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BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN

Power Is a Finite Thing in the New G20

October 01, 1998|PAUL DEAN

Infiniti's 1999 G20 is a David Copperfield car.

What you think you're seeing is not exactly what you might be getting. It's sleight of merchandising, with hyperbole and product handling quicker than the eye.

We're also dealing squarely with the illusion of luxury and performance through the allusion of a name: Infiniti. Which by price, status and perception has long occupied the same haughty box seats as Acura, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz.

And to be fair, the upper end of this new series--the G20t, which costs about $24,000 with optional leather, power moon roof and stylish but useless rear spoiler--is a motorcar generally worthy of Infiniti's level of looks and classy appointments.

It has European handling (by Nissan of England), the undeniable quality and smoothness of beau monde Japanese automobiles (it will be built at Oppama, Japan) and a passing grade in the first test of America's love for its automobiles. Which is never having to say sorry when you hand the car over to a parking valet.

But at the lesser end, at the entry level where semi-naked models are come-hither cars built to seduce the unsuspecting into a lifetime of buying larger, better-equipped and more expensive variants of the same brand, there is the dime-store G20.

It's a $22,000 poseur with fabric upholstery, lesser tires and ordinary seats featuring ooof-and-heave manual adjustment. There's no automatic air, no sunroof, no polished walnut and only a five-speed manual transmission.

Hardly the kind of car to justify Infiniti's introductory literature, which is effervescent with descriptions like "all-new luxury sports sedan," "dynamic vehicle," a pleasurable addition to "Infiniti's full line of luxury performance automobiles."

Performance? If you're talking about handling and a talent for flat cornering and precise steering in a car that won't bite back if attentions wander, then the G20 is a perfectly fine little sports sedan. Luxury? More like a Motel 6 without soap, despite a six-speaker sound system and cruise control. And should one's idea of a dynamic vehicle be a measurement of muscle, hustle and grunt, forget about it.

Lamentably, the G20, revived after being discontinued three years ago to give more elbow and marketing room to the incoming I30, is still powered by the 1991 engine it was born with.

It is a 2.0-liter four-banger producing only 140 horsepower--OK for yesterday but piddling by today's standards. The same engine is available in the subcompact Nissan Sentra at about half the G20's price. It delivers far less power than Acura's Integra, Audi's A4, Honda's Accord and other members of the loyal opposition in the four-cylinder club.

Worse--unlike with Accord, Toyota's Camry and Ford's Taurus, which aren't even in G20's "near-luxury class," a term that makes about as much sense as being "a little bit pregnant"--there's no V-6 engine available or on the horizon.

Infiniti spokesmen--including division General Manager Tom Orbe--take Marie Antoinette's high ground when asked about the lack of a V-6. Let them buy the $30,000 Infiniti I30. Let them eat cake.

Despite the unavoidable facts of all this anemia, Infiniti is certainly going to fool some of the people all of the time with most of the G20. At least with the handsome G20t. And there's that Houdini power of illusion again.

For although the G20t has an outline close to its 1996 sibling, aging is pleasantly camouflaged by extra bucks spent on fancy wheels, the excess baggage of a spoiler and the touches of chrome that have always been an Infiniti signature.

Inside, the optional addition of quality leather wrapping seats, steering wheel and gearshift, plus automatic air and power sunroof among a goodly ration of creature conveniences, will have drivers and riders presuming this is a $30K car. After all, it is from Infiniti, a company that certainly isn't into schlock.

The exhaust has a growl attached to its tonsils. Working the quick and proficient gearbox is a sporty, satisfying experience for your inner race driver. And it is easy to see why Infiniti presumes the car will appeal to youthful, active drivers.

Until you put a stopwatch on that performance.

We made four, six, 10 acceleration runs because we couldn't believe results of the first. But there it was, again and again and one more time. Exactly 11 seconds from rest to 60 mph. About the only vehicles slower than that are Dodge trucks, Suzuki station wagons, Kia sport-utility vehicles, the Hummer and MTA buses.

The G20 is built on a Nissan platform, the Primera, which serves the parent company's Japanese and European markets. Outside dimensions and inside space are a slight improvement on predecessor models, and trunk room is adequate, but the car is still smaller all around than the Camry or Accord.

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