You may recall that Jeff previewed the 2011 Infiniti M sedans a few months ago, and he sure liked ’em. So when Infiniti tossed me the keys to the 2011 Infiniti M56S, pointed me in the direction of some deliciously windy and deserted roads, and told me to have a good time under the blazing Napa sun, I had a pretty good idea the big Infiniti would be entertaining. Just how much surprised me.
The M56S should immediately enter your mental automotive dictionary under the heading “Q-ship.” The formula’s really not all that complicated – shove the largest motor you can into an executive car, fiddle with the suspension bits, and watch the engineers at the test track grin as it demolishes lesser cars through sheer force of will. A Q-ship might be refined and comfortable, but they’re blunt devices and can’t deliver the surgically precise agility of, say, an S2000. The laws of physics are immutable, after all.
Which isn’t to say that a Q-ship isn’t capable of surprising feats when put into the proper context. I was able to compare the M56S to its down-engined counterpart, the M37 (without the sport package). I drove the M37 first, and there are a few things you should know. The 3.7L’s 330 horsepower is plenty to allow the M37 to hustle, overtake slower traffic, and blast the leaves from the side of the road with authority. If you imagined the big V8 wasn’t an option, I’d probably still call the M37 a Q-ship. While the M37 I drove wasn’t equipped with the sport package, it is available and strongly recommended because the M37 tended to feel unsettled in transitions and on rough pavement. Still, if it were the only game in Infiniti-town, I’d have given it high marks.
But it’s not. It has a big brother, and he’s packing all the poise and handling prowess, all of the luxury and comfort of our hypothetical M37S, and then turning the engine output up to 11. The M56S was fast in a way that usually elicits a string of ridiculous hyperbole from a guy like me, but I’ll spare you the extended similes. A prodigious amount of refined, easily modulated power gave the predictable push into the seatback. The other main perceptible effect of having so much power on tap was that the distance between apexes seemed to shrink. In a familiar series of twisties, I kept stuffing the brakes way too far into the corner, not having expected to hit it so soon. The brakes were luckily less surprised than I, and hauled the big M down from speed with plenty of time to spare. It must have looked ugly, but it was a lot of fun. The Sport package’s revised suspension, upsized wheels with summer tires, and a four-wheel steering system were a significant improvement over the standard suspension I sampled on the M37. The Sport package also comes with some other goodies, including a variable ratio and variable boost power steering system that made the helm noticeably more responsive at faster clips.
As you might expect, the M’s refined cockpit is a pleasant place to sit. A thick wheel covered in soft hide resides in front of an upscale gauge cluster, and next to a dash studded with all of the expected electronic goodies. In the limited time I was behind the wheel, I focused less on these geegaws and more on the driving experience, so I can’t speak to how easy it is to work the satnav. What I was able to evaluate was the new 7-speed automatic’s paddle-shift feature. I usually find manual-shift automatics to be pointless, except for holding gears when climbing a grade. The really good ones are few and far between, but Infiniti has come close with the M56S. It is certainly no DSG-type box, but good programming coupled with ergonomically intelligent positioning of the paddles added that much more involvement to the driving experience. The 5.6L’s wide, flat powerband cured the gearbox indecision that seemed to plague the M37’s box.
The M56S also allowed for the selection of Snow, Eco, Normal, and Sport modes – changing the throttle mapping, traction control, and transmission programming accordingly. The difference between Normal and Sport was pronounced enough to be noticeable, and was about what you would expect – Sport held gears longer and the throttle responded more aggressively. What was surprising was how useful the Eco mode was. Turning it on around town, the M puttered about undramatically, in a mid-90s Acura sedan sort of way, delivering better economy. I realize this doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but if you’re in stop and go traffic it’s nice to know you won’t punt the car ahead of you into the next county if you sneeze.
Infiniti is pushing its Japanese heritage and craftsmanship hard, and the M is soundly and precisely constructed. The M also wears a version of Infiniti’s latest design language. The look is curvy, organic and muscular, and the M looks significantly more upscale than its previous iteration. It’s also immediately identifiable as an Infiniti, a tough trick on roadways crowded with ambiguous sheetmetal. I’ll venture that it’s more handsome than the new 5-series and closing in fast on Mercedes-Benz’s aggressive design cues. Not too bad for a company that formerly slapped Infiniti badges on Leopards and Primeras and called it a day, eh?
Even though BMW remains Infiniti’s closest competitor, this isn’t a BMW clone, and it retains a distinctly Japanese feel, a lightness as opposed to that European sense of heft. And while the V8’s thrust is entertaining, and the 3.7 is down 90 horsepower on the 5.6, those two extra cylinders carry a roughly $9,000 premium. Adding the Sport and Technology packages ratchet up the cost even higher. My tester was somewhere north of $62,000, and I suspect that many potential buyers will cast an eye towards the BMW 550i’s 4.4L twin-turbo, note its $59,700 base MSRP, and have a tough decision to make. That the M37S will run you $48,500 makes it that much more difficult. The extra power would be greatly appreciated if you tick the AWD box, but I suspect most buyers without anything to prove will be very happy to save a few bucks and get the the M37S, which undercuts the base BMW 535i by $1,000.
It’s not perfect, but if you need a lithe sedan with enough thrust to wow four of your fellow junior executives, the 2011 Infiniti M56S might be the ticket.
Ed: We actually had an M56S in for review over a month ago, but a comedy of errors and technical issues conspired to put the full review on indefinite hold. Now seems as good a time as any to add my impressions from four days behind the wheel of an M56S.
For the most part, everything Alex said is true. The M56S reminds me of the guys you see on high-end security detail. Clean cut, impeccably dressed, but that suit fits just a little awkwardly due to all the muscle underneath. The burble when you fire it up, the snap off the line, the ease with which you can get the tires chirping, they all hint that beneath the business like facade the M56S means, well, business.
Simply put, this car just eats freeway miles. Tragically, it’s not factory-equipped with a radar detector, because the seats, HVAC, audio, navigation and powertrain make sustained triple digit roadtripping a tempting possibility. With supple leather and integrated cooling, the wholebuncha-way adjustable seats allow perfect driving posture. The AC system has a “Forest Air” setting that unfortunately doesn’t incorporate an actual forest, but does selectively blow recirculated or filtered external air through different vents, preventing the buildup of dry, stale air that comes with sustained AC use. Infiniti’s infotainment system may well be my favorite, due to its logical menu structure and well thought out wheel buttons. Lastly, the distance-sensing cruise control allows you to cruise at your preferred speed when you can, but keeps things in check when some lesser vehicle obstructs your progress.
Unfortunately, given more time and a deliberately critical eye, it’s easy to find a few nits to pick. For one, those stylish chrome door handles are in fact plastichrome that weighs roughly 1/10th what their appearance suggests. Aside from being light, the feel of their mechanism is decidedly not high-end. Once inside, a second shortcoming rears its head should you rear your head: pushing back on the headrests results in the headrest anchor posts levering through the innards of the seat into your back. Infiniti’s otherwise exquisite seats are hampered by this across their lineup. Lastly, similar to the door handles, the center console doesn’t feel as good as it looks. The fit and finish are excellent, but a solid tap from a fingernail doesn’t give the muffled “thunk” you’d hope for in a high-end luxury vehicle. Keep in mind, these are minor annoyances that we only feel justified in highlighting on an executive-class ride, a segment where getting the details right is mandatory.
The M56S battles in a crowded and competitive field, one where it’s important to have a strong identity or niche. While the M56S’s badge is more likely to generate huhs than oohs or aahs, it does occupy the correct corner of the luxury Vs style Vs performance Vs value spectrum. Pretty and fast, its engineering works with you (rather than for you) to let you haul ass in comfort and style.