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RUMBLE SEAT DAN NEIL

Mighty Zen

Like a samurai, Infiniti's G35 is sleek, masculine and ready to roll.

November 01, 2006|DAN NEIL

THE metal trim around the cabin, Infiniti informs us, is textured like that of washi, fine Japanese rice paper. The slats of the grille are meant to resemble the fierce edges of samurai swords, although the multiple blades are less suggestive of the Edo period than of the Schick Dynasty.

And if you go to the Infiniti website, which extols the sculptural virtues of the 2007 G35 sedan, the first thing you'll see is a calligraphy brush, tumid with red paint, tracing a perfect curve. "One human hand," the ad copy reads, "sets the tone, transcending the typical sport sedan's cold precision to create a bold, flowing expression."

Rice paper, swords, the Zen of the well-wrought line. Is Infiniti turning Japanese?

I really think so.

The idea that car design has a cultural, even ethnic, component might seem like -- in the recently famous words of the vice president -- a no-brainer. Except it isn't. For one thing, the car industry is pan-global. Is a BMW Mini, designed by an American and built in England out of German-made parts, British, German or American? Is a right-hand-drive Ford built in India still one of Henry's?

Despite these sorts of complications, the temptation to refer categorically to Japanese cars and British cars and German cars is almost irresistible, because there does seem to be something distinctive about each. This is particularly true of luxury cars, since the higher the price, the more expressive the styling. It would be hard to look at a Citroen C6, for example, and conclude that it's anything other than French.

Infiniti -- the luxury art-house division of Nissan -- has a history of trading on cool Japonica. In the first advertisements for the Q45 in 1989, the car itself didn't even appear. Instead, we saw high-key, black-and-white images of winter beachscapes, black rocks, ice-scabbed ponds, and floating above all, the company's silvery and enigmatic glyph. This ad's severe elegance had a quality known in Japanese aesthetics as yugen. (As a testament to the power of this image, the first Q-ship interiors were criticized in the American press for their wintry, unwelcoming varnish.)

After a period of diffident and uncertain designs, half-hearted re-skins of Nissan products and one spectacularly ugly Q-ship, Infiniti came roaring back earlier this decade with sleek, athletic, well-stanced cars and trucks in muscle-taut steel singlets. The best of these were the G35 coupe and sedan. Introduced in 2002 as 2003 models and based on the Nissan versatile FM (frontmid-engine) platform, these cars were declared the Japanese BMWs.

Our test car this week is a second-generation G35 sedan, due to go on sale this month, and while it's clear that Infiniti hasn't forsaken the BMW part of the equation, the G35 is more Japanese than ever.

The bullet points go like this: Under the hood is a heavily revised version of Nissan's corporate VQ V6 3.5-liter engine, with new variable-valve timing on the exhaust side to complement the intake side; reinforced crank and rods; and various other measures to stiffen, lighten and ventilate the engine. All this helps raise the compression ratio (to 10.6:1) and redline (up 600 rpm to a tizzy-throwing 7,600 rpm). Compared to the 2006 model, output has been raised 8 hp, which almost exactly nullifies the net weight gain of 48 pounds caused by chassis reinforcement. Gearboxes are two: a five-speed automatic with manual-shift mode; and the snickity-snick six-speed manual, like the one on our test car. The Sport Package includes stiffer suspension and steering bushings; larger brake rotors; and 18-by-7.5-inch alloy wheels (17s are standard) wrapped with sticky summer rubber. Nissan/Infiniti's ATTESA E-TS all-wheel drive system is also an option, if you want your car to have "worst acronym" bragging rights.

The car is quick, and fast. Big, nasty, clutch-demoralizing launches will propel the car to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds. And that's, of course, bigly fun (to use Rush Limbaugh's word of the week). But the car feels even more heroic than that, thanks to some cuteness from the powertrain engineers. The dual-air intake is ducted in such a way as to produce a mild ram-air effect, so that as the car goes faster, it gets a little atmospheric overboost, a rising, gathering surge of power that Infiniti has dubbed "swell."

If swelling lasts more than two hours, stop for gas. EPA fuel economy is pegged at 19/27 mpg, city/highway.

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