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First Drive

I30 Has the Brawn but Not the Looks

July 08, 1999|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Infiniti's millennium motorcar, the re-powered, up-sized and softly luxuriant 2000 I30, will be with us next month.

It suggests many reasons for owning one.

There's a V-6 engine of 227 horsepower--a 20% increase over the current model--which means stomp and go and watch traffic become miniatures in the rearview mirror. This sedan is longer and roomier, and new growth to the wheelbase adds more security to the handling. With a Bible Black leather interior and Mourning Soot exterior, it is darkly serious yet polished and sultry.

Conversely, even perversely, the I30 doesn't present too many reasons for buying one.

It is an unabashed, tarted-up, re-badged clone of the 2000 Nissan Maxima, and when prices are announced, it will likely cost about $6,000 more than the $26,000 you'd spend on a Maxima GLE. Styling remains glued to the first-generation I30s, and that means visuals safer than Sunday mornings. The car is not a high-value package such as the Acura TL, and it will neither match nor diminish the heritage of BMW's 3-Series.

Therein lies the blame to be borne by too many contemporary car builders--this overwhelming conservatism to cushion us and protect profit. Because, goes the rationale, growth isn't a universal preference, change can be quite shocking, and as with Holiday Inns and 30-year marriages, there's reliability and customer acceptance inherent in the status quo.

There's also a wealth of boredom, something the Plymouth Prowler, Dodge Viper and Jaguar S-Type have attacked, and an issue Mazda, Honda and the Europeans have diminished with their fun roadsters.

But parent Nissan and offspring Infiniti remain dedicated to tried-and-secure appearances, even if that translates to tired and visually soulless.

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On the other hand, if once over lightly every 60 months or so is fine with you, then the I30, particularly the I30t with touring goodies, 17-inch wheels and an enthusiast's ride, will be a satisfying, solid buy.

It is a more spacious, five-passenger vehicle oblivious to road, wind, tire and engine noise because several fathoms of insulation are what a luxury car is all about. The wood is faux, but the leather came from real animals. The trunk is larger, and safety equipment now includes side air bags and smart headrests to cradle your precious noddle and take the whip out of the lash of rear-end collisions. And the I30 comes with the usual succession of Ritz-Carlton touches, including a power rear sunshade, a 200-watt Bose sound system, lumbar-supporting seats that wouldn't be out of place in your den and a cluster of instruments that by design or trick lighting appear to be dished.

Performance, of course, is a blast. With 205 pound-feet of torque emerging from a V-6 that for five years has earned deep bows from Ward's Auto World, you'll see 60 mph from rest in about seven seconds. The mandatory throaty growl is there, and although the I30 handles on the heavy side, it is far from uncomfortable or unmanageable. But we wonder if it isn't time for Infiniti to start offering a five-speed automatic with a sequential shifter as part of its I30t touring package.

We hated identical stainless-steel primary knobs for the climate-control system and its upstairs neighbor, the sound system. Reach to pump up the volume on KNX-AM and chances are better than even that you'll be cranking down the cabin temperature to 64 degrees.

But we loved the analog clock, front and center and proud in the dashboard and a delightful reminder of times submerged by our digital era.

Still, there are those outside looks.

OK, so it's all skin-deep and in the eye of the beholder.

On the other hand, distinction certainly makes the heart grow fonder.

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Paul Dean can be reached at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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