and decadent luxury in one package. Up to this point all luxury hybrids have been full of compromiseswith fuel economy taking a back seat to performance.
Is the M35h perfect? No. For one thing it will start somewhere in the realm of $54,000far from the price needed for mainstream adoption. But to focus on that is to miss the point: what the M35h provides is a reason for people to begin thinking of hybrids as something to strive for in both performance and efficiency. This is a point that until now has been hard to sell to the average car buyer.
I recently had a chance to test drive the M35h ahead of its market availability in April 2011. After four hours behind the wheel of the car, here are three things that struck me as either important or surprisingor bothabout this special vehicle that is a sign of things to come.
The M35h is the only car that gets better than 30 mpg on the highway and has 350 horsepower. The fact that Infiniti engineers were able to turn the M35h into a Frankenstein of green-meets-speed is a testament to how hard they worked to get there. The U.S. EPA estimates that the M35h will get 27 mpg in the city and 32 mpg highwayresulting in a combined fuel economy of 29 mpg. I was able to squeeze more than 30 mpg out of it while driving it rather gently on crowded Los Angeles streets.
Official stats say the M35h can go from 0-60 miles per hour in about 5.5 seconds. It also has gobs of low-end torque from both the V6 and the electric motor, which makes passing a breeze. You could say that 30 mpg isn't that great when the Prius gets about 50 mpg. While that's true, the Prius takes 10 seconds to get to 60 mph and isn't nearly as cool. This may be an irrational way of looking at it, but it's exactly what hybrids need to be accepted.
To most people who own or have driven a hybrid on a regular basis, the fun of being able to fiddle with the various settings that help you drive greener has a certain attraction. In addition to coaching tools, many hybrids have an "Eco Mode"or similarly named optionthat will adjust the way the vehicle operates to prevent you from pushing too hard on the gas pedal or alter when the car shifts gears to help conserve fuel. The M35h is no exception, proudly sporting an Eco Mode as a main feature.
Some people use these various modes more than others, while some completely ignore them, but in general they are seen as useful features regardless of how much they are actually used. Yet to most luxury car drivers, the idea of needing to save money on gasor even save gas at allis a nicety they don't need to be bothered with.
After driving the M35h for the better part of two hours in Eco Mode my right foot hurt from having to exert extra pressure on the gas pedal. While many folks would find this annoyance acceptable in the quest to save some money and reduce fuel consumption on a non-luxury hybrid, it is an option that will hardly ever be used on the M35h. To an M35h driver, the hybrid powertrain provides more power than the lesser-priced M37's V6 engine and is a better performing car. The low fuel consumption will likely be seen simply as an added benefit.
There's a current debate softly raging among political circles about whether or not cars that are quieter than traditional combustion-engined cars should be made to emit sounds to alert at-risk groups of pedestrians of their impending approachincluding children, the elderly and the blind.
Ignoring the complexities of the argument, most new electric vehicle manufacturers have addressed this issue by including the option for drivers to turn on warning sounds. In the case of the Chevy Volt it is a sound that is only activated when the driver chooses. In the case of the Nissan Leaf there are two distinct noises that sound when the car is moving forward or in reverse below certain speeds, both of which can be completely turned off with the push of a button.
To this point hybrid cars have been largely left out of the fracas, but have also been identified as potential culprits due to the fact that they can operate silently when running on their electric motors. The M35h can drive in EV mode at speeds up to 60 mph for distances as far as one mile at a time. As the luxury brand of Nissan, Infiniti took the sounds that were developed for the Leaf and incorporated them into the M35hresulting in what Infiniti says is the first hybrid with built-in pedestrian alert sounds.
Interestingly enough, although the LEAF has the ability to turn off the sounds, the M35h doesn'tmeaning they are always on. If this concerns you, all I can say is I never once heard the sounds while I was driving, and even with my head stuck out the window they were barely noticeable above the din of the city.
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