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As the American new-car automobile market recovers, up 15 percent year-to-date, sales of premium brands also have improved. This revival, however, has not been shared equally, as the various brands have seen some shuffling among the best-sellers list.
BMW and Mercedes are now battling for the number one premium brand title that has long been held by Toyota’s Lexus Division. Honda’s Acura Division has seen sales rise more this year, due to strong crossover sales, while Volkswagen’s Audi Division is making some noise as well. Nissan’s Infiniti has enjoyed modest growth, as has Tata Motors’ Jaguar brand.
GM’s Cadillac brand is actually down in YTD sales, while Ford’s Lincoln shares the same fate as the import-based luxury manufacturers have been much more aggressive with product introductions and model revisions.
Surprisingly, crossover models have been leading much of the sales expansions at all automakers. Combined with midsize sedans, these two segments are satisfying a very diverse market appetite for both luxury and sensible transportation.
For those buyers gravitating to premium brands, there is a wide variety of models and price levels to satisfy one’s desire to enjoy some of the finer cars on the road today. Two of these stellar cars are represented here, as we pit a new Infiniti M Hybrid against the top-selling Lexus sedan, the ES350.
Some background first. The Infiniti M-series is slotted as a midsize luxury sedan normally battling the Lexus GS, BMW 5-series or Mercedes E-class and Audi A6. There are now three M models, the M37 with V-6 power, M56 with V-8 power (recently reviewed here) plus this latest edition, the M-Hybrid, which features a V-6 engine plus a lithium-ion battery and electric motor to produce a peak 360 hp — among the top hybrids in power output.
The Lexus ES350 is typically shopped against the Cadillac CTS, Infiniti G-series, Audi A4 and Acura TL yet the latest ES has grown a few inches. In reality, the sizing and dimensions of all of these cars is closer than one might think, leaving small variances between them that often contradict their exterior dimensions.
This is evident with the ES350 and Infiniti shown here. The M-Hybrid is only 2 inches longer — 195 to 193 inches — is 1 inch wider at 73 inches, and has just 3 more inches in the critical wheelbase measurement that usually defines ride quality and handling prowess — 114 to 111 inches. Both of these cars have sizable trunks that can each swallow up to 15 cubic feet of cargo.
Always based on the Toyota Camry’s front-drive layout, this year’s ES350 has shifted to the new Avalon-based chassis that also shares foundation roots with the Camry. This larger platform gives the ES350 more space inside, and below, while making it a larger rival to the Infiniti M as well as other competitors.
That said, the ES350 feels larger and more spacious than the Infiniti — especially in the rear seating area where the change in platform netted a 4-inch gain in rear legroom. The Infiniti is a rear-drive sedan, a strong emphasis for this brand as it pursues European driving dynamics, quite successfully. Unfortunately, this means that there is a floor tunnel running through the center of the car for the rear drive-shaft that robs significant rear seat space and effectively divides the car into a four passenger luxury car. The front-drive ES350 has an almost flat rear floor that offers more seating and foot space, (room for five) as well as a roomier front cabin for the console, passenger feet, etc. The Lexus feels less crowded in these critical dimensions.
The Lexus, however, does not have the same on-the-road feel or handling dynamics as the Infiniti, but that apparently is not a drawback to as many buyers as the pundits assume as the ES has continuously been the top-selling Lexus car model. Surprisingly, the Lexus did, however, feel more stable and exhibited better path accuracy going down the highway than the ‘sportier’ Infiniti. Both cars use electric power systems — fast becoming standard fare for all automakers because it reduces power drain on the engine and increases fuel economy. The Infiniti’s electric power steering is heavily weighted to, supposedly, increase feel and driver feedback. It is artificial feeling and does not render the control that is intended.
The ES350 has a lightly weighted steering feel, yet the Lexus seemed more responsive and tracked the highway exceedingly well. The car did not grab truck grooves and wander all over the road, it didn’t fall into surface undulations and tug on the wheel as some front-drive cars are wont to do, so the Lexus actually gets the steering and control nod here over the Infiniti.
The Lexus also exhibited a softer ride that may have revealed more body lean-in turns than the Infiniti, but ultimately, the Lexus required less effort to drive quickly and it was more stable and smoother otherwise.
This is counterintuitive to the narrative that has defined these two brands, Lexus having earned a reputation as kind of a latter-day premium substitute for Buick, while Infiniti has stretched to become the Asian equivalent to BMW. In reality, all of these cars — as mentioned earlier — are becoming closer in not only measurements, but in total performance, handling dynamics and on-the-road acumen. The front-drive Lexus will display some handling variances while under heavy throttle that the Infiniti will never display, but in the other 95 percent of driving these two cars are more neutral than their reputations.
Both of these cars use a modern overhead-cam V-6 engine to deliver acceleration that can best be described as vigorous. The ES350’s engine is the same V-6 used in the Toyota Camry, Avalon, and a host of other Toyota products. Mated to a six-speed automatic, the 268-hp ES has EPA mileage ratings of 21/31-mpg with an average of 24 mpg predicted. Our test car returned 25 to 30 mpg during its visit, reflecting accurate EPA data. Heavy throttle use will display modest torque steer, which is harnessed by the traction control and stability systems that are less intrusive.
There also is a hybrid model of the ES this year, a 200-hp version that is shared with the Camry and the Avalon. EPA mileage estimates are 40/39 mpg — laudable numbers for a ‘large’ luxury car.
The Infiniti’s V-6 is a Nissan VQ engine that also has seen duty in multiple models in the Nissan/Infiniti lineup. In this iteration, it is matched up with a lithium-ion battery pack and an electric motor that raises total output to 360 hp — one of the more potent hybrid powertrains available for sale today. This is also 30 horesepower more than the output of the 3.7-liter V-6 used in the normally aspirated M37 sedan. EPA mileage estimates for this hybrid are 27/32 mpg with a predicted average of 29 mpg. This is the actual fuel economy realized during the Infiniti’s visit, a respectable number for a high-powered, hybrid sports sedan.
Key to this stellar fuel economy report is the M-hybrid’s ability to operate on electric-only power. In ECO mode, the Infiniti can coast, cruise and glide down the road when you have eased off the throttle, using stop/start technology to save fuel plus the electric motor to run the car. This helps to improve fuel economy measurably and doesn’t sacrifice driving habits. There is the hint of hesitation when you jump from glide no-throttle use to heavy throttle use, as you might experience coasting down one side of a hill and then accelerating sharply up the other side, as the car’s operating system goes from electric motor operation to restarting the engine and downshifting the transmission to the proper gear.
Buyers should expect to see more of these types of hybrid and light-hybrid eco-mode systems as the industry works toward ever increasing fuel economy standards.
Next week, in part two, we’ll take a close look at the interiors and the extensive features available on these luxury cruisers.
Infiniti M35h Hybrid pricing starts at $54,200, plus $895 destination fee. As shown, our test car stickered for $66,245 with a healthy dose of additional options.
Lexus ES350 models start at $36,100 before freight with our sample car listing for $43,702. Both of these sedans are imported from Japan.