The cars we loved.
The early ‘Os was an exciting time for fans of Japanese luxury and near-luxury cars. Lexus had established itself as an early standards bearer, leaving Acura and Infiniti behind in the American sales race. Acura would continue to trail Lexus and would not gain any real distinctiveness until years later. Meanwhile, Infiniti remained a distant third in the race to establish a piece of the American market pie. There were a number of reasons Infiniti trailed (then and now), but lack of performance was never one of them in its high-end offerings. After the quality snafu with the new flagship Q45 sedan had settled, the Nissan luxury division set out to create a performance oriented luxury car that transcended the appliance-like Lexus and Acura’s bland offerings to challenge the performance leaders in Europe.
The car to do it was the all-new 2003 M45, by now the fifth car in Infiniti’s growing portfolio of models. All Infiniti M’s started life based on the lowly Y34 Nissan Gloria’s. Although the Gloria was designed with Porsche’s assistance, most of them existed as V6 powered “Japanese Caprices”. Some badge engineering and slightly revised dash/control layout would create a fresh (for America) performance sedan in the classic American tradition of big front engine connected to rear wheel drive. As such, the mid-sized M45 was more drivers oriented than the larger Q45. The M labeled cars started out as the under performing M30 coupe and convertible in 1990. The second generation M was only available in one configuration: four door sedan.
In addition to being one of the most powerful sedans ever offered by Nissan, the M45 borrowed parts of its DNA from the Q45, 300ZX and Silvia. With a 340 hp 4.5L DOHC V8, the M45 also shared the flagship Q45’s engine. All that power was fed through the rear wheels to propel the 3,800lb. plus sedan to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. That was nearly as good as Nissan’s 350Z and rocket-like next to near any Lexus or Acura sedan. The M45 had more in common with the Camaro Z28 than most sedans where straight line performance was concerned.
Fortunately, the American muscle car dynamics were mostly limited to straight line performance and V8 rumble, as the M45 featured a sport tuned multi-link suspension similar to Nissan’s 350Z and Silvia. To keep the 17 or optional 18’ wheels planted on all road surfaces, the M45 was equipped with traction control and an elaborate stability control system. In fact, the M45 had more electronic acronyms than most home computers. Be it inside or under the chassis, the M45 excelled in its use of technology. When the muted roar of the V8 was not music enough for you, a 240 watt Bose stereo was there to entertain. You could get everything from voice activation to laser guided cruise control. Even the seats offered heating and cooling. A DVD based navigation system was one of the few options available. Like any luxury cars of the time, the M45 featured a five speed auto with a manual shift mode.
Oddly enough the American-like character of the M45 extended beyond it’s big V8 and rear wheel drive. Inside the seats were big, almost over sized as if to anticipate the obesity of future Americans. The big seats meant that a car that should have been roomy in the back had compromised leg room – less than the Maxima actually. Another Yankee like trait was the M45’s external appearance.
Infiniti had introduced the concept of Japanese minimalist Zen to luxury car design with the Q45 (to mixed reviews). Infiniti might have gone too far by making the M45 too Zen. A small trend in the Americanization of Japanese cars had been gaining steam with Toyota’s Avalon, a take on the Chevy Caprice type sedan. The M45 was a similar concept and execution, but in an upscale direction.
The media was near unanimous in its praise of the M45’s performance, but they all had something negative to say about the plain boxy design (actually one of it’s coolest features by my reckoning). Some even complained of small fit and finish problems, ghosts of Infiniti’s past. According to who you asked, the M45 was either a sleeper in the mode of a Ford Crown Vic, or a schizophrenia torn between being luxury car or performance car. Either way the M45 seemed destined for America by design.
The low-key design language turned off more than a few buyers in the segment and did not help Infiniti beyond making production of the 4.5L V8 economically justifiable. Imagine grandpa loving the looks, but not lovin’ the aggressive acceleration and cornering ability. This might have been why as the Gloria, Y34s sold better in Japan. Infiniti moved less than 7,000 units after two model years.
Infiniti revamped the M with a more attractive (but still generic looking) design in 2004, but it was already too little too late. Today the 2003-2004 M45 sedan is be considered a used car performance bargain, assuming you could find one. While the M45 may not be as exciting to drive as cars like the Pontiac G8, it offers more luxury than the average 10-year-old 5 Series (with fewer maintenance headaches). The M45 just might be the ultimate (used) stealth hot rod.