With three terrific choices, do you drop $50,000 on an Acura, Infiniti, or Lexus?
IntroductionIt used to be that when buying a luxury car, your choices were limited to cushy, glitzy Cadillacs, Chryslers, and Lincolns. You worked hard, served your country, scrimped and saved, and when you got that gold watch after decades of corporate service, you went and rewarded yourself with a brand spanking new Fleetwood, New Yorker, or Continental. While the masses spilled out of cities and sprouted suburbia, grabbing up these massive land yachts along the way to signify the good life, driving enthusiasts discovered and became smitten by European models that emphasized engineering and road manners over chrome trim, hood ornaments, exaggerated bodywork, and vinyl padded roofs.
Seemingly overnight, favorable media reports and neighborly word-of-mouth transformed these fun-to-drive but infrequently seen BMWs, Jaguars, and Mercedes-Benzes into the gotta-have-it symbols of success, and by the early 1980s, young Americans no longer aspired to a Coupe de Ville painted Retirement Gold. They wanted a sporty BMW 3 Series like the one Andrew McCarthy drove in “Pretty in Pink,” and they wanted it by the time they were 30 years old. Ignorant to rapidly shifting consumer preferences, Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln chased Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” to the grave, nearly nailing their own coffins shut in pursuit of short-term profits.
In fact, Lincoln has yet to recover. But we digress.
In the late 1980s, along came Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus, and they changed the rules forever. Arrogant German automakers, certain that discerning luxury car buyers would sniff their noses at these Japanese upstarts, actually scoffed when Toyota announced the Lexus lineup for 1990, dismissing it as leathered-up family sedans utterly devoid of character or pedigree. Even Detroit’s Big Three, which had just begun to pull its collective head out of the sand, barely glanced in Japan’s direction while it tried to figure out how to design compromises (like the DeVille Touring Sedan and Mark VII LSC) that would simultaneously please aging traditionalists and young Euro intenders. And then Lexus sales skyrocketed, rewriting the luxury car rulebook in the process, teaching everyone a lesson or two about how to build cars that Americans will buy time and time again.
Today, just 20 years after the first Japanese luxury models rolled off a boat into the Port of Los Angeles, Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus enjoy a significant share of the luxury car market. And for 2005 and 2006, each has a brand new $50,000 sedan for sale. We thought it might be a good time to figure out which one is best, discovering in the end that any of the three is worthy of your aspiration.
The Players Acura made the first Asian luxury sedan for North America, and Lexus has been the most successful in the segment, but Infiniti has been coming on strong after more than a decade of stumbling.
Because the North American luxury car market encompasses a vast range of automobiles priced from under $30,000 to sky’s the limit, it’s helpful to break the segment into easily digestible chunks. Most commonly, we call those chunks entry luxury, mid-luxury, super-luxury, and ultra-luxury. Entry luxury cars usually cost between $25,000 and $40,000, and they don’t always have a luxury brand attached to them. Mid-luxury cars typically run between $40,000 and $60,000, and always carry a nameplate that resonates with image-conscious Americans. Super-luxury cars cost upwards of $60,000 but less than $100,000, and inspire envy in both friends and enemies. Ultra-luxury cars are six-figure expenses guaranteed to land the hottest date in town and the best parking spaces at the trendiest nightspots.
For this comparison test, we selected three mid-luxury models from Japan that have been completely redesigned for the 2005 or 2006 model years. And because one competitor, the Acura RL, comes only with a V6 engine and an all-wheel-drive system, that’s how we configured each test car to eliminate any potential for unfair advantage. Each model came standard with power windows, locks, mirrors, and seats. They also came equipped with Bluetooth wireless communications technology, keyless ignition and locking systems, six airbags (front, side, and curtain), and stability control. Here’s a closer look at the Acura RL, Infiniti M35x, and Lexus GS 300 AWD:
2005 Acura RL
Acura, a division of Honda, was the first Japanese luxury brand out of the gates, landing on U.S. soil for 1986. Its flagship at the time was the Legend, which came in coupe and sedan formats. The Legend became a hit, got a redesign for 1991 to battle newcomers from Infiniti and Lexus, and then died when the 1996 3.5 RL sedan came along to replace it. The 3.5 RL lacked brand recognition and was blandly styled. Plus, it was front-wheel drive with a V6 engine while rapidly improving competitors offered rear-wheel drive and a V8. Nevertheless, the 3.5 RL lasted well beyond its expiration date, until the redesigned 2005 RL arrived.
The 2005 Acura RL still has a V6 under the hood, but that V6 whips up 300 horsepower and is connected to a slick Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system. Other standard highlights include an Active Front Lighting System (AFS) that swivels the xenon headlights to see around curves, an Acura/Bose surround sound system with DVD audio and AudioPilot active noise cancellation, a one-year subscription to XM satellite radio, AcuraLink communications with real-time traffic reporting, and a navigation system with voice recognition capability. The RL also includes a power rear sunshade and a power moonroof. Not bad for just $49,715, including the $615 destination charge.
For 2006, Acura offers a new Technology Package for the RL. It includes a Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS) that can identify potential crashes and warn the driver to take action. If the driver fails to take action, the RL will automatically tighten the front seatbelts and apply braking pressure to reduce speed before impact. The Technology Package also includes an Active Cruise Control (ACC) system and Michelin PAX run-flat tires that can go up to 125 miles at 50 mph when air pressure is lost. Acura says the Technology Package will add about $4,000 to the price of the RL. Prices for 2006 were not final when this story was published, but we expect a loaded ’06 RL to run less than $55,000.
2006 Infiniti M35x
Nissan’s Infiniti and Toyota’s Lexus nameplates arrived in America at about the same time, with limited lineups for the 1990 model year, but the cushier Lexus models proved more popular with consumers. Whether Infiniti’s sales stumble was due to its emphasis on Euro-style performance while Lexus chose to combine Cadillac décor with Mercedes styling and Toyota reliability, or because of the infamous Infiniti “rocks and trees” advertising launch, is unclear. What is clear is that the original M30 coupe and convertible weren’t huge hits and didn’t last long. In fact, the “M” designation took a decade off, re-emerging for 2003 as a loved-or-loathed sports sedan to plug the gaping hole between the successful new G35 entry-luxury model and the faltering Q45 flagship sedan.
For 2006, a new M debuts, taking its design cues from the smaller G35 and the larger Q45, slotting neatly into the lineup between the two. Offered with a choice between V6 or V8 power, rear- or all-wheel drive, and in regular-strength or sport-tuned guise, the 2006 Infiniti M is an impressive piece of work. Our M35x test car came with a 280-horsepower V6 and all-wheel-drive, connected to a five-speed automatic with a cool rev-matching blip on downshifts. Appealing options include climate-controlled front seats, a Bose Studio Surround audio system, a navigation system with voice recognition capability, a rearview monitor that displays objects behind the car on the navigation system screen, Intelligent Cruise Control (ICC), a Lane Departure Warning (LDW) system, and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
Our test car started at $43,140 including a $610 destination charge, and added the $2,750 Journey Package and the $4,200 Technology Package, for a grand total of $50,700. The Journey Package includes Bose speakers, the rearview monitor, xenon auto-leveling headlights with Adaptive Front Lighting System (AFS), climate-controlled front seats, pre-crash seatbelt technology, and a HomeLink universal transmitter. The Technology Package adds the Bose Studio Surround sound system, a navigation system, ICC, LDW, and Sirius satellite radio.
2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD
Like Infiniti, the Lexus lineup was small upon debut in 1990, but it didn’t take long for new models to arrive. The first Giugiaro-designed GS debuted for 1993, looking like nothing else on the road and finding an instant customer base between the Camry-derived ES 300 and the incredibly refined LS 400 flagship. The GS was Lexus’ first crack at a sports sedan, and though the company continues to try and find the right balance between performance and luxury, the redesigned 2006 GS is one of its best attempts yet. For 2006, it’s offered with either a V6 or V8 engine, driving the rear or all four wheels.
We selected the GS 300 AWD for this test, which includes a 245-horsepower V6 and starts at $45,100 including the $650 destination charge. Interesting standard features include water repellent front door glass and a power trunk closer. Key options are an amazing Mark Levinson audio system, an Adaptive Front Lighting System (AFS), rain-sensing wipers, park assist sensors, a navigation system, a back-up camera, a rear sunshade, XM satellite radio, and ventilated front seats. A Pre-Collision System (PCS) is also optional for nearly $3,000, and it can detect a collision before it occurs. When a crash is about to happen, PCS will automatically tighten the front seatbelts and prepare the brake assist system to engage full braking power the moment the driver jams on the brake pedal. A Dynamic Cruise Control system is included with the PCS.
Our test car was equipped with the package that includes the Mark Levinson audio system and the navigation system, as well as a power moonroof, a power rear sunshade, park assist sensors, XM satellite radio, ventilated front seats, and rain-sensing wipers with AFS for an out-the-door price of $52,701.
Powertrain The Acura’s powertrain is the most sophisticated, but doesn’t feel as strong as the numbers claim. Meanwhile, the Infiniti’s punchy motor is matched to an indecisive tranny. Lexus, though delivering the least power, provides the most refined and fuel-efficient motor in the group.
Luxury cars must provide quiet, ample, refined power at all times, and the driver needs to be able to meter that motive force smoothly yet decisively. The engine and transmission should not intrude upon the cabin, and they should work harmoniously to deliver acceleration when and where it is requested. Such sophistication, combined with newfound American interests in fuel economy, vaulted the least powerful Lexus into first place and left the highest horsepower Acura in the basement.
3rd Place – Acura RL
Acura needs no other argument that it needs a V8 than this: Despite unanimous praise for the RL’s engine from our test drivers for its smoothness and refinement, a distinct lack of torque made the car feel sluggish unless we used the paddle shifters on the steering wheel or toggled the gear selector to keep the revs up. And when we did that, fuel economy tumbled dramatically, as evidenced by our 16-mpg test average, significantly less than EPA ratings of 18 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. Making the most horsepower (300 at 6,200 rpm) and down just 10 lb.-ft. of torque from the Infiniti (260 lb.-ft. at 5,000), the Acura’s 3.5-liter V6 nevertheless felt winded when asked to perform from mid-range speeds.
Unfortunately, this lack of response when we seemed to want it most overshadowed the Acura RL’s slick Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) and its subtle off-the-line launch character, which was a refreshing change from the Infiniti’s jolt of power and the Lexus’ delay in initial acceleration. But, since we tested the cars on sunny days in Southern California, it is entirely possible that in rainy or snowy climates the RL’s smoother power delivery and sophisticated SH-AWD may have produced a higher powertrain ranking for Acura. SH-AWD is unique in that it not only distributes up to 70 percent of engine output to the front or rear wheels as needed, but it can also send as much as 100 percent of available torque to drive the outside rear wheel when cornering. Acura says this feature of SH-AWD dramatically improves steering feel, handling, and stability. But more on that later. For now, given the conditions under which we tested the vehicles, our staff ranked the RL’s powertrain in third-place.
2nd Place – Infiniti M35x
Unimpressive fuel economy and an indecisive transmission kept the 2006 Infiniti M35x from placing better than second-place in our powertrain rankings. We managed to get just 15.5 mpg during our test, less than the EPA estimates of 17 in the city and 24 on the highway. That’s plenty of premium fuel for which to pay, and that’s what the M35x’s 3.5-liter V6 engine requires to generate 280 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 270 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm. Everyone on staff praised the engine’s performance, including its more vocal nature. Unlike in the Acura and Lexus, you’re always aware of this V6’s purr.
Power flows to all four wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission that Infiniti says is equipped with adaptive software designed to learn your driving style and time transmission shifts accordingly. Trouble was, each of our three editors noted its tendency to delay downshifts in automatic mode. Switch to manual shifting, and enjoy short throws of the gear selector and rapid-fire response from the transmission. Plus, Infiniti has added an entertaining rev matching feature on downshifts. Infiniti’s ATTESA-ETS (Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All Electronic Torque Split) splits torque front and rear, and the company says that in tandem with the standard Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) system – stability control to us common folk – each wheel receives the appropriate amount of torque when needed. On the dry roads around Orange County and Malibu, it worked fine. What we wished for was a transmission with better timed shifts.
1st Place – Lexus GS 300 AWD
Seriously, it wasn’t just the as-tested average of 20.5 mpg that the 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD delivered that landed it at the top of the powertrain heap. And it certainly wasn’t class-leading power and torque figures, since the 3.0-liter V6 musters just 245 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 230 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,600 rpm. Rather, it was commentary from our staff about smooth, silky, silent, and refined power delivery, coupled with a responsive six-speed sequential shift automatic.
Aside from a slight delay in off-the-line response and occasionally hard downshifts under full-power requests made at cruising speeds, nobody could complain much about the Lexus’ wonderful motor and impressive transmission. Peak torque arrives quickly, and the Lexus weighs just 3,760 pounds, so it feels faster than you might expect after a cursory examination of the numbers. And with EPA estimates of 21 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, the GS 300 AWD’s premium fuel requirement produces less frequent holes in your wallet. Plus, the adaptive transmission learns quicker than the Infiniti, and includes three modes of operation: Power, Normal, and Snow. Stability and traction control systems mete out the power to all four wheels, though, as with the Infiniti, the Lexus cannot match Acura in terms of its AWD system’s technical sophistication.
True, the Lexus has neither the most sophisticated nor the most entertaining powertrain in this trio, but for buyers of luxury sedans, it is the most refined, and that’s why we ranked it as best.
Driving Choose the Acura RL for its supple ride quality and communicative steering, or get the Infiniti M35x because it drives just like a BMW when running hard. We’re not sure who will like driving the Lexus GS 300 AWD.
Lexus nailed the powertrain competition, but lost significant ground when it came to the rest of the hardware package. The car doesn’t come together as a sum of its parts, and offers a disjointed driving experience that is likely to please only the least demanding owners. Meanwhile, the capable Acura RL was limited mainly by its tires and excess body roll, while the stunning Infiniti M35x proved the equal of Germany’s best.
3rd Place – Lexus GS 300 AWD
In terms of its suspension, brakes, steering, and tires, the 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD sticks to convention when it comes to our three Asian luxury sedans. It’s got double wishbone suspension design up front, with a multi-link rear and stabilizer bars at both ends. Four-wheel vented discs with ABS, EBD, and brake assist handle stopping chores, while electronically-controlled, vehicle speed-sensing rack-and-pinion steering guides P225/50 Dunlop SP Sport 5000 all-season tires mounted to 17-inch wheels. But the differences that landed the Lexus in third-place were its standard run-flat rubber, buzz-killing stability control system, and brake-by-wire binders.
Run-flat tires have a stiffer sidewall than regular tires, which allows them to be used for short periods of time even when they have no air pressure inside. But that stiff sidewall produces a hard ride, and the Lexus GS 300 AWD suffers plenty of impact harshness. And despite the best efforts of the well-tuned suspension, the ride quality is, as one editor said, “busy and jittery, like the tires are over-inflated.”
Not only did the run-flats produce a less pleasing ride quality, but grip was down, too. With the narrowest section width and both a taller profile and smaller wheel diameter than the best-in-test Infiniti, the GS 300 AWD’s handling was described as “sloppy, sloppy, sloppy” by one driver. Seems part of the trouble lay with the Lexus VDIM electronics management system, which handles the GS 300 AWD’s stability control, and which cannot be turned off. Everyone complained that it stepped in just as the real fun was getting started, but the reality is that typical drivers using public roads will find the Lexus’ performance envelope to be wider than they’ll ever wish to use. As one staffer put it: “The Lexus delivers 7/10ths entertainment value.” And that’s going to be good enough for most GS buyers.
But there’s no explaining away the disappointing brake feel and response. At the top of pedal travel, nothing happens, and then the brakes engage with a distinct lack of progressiveness. The result is a system that produces grabby feel and is difficult to modulate. Bottom line: The 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD rides too harshly for traditional luxury loyalists, can’t entertain a true enthusiast, and will irritate most everyone with its poor brake pedal feel.
2nd Place – Acura RL
Normally, Michelin Pilot tires are among our favorites, but the 2005 Acura RL’s 245/50R17 HX MXM4 meats spend lots of time on their sidewalls when pushing hard on a twisty two-lane. The RL tosses its 3,984-pound curb weight around at every bump and kink in the road, unsettling the car and negating some of the SH-AWD’s handling benefit. Considering that the RL’s specs are essentially the same as the Lexus and Infiniti – double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension with stabilizer bars; four-wheel vented disc brakes with ABS with EBD and brake assist; electronically-controlled vehicle speed-sensing rack-and-pinion steering – it’s amazing how chubby the Acura feels on writhing blacktop.
Near the limits, however, the Acura is better behaved and more predictable than the somewhat schizophrenic Lexus. Part of the credit must be handed to the SH-AWD system, which makes a noticeable difference if you’re driving the RL back-to-back with the competition. You can almost feel the outside rear wheel digging in and thrusting the car out of a tight turn. Plus, the steering did the best job of communicating texture and fine detail about the road surface, and the brakes were the easiest to modulate even if the ABS did engage sooner than we might have liked. Finally, the Acura featured the best ride quality, providing an excellent balance between soft and sporty. As one tester said: “You’re always aware of the road surface, yet rarely disturbed by it.”
Bigger wheels wearing performance rubber, combined with thicker stabilizer bars, would go a long way toward putting the Acura RL into contention for the blue ribbon in this category – especially if that supple ride quality could be retained. But out of the box, the Acura is good for second-place.
1st Place – Infiniti M35x
When it comes to fun, at least in this trio, the 2006 Infiniti M35x is the car to drive. Like the Acura and Lexus, the Infiniti rides on a double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension, equipped with front and rear stabilizer bars. The brake discs are vented at each corner, and equipped with ABS, EBD, and brake assist. An electronically-controlled, vehicle speed-sensing rack-and-pinion steering system directs the lower-profile 245/45 all-season Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires, sized 18 inches while the Lexus and Acura roll on smaller 17s.
Though it specs out like the competition, the difference is in the details, because the M35x drives very much like a BMW on your favorite back road. As long as you’re using the recalcitrant transmission’s manual mode, all the parts and pieces harmonize in a way that erases them from consciousness. Instead of thinking about how the ABS is spoiling the fun or how the tires are pushing too wide or how the brakes are hard to finesse – the M35’s hardware lets the driver concentrate on the road. Like the best BMWs, this Infiniti works in the background, instilling confidence and responding instantly to commands. It is quite pleasurable to drive hard and fast. At least until the VDC crashes the party like a drunken frat boy through a plate glass window – but that can be shut off.
True, typical luxury car buyers usually don’t drive hard and fast. When it comes to the Infiniti M35x, such customers might complain about a stiff ride quality, or abrupt brake pedal response, and that might be enough to send them over to the Acura dealer to check out a cushy new RL. That’s fine. We’re sticking with the yummy Infiniti M35x.
Comfort Oddly, the largest car in the test turned out to be the least comfortable, at least for the driver. Leading the pack was the Acura RL, which has the best front seats and the smoothest ride, which for some buyers might be all that matters.
Performance generally comes at the expense of comfort, and with the Infiniti M35x landing last in this category, despite having the largest interior, our testing seems to support that thesis. But what might surprise you is how just a one-point difference put it there rather than the Lexus GS 300 AWD. What might surprise you further is that the least expensive Acura RL not only supplies the best ride quality in this contest but also delivers the greatest comfort. And when it comes to luxury sedans, comfort is of paramount importance to many consumers.
3rd Place – Infiniti M35x
With the greatest leg room, the most head room, and the largest interior, you’d think the 2006 Infiniti M35x would have this category locked up. Add standard equipment like a front seat entry/exit feature, Intelligent Key keyless ignition and locking, an in-dash CD changer with MP3 capability, a Bluetooth wireless communications system, and Infiniti Voice Recognition technology backed up by remote controls for the information display screen on the steering wheel, and it might seem that the M35x is the clear-cut winner when it comes to comfort. But it’s not, despite options such as climate-controlled front seats, heated and reclining rear seats, a rear view camera, Intelligent Cruise Control, and a rear DVD entertainment system.
For starters, the Infiniti offers the front passenger a six-way, rather than a 10-way, power seat with no height adjustment. But that’s only a problem if you’re not driving. If you are driving, you might discover that the driver’s seat cushion is too short and too small, that the armrests feel too tall, that the accelerator pedal and the dead pedal don’t reside on the same parallel, and that the steering wheel rim is oddly shaped and uncomfortable to grip after awhile.
If you’re going to ride in the Infiniti, don’t call “shotgun!” Grab the back seat, where ample cross-your-legs space and a tall, firm, supportive bottom cushion await. And if the M35x is equipped with the heated and reclining rear seats, and the rear DVD entertainment system is showing the latest Netflix arrival, these are the best seats in the house. Until the road turns twisty, that is.
Getting in and out of the tall Infiniti is a breeze, and loading the trunk is easy through a large opening. For a luxury car, though, there’s too much interior noise. Lots of road texture and suspension racket makes its way into the cabin, and you’re always aware of the engine and exhaust notes.
2nd Place – Lexus GS 300 AWD
Scoring less than a point ahead of the Infiniti is the 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD, which has an interior about the size of the Acura RL but smaller than the M35x. Standard comfort features include SmartAccess keyless ignition and locking, 10-way power adjustable seats for both the driver and front passenger, heated front seats, a handy touch-screen dash display, and Bluetooth wireless communications technology. Unique to this group of luxury sedans is the GS 300 AWD’s power trunk closer. To enhance comfort, Lexus offers options such as a reversing camera, a rear sunshade, ventilated front seats, and a Mark Levinson audio system with DVD video capability. Movies are displayed on the dash screen, but only when the transmission is placed in Park.
In practice, the Lexus GS 300 AWD features comfortable seating front and rear. In fact, despite its rakish roofline, there’s plenty of head room in the rear seat. Leg and foot space, however, is not as generous as in the Infiniti. The leather Lexus uses inside the GS is wonderful, soft to the touch and upscale in appearance. Indeed, every touch point inside the GS 300 AWD is soft, though during spirited driving we found that bracing a leg on the door panel was quite uncomfortable. Also, we’re not crazy about the wood-and-leather steering wheel, which on sunny days, heats up like an electric charcoal starter wand.
Because the Lexus is lower to the ground than the Infiniti, it’s not as easy to get into or out of, especially in back. The doors open wide and the roofline is low, so clambering aboard is more of a chore, particularly in tight parking slots. Plus, the rear wheel well intrudes to a greater degree than with the M35x. Up front, secondary controls including the fuel door release are hidden in a cubby on the lower left side of the dash. If you leave this open while gassing the GS 300 AWD up, watch your knees when you step back into the car.
We also had trouble figuring out how to pop the trunk on our Lexus, which has a smaller opening than the Infiniti. However, Lexus provides four chrome tie-downs, where Infiniti has none. Note that the Lexus has a power trunk closer, but swinging the strut-supported lid down far enough to engage this feature is a chore. Interior noise is limited and largely attributable to the run-flat tires, though with the sunroof cover open there is noticeable wind noise rushing over the roof.
1st Place – Acura RL
Like the Lexus and Infiniti, the 2005 Acura RL includes goodies like power heated front seats, Bluetooth wireless communications technology, Keyless Access ignition and locking, and voice recognition technology. It also comes standard with Bose AudioPilot active noise cancellation for the stereo system, a power rear sunshade enhanced by rear side window screens, and an exclusive XM NavTraffic information system that helps to route you past rush-hour traffic jams and accident sites. And despite the fact that the Acura was the only car in this group without ventilated front seats, and that it has the least amount of front-seat leg room, we decided it was the most comfortable anyway.
Credit the Acura’s soft yet supportive, bolstered yet unrestrictive front seats for helping it to land first-place in the comfort category. We also liked its smaller-diameter steering wheel, which is good to hold, and the impressive amount of space up front. Soft, plush armrests and a concavity in the upper door panel where elbows like to rest also went a long way toward making the RL the comfort king. Rear seat passengers are also coddled. The RL shares back seat dimensions with the Lexus, but it feels much more spacious. Your legs and feet aren’t crowded in this car. Plus, the Acura comes standard with a power rear sunshade and includes pull-up side screens, too.
Entry and exit are simple, too. The steering wheel automatically telescopes toward the dash when you get in and out, and in back the Acura’s taller roofline, less intrusive wheel well, and doors that open almost 90 degrees are a big help. The trunk is easy to load, through a good-sized opening with a lid that is light and easy to swing down for closing. Interior noise is limited to wind roar from the side mirrors and some traffic noise evident through the thin side glass. The engine sounds great when revved, much better than the Lexus’s high-rev blare and more sophisticated than the Infiniti’s throaty bellow.
Quality Our Acura RL displayed disappointing build quality and some questionable interior materials, while the Infiniti and Lexus nearly tied for their rich cabins and relative lack of assembly flaws.
Quality is synonymous with Japanese cars, and when it comes to Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus, customers can count on soft leather, real wood trim, impossibly smooth controls, lush materials, and beautiful detailing. But in this test, we were disappointed in the Acura RL, which had some cheap-looking interior trim and possessed assembly quality more on a par with a decade-old GM product than the best Honda has to offer. Based on our three test cars, the Lexus and Infiniti featured the best quality of the trio.
3rd Place – Acura RL
Our sample 2005 Acura RL did not exhibit impressive build quality, and this is troubling because several recent Acura and Honda test cars have displayed a disturbing trend toward haphazard panel fit, both inside and out.
On this particular RL, we found a tweaked front fascia, the cheesy plastic windshield base trim wiggling in its moorings, variance in the fit of the chrome side glass surrounds at the mirrors and B-pillars, doors than didn’t fit uniformly, and a trunk lid that was skewed to the left. Inside, the 12-volt power point was sticking shut, the glovebox door that didn’t fit flush with the dashboard, the dash and door panels didn’t line up properly, there were rough edges on the some of the interior trim, and the navigation screen that featured inconsistent fit.
As for interior materials, the Acura RL has shiny piano-black vent bezels on the dash that glitter in the sunlight. They look cheap, and create significant visual disharmony on par with the jarring titanium plastic trim bits on the steering wheel. The RL also has a suede-like headliner that looks too fuzzy, and plastics that feature a lovely matte finish but feel too slippery to the touch. And while the leather is pleasing and the wood trim is rich in appearance, our favorite bits were the substantial metal dials for the stereo and navigation systems.
But in a luxury car costing $50,000, you need more than nice knobs to keep buyers happy.
2nd Place – Lexus GS 300 AWD
Lexus, like Acura, is not a brand associated with sloppy workmanship, but we found some exterior build issues that were not expected of what is essentially a $50,000 Toyota. The front end of our GS 300 AWD featured a hood that was not on straight, a grille that didn’t sit flush with the left inboard light, and minor variances in both headlight and front fascia fit. Otherwise, the Lexus showed few flaws on the outside. Inside, we discovered that it’s easy to pull the headliner off at the sunroof, that the left-end dash cap was loose, and that several vent bezels featured flushness of fit issues.
Materials quality was typical of Lexus, though one staff member severely downgraded the GS 300 AWD for offenses such as a cheap and squeaky rearview mirror “that feels like junk,” displeasing fuzzy suede-like material on the headliner and roof pillars, wood and metallic trim that looked fake instead of real, and inexpensive looking plastics – including “a plain black gauge insert that just looks cheap.” These observations were in direct contrast to another editor, who summed up the Lexus’ interior as “first-rate” and noted the “lustrous Rosewood trim, tasteful chrome accents, rubbery matte-finish plastics, and buttery soft leather.” Go figure.
We did all agree, however, that the suede headliner needs to go, replaced by a fine mesh cloth like that found in an Audi.
1st Place – Infiniti M35x
The Infiniti M35x’s interior blew us away. It looks luxurious, modern, and high-tech with a strip of matte-finish wood trim and metallic accents dividing a two-tone color scheme that in our test car was open and inviting. Infiniti’s use of real metal and subtle chrome accents was deemed “just right,” and we liked both the perforated leather upholstery and that almost every touch point was covered in soft-touch material. But only one of us liked the woven headliner. One staffer claimed it reminded him of the hose-it-off cloth upholstery in a Nissan Xterra SUV, while another editor was reminded of those plush, knit 1970’s polo shirts.
Build quality was better than the Acura and equal to the Lexus. Inside, we noted vent bezels that didn’t fit flush to the dash in a consistent fashion, a slightly crooked glovebox door, haphazard lower dash panel fit, and variance of fit between the center stack controls and the wood trim on either side of them. Outside, the trunk was tweaked to the right, the driver’s door featured an inconsistent gap where it met the left rear door, and the chrome greenhouse trim on the driver’s side could have been installed with more care.
In the end, the point spread between the Infiniti and Lexus was slight, both besting the Acura by a long shot.
Design Though the Acura and Lexus possess design strong points, it is the Infiniti M35x that proves aesthetically superior to the GS 300 AWD and simpler to use than the Acura RL.
Americans wear automobiles as costume. What a car is, and what it looks like, amounts to a personality statement and success meter, regardless of whether or not it accurately reflects who you are or what you do. And the more money you spend, the more design matters. A luxury car’s appearance must convey this real or imagined sense of self more clearly than most vehicles. But luxury also is about simplicity, making life easier. How the interior works is as important as how the exterior looks in ensuring owner satisfaction. In this contest, Acura stumbles twice, while Infiniti finds the right recipe for success.
3rd Place – Acura RL
Sporting cab-forward styling in a long-hood, short-deck world, the 2005 Acura RL reminded one of our staff members of a decade-old Oldsmobile Aurora, but with the distinctive flared fenders sanded off. The RL looks nose heavy, and its huge headlights only serve to make the frontal acreage appear smaller. Couple these proportions with featureless slab sides, cheap-looking wheels that caused one editor to note that the RL looked like a guy wearing a suit with white tennis shoes, and an abbreviated decklid, and you’ve got an ungainly plain-Jane cruiser. Everybody liked the sexy twin exhaust outlets, though.
Inside, the Acura RL presents an artful, architectural design quite unlike its uninspired exterior. The basic forms of the dash and door panels flow, curve, and bend in an almost sensual manner. But this design is at the expense of ergonomics, because the navigation, stereo, and climate controls get crammed together on the tapered center panel where everything is clearly labeled yet hard to find and use. There is no tuning knob for the stereo, and the navigation system has no touch screen. Plus, the display screen is located way up top on the dash, forcing dual reference points when making what should be simple adjustments to audio and climate functions.
Everybody commented on how difficult it was to access the RL’s manual stereo and climate features through the navigation system. Gratefully, Acura’s navigation, climate, and stereo functions can be controlled using voice commands, so once you learn the RL’s language, life gets easier. Also, all secondary controls and switches are intuitively placed and clearly labeled. The sunroof control is even located overhead rather than on the lower left side of the dashboard, which was an Acura hallmark.
Visibility is excellent thanks to a terrific forward view, big side mirrors, and power retractable rear headrests that don’t block an ounce of the rear glass. Storage is decent inside the Acura RL, though more than one editor noted that the jewel cases for the DVD audio discs that came with our test car did not fit inside the center console storage bin. And finally, the glowing blue gauges with red pointers look terrific at night.
Shy, artsy types will love the Acura RL’s boring exterior and exciting interior, but we think most people want something more expressive on the outside and easier to use on the inside.
2nd Place – Lexus GS 300 AWD
Typically, few automakers can match Lexus, or its parent company Toyota, when it comes to functional design. Emotion, however, has not been part of the corporate styling mandate. The 2006 GS marks a turning point for this luxury automaker, which has changed its marketing tagline to “the passionate pursuit of perfection,” and introduced its distinctive L-Finesse design vocabulary with this new Lexus.
“Lexus now has sex appeal,” said one editor, while another called the GS 300 AWD “sporty and aggressive.” Our more cynical critic said that the roofline wasn’t much different from previous GS models, that the back end was too chubby, and when viewed from a front 3/4 angle, it looked like a hatchback.
Inside, we all agreed that the GS 300 AWD was a model of luxurious simplicity, though the combination of dark wood and a darker interior color was deemed dour. We also weren’t too thrilled with the funky little control pod that deploys out of the lower left dash and hides the controls for several secondary features from view. Our main problem with this design was that the fuel door release is stowed here, and it’s a function used too often to be tucked away in such a manner.
Though equipped with a navigation system that is bundled with stereo and climate controls, the GS 300 AWD’s touch screen and simple menu buttons didn’t frustrate anyone on staff, making this the first time in history that we haven’t minded accessing common functions through a display screen. Lexus thoughtfully provides hard buttons on the dash or steering wheel for the most commonly-used features of the stereo and climate control, and makes it easy to get to the proper menu on the touch screen. This design should serve as the benchmark for every luxury automaker on the market, in particular those headquartered in Germany. Making things even better is that the navigation system is extremely easy to program, is loaded with useful information and features, and the touch screen is sensitive but accurate. This is the best we’ve seen yet.
1st Place – Infiniti M35x
One idiot on our staff found himself wistful for the old M45, claiming that this new version of the M looks too much like every other car on the road. We seriously considered demoting him to the mail room. Or promoting him to his greatest level of incompetence. Take a look at this car, which despite somewhat tall and narrow dimensions looks like a larger version of the hot Infiniti G35. Handsome and possessed of more character than either the Acura or Lexus, the 2006 M35x handily won the exterior design competition. Just look at those 18-inch wheels, will ya?
Inside, the Infiniti proved aesthetically superior to the Lexus and simpler to use than the Acura, landing it in our top slot for interior design. Real wood trim splits the cabin into lighter colored top and darker colored bottom zones, in the case of our test car tan over taupe. The matte-finish wood glows, enhanced by gathered material in the door panels and metallic rings around the gauges. The M35x’s interior might not be as artful as the RL, but neither is it as impersonal as the business-like GS 300 AWD.
As much as we like the way the Infiniti M35x looks inside and out, we love the fact that the optional navigation system is completely separate from the stereo and climate controls. If Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz choose to ignore the brilliance of the Lexus’ bundled system, perhaps they’ll take a closer look at the Infiniti’s separated controls. As for the navigation system, it features a controller similar to the Audi MMI and BMW iDrive systems, easier to use but still frustrating. On a positive note, the main menus are accessed using buttons that glow translucently at night, making them extremely easy to find at all times, and there’s a “Back” button that works like the web browser on your home computer. Plus, Infiniti is wise to provide giant “Zoom In” and “Zoom Out” buttons to make it simple to gain perspective during long trips. Programming the thing, however, is not as easy as in the Lexus.
The Infiniti provides the best outward visibility of the group, thanks in part to the small rear quarter windows just forward of the relatively thin C-pillars. The side mirrors are huge, and the fender blisters on either side of the hood make it very easy to place the M35x’s front wheels. As for storage, the Infiniti is on par with the Acura and Lexus, but note that the optional rear DVD entertainment system eats up plenty of center console space. Interestingly, the M35 provides a slot to hold the key fob that controls the keyless ignition and locking system, which is both good and bad. It’s good because the fob doesn’t sit in the cupholder taking up space or in the door bin constantly sliding around. It’s bad because it’s easy to forget that the fob is tucked away in its dashboard cubbyhole.
Why can’t we just have a regular old key?
Final Rankings Truth is, any one of these $50,000 Asian luxury sedans is worthy of consideration, but our favorite is the 2006 Infiniti M35x.
There’s nothing worse than to read a comparison test only to find a wishy-washy conclusion at the end, but that’s exactly what we’re going to deliver here. Though we’ve ranked the cars according to our subjective judgments and scientifically unproven scoring system, the truth is that any one of these three Asian luxury sedans is worth consideration. The Acura RL is the most comfortable, the Lexus GS 300 AWD the most refined, and the Infiniti M35x the most fun to drive. Each has its strong and weak points, but we found that the Infiniti possesses more of the former and fewer of the latter. Your results may vary, and we encourage anyone shopping for a $50,000 Acura, Infiniti, or Lexus to try each on for size.
3rd Place – Acura RL (7.4 GPA)
Comfort, understatement, ride quality, steering, braking, and powertrain sophistication are the 2005 Acura RL’s strong points. Quality, handling, control design and layout, and styling are the deal breakers. It’s possible our test car’s assembly problems were unique, and appearance is a highly subjective evaluation point. If you think the Acura RL is a looker, value form over function, and don’t plan to pitch the car into curves with abandon, it’s tough to go wrong here.
2nd Place – Lexus GS 300 AWD (7.7 GPA)
Refinement, simplicity, and quality are long-standing tenets of Lexus design and engineering, and though the 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD is sexier than ever, they’re still the main reasons for buying this capable luxury sedan. But note that the electronic braking system is frustrating to use, that the run-flat tires on the AWD model provide a rather harsh ride, and that the stability control cuts in to ruin the fun and cannot be turned off. The GS 300 AWD is not a car for enthusiasts. Rather, it is an excellent luxury sedan for the vast majority of Americans. And with gas prices averaging $2.50 per gallon, it helps that we got 20.5 mpg without even trying.
1st Place – Infiniti M35x (8.0 GPA)
Sure, it’s a blast to drive hard and fast, but the 2006 Infiniti M35x is more than a great sports sedan: It’s a great luxury sedan, too. Strong points include cabin materials, interior design, control placement and operation, visibility, and rear seat comfort. We downgraded the Infiniti for its uncomfortable driving environment, interior noise, and taut ride quality. Plus, it got the worst fuel economy of this trio. But once you press the Start button on the dash, select a gear, and hightail it down a favorite twisty road, none of that matters. The 2006 Infiniti M35x is a terrific luxury sports sedan, the best one from Japan.
Specifications Our trio of Asian luxury sedans closely mirrors one another in terms of specifications, but there are a few key points to be made. The Lexus is the least powerful, but is also the lightest and gets the best fuel economy. The Infiniti is largest inside, and has the biggest trunk. The Acura makes the most horsepower, and gets excellent crash-test scores.
3.5-liter SOHC VTEC V6
3.5-liter DOHC V6
3.5-liter DOHC VVT-V6
300 @ 6,200
280 @ 6,200
245 @ 6,200
260 @ 5,000
270 @ 4,800
230 @ 3,600
Five-speed AT with manual shift mode, paddle shifters, andgrade-logic control
Five-speed AT with manual shift mode, Downshift RevMatching, and learning algorithm
Six-speed AT with manual shift mode; and Power, Normal, and Snow modes
EPA MPG (city/highway)
Legroom (f/r – in.)
Headroom (f/r – in.)
Max. Cargo (cu. Ft.)
14.9 (11.4 with full-size spare)
NHTSA – Driver
NHTSA – Front Passenger
NHTSA – Front Side
NHTSA – Rear Side
NHTSA -- Rollover
IIHS – Frontal Offset
Good – Best Pick
Good – Best Pick
Good – Best Pick
IIHS – Side Impact
Good – Best Pick
Opinion – Blackett
Opinion – Blackett My ex-girlfriend recently told me that I was nerdy – the cool, funny kind, mind you, but nerdy, nonetheless. So maybe it’s fitting that I’m the only one here choosing the dowdy Acura RL over the Infiniti M35 and Lexus GS 300.
3rd Place – 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD (tie)
I may be old-fashioned, but to me, $51,000 is a heck of a lot of money for a car, and frankly, it’s too much for the 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD, especially considering the better options from Acura and Infiniti.
My biggest complaints come from the GS’s interior, where the leather seat covering, though soft, feels less durable than the others’, the wood interior trim looks down right cheap, flimsy plastics are used on the lower seat frames, and the gauge cluster is housed in your basic, Camry-grade, black plastic. While the interior materials fail to register as luxurious in my mind, the overall craftsmanship, both inside and outside, is nearly faultless, with consistent gaps and well-secured panels. Other positives include the overall comfort and the unique exterior design with its long nose and short rear overhang.
But, most notable are the Lexus GS 300’s driving characteristics. Throttle response is a bit better than the Acura, but the small 3.0-liter V6 is thrashy at high revs and the automatic transmission throws back some hard downshifts during aggressive driving. Braking is satisfactory, but the ride is especially soft and leads to a fair amount of body roll and understeer in corners. The result is a car that’s fine for long-distance highway jaunts, but trails the Acura and Infiniti in the spirited driving category. Combine that with a thrashy engine, a mediocre interior, and the highest as-tested price, and the 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD lands in last place on my list.
2nd Place – 2006 Infiniti M35x (tie)
With its 280-horsepower V6, grippy brakes, and the best handling of the tested trio, the 2006 Infiniti M35x would seem to be the logical winner. However, this is a test of mid-luxury sedans, and when combining creature comforts with driving dynamics, the Infiniti finishes in the middle of the pack.
Like the Lexus, the plastics used on the rearview mirror and lower seat frames are flimsy and cheap, though the M35’s leather seats feel more durable. The same can’t be said for the headliner that feels like it was crafted from the sport fabric used on Nissan Xterra seats. Overall build quality isn’t bad, but I did notice a few loose interior panels and slightly misaligned exterior body panels – none of which were found on the Lexus. Also posing a problem is the M35’s suspension, a relatively stiff setup that makes for confident cornering, but results in a highway ride that feels a bit too harsh for the luxury circuit.
Compensating for these negatives are a stylish, fluid dash design cloaked in the best looking wood trim and the most engaging powertrain of the bunch. Unlike the Acura, which feels a bit shy of its 300-horsepower rating, the Infiniti seems to squeeze everything out of its 3.5-liter V6, though the automatic transmission does get confused during especially aggressive driving. That can be a problem when throttling out of a corner, as the M35’s tranny hesitates to downshift and leaves the driver wanting for more immediate power. Even so, the 2006 Infiniti M35 is a blast to drive, and with a bit more attention to detail would be my top pick.
1st Place – 2005 Acura RL
My ex-girlfriend recently told me that I was nerdy – the cool, funny kind, mind you, but nerdy, nonetheless. Maybe it’s fitting that I’m the only supporter here of the dowdy Acura RL.
So the 2005 Acura RL offers less of the aggressive styling exhibited by the Lexus and Infiniti, and maybe those alloy wheels aren’t designs fresh from the mind of Chip Foose. This is mid-luxury, people – it’s gotta be about the best compromise between creature comforts and drivability for the price, and with an as-tested price of $49,715, the RL squeezes out the GS 300 and the M35 for top spot.
Those creature comforts include the soft leather; sturdy plastics, even in obscure places like the lower seat frames; and conservative, padded dash and door panels that look and feel upscale. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the wood trim, which battles the Lexus for The Shiny Cheap Wood Trim Award. Elsewhere there’s nice chrome and alloy trim, and the gauges emit a blue glow at night – very cool. There wouldn’t be much to complain about inside, if it wasn’t for that central control in the center of the dash, which makes operation of the radio and climate controls systems overly complicated.
And then there’s the drive. On the highway, the 2005 Acura RL is quiet, and the steering has a slightly lighter feeling than the Infiniti M35, which when coupled with the compliant suspension, provides a comfortable yet responsive ride befitting a luxury car. With 300 horsepower and only 10 lb.-ft. less torque than the heavier Infiniti, the Acura should feel like the quickest car tested, but in reality the RL takes its time building speed, and even when I hammered on the throttle, the transmission only clicked down to third gear, leaving power available at higher revs out of my reach. But while the RL’s powertrain may not be the most potent, its quiet and smooth operation more than makes up for any deficiencies. Finally, the Michelin tires weren’t terribly fond of grip in the corners and the there was some understeer, but the SH-AWD system kept all in line and on the appropriate side of the double yellow.
Opinion – Chee
Opinion – Chee Ouch. What the Infiniti M35 does to the Lexus GS and the Acura RL is akin to walking up to someone, a stranger, and for no reason – just because – whipping around and kicking them, hard, on the keister.
3rd Place – 2005 Acura RL
The Acura RL is like a man in a suit wearing white tennis shoes. Doesn’t matter how nice he looks, or the fact that it’s plain to see he’s on a lunch walk. It’s just not right. And neither are the wheels on the RL – it’s a faux pas right up there with flip-flops in the office. Then again, you seem to notice more if the person wearing flip flops has hairy toes and a corn…so perhaps the overall design of the RL just adds to the abhorrence of its wheels. It’s a shame, because all in all, the car has a nice, mild personality. Combined with its capability as a very nice driver, those darn wheels just throw a wet towel on the whole get up.
Not to obsess or anything.
Ranked third – but a close third – the RL just flat doesn’t feel like a car that costs $50,000, and a large reason for that is the design, including some bits and pieces that you don’t expect to see on a car for this much cash. Fake chrome trim used to spruce up a very average look is one such example. Simply put, for that kind of coin, you want more style and more flair. You want your new luxury sedan to speak aloud the success you enjoy. And if you dare look down your snout and claim a great disinterest in the whole “image” thing, then why are you buying luxury in the first place? Go get yourself a Kia Rio and commute to work like a real man.
But again, I obsess.
Ignore the outside – and it’s easy to do – the power of a 3.5-liter, 300-horsepower V6 engine that generates 260 lb.-ft. of torque at 5,000 rpm impresses. With a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode and paddle shifters, there’s a lot to like about driving this car. Especially when it comes to handling, thanks to its SH-AWD system. It’s the kind of car you can drive all day, a wonderful road companion, easy to drive and fun when you want it to be. The interior helps that along with a nice design that evokes a feeling of personal space. The back seat is spacious, and overall, the interior is a well executed place from which to drive. Sadly, the interior is also plagued by some nasty bits, such as a cheap headliner. Given the amount of real estate a headliner covers, one would think they’d put some nice material up there. At a price approaching $50,000, the 2005 Acura RL has to offer more than excellence in engineering. Give this car a thorough design and materials upgrade, and you have yourself a winner. – Brian Chee
2nd Place – 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD
There’s a Camry in there somewhere, so sayeth my colleague. He’s not far off the mark with that comment, though the GS is a few grandmas away from the Camry by now. This vehicle excelled in being a darn fun car to drive, with sexy appeal and a runner-up interior. The best thing about the GS is its six-speed manu-matic transmission, connected to a 3.0-liter, 245-horsepower V6 engine that generates 230 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,600 rpm. Torque is plentiful at the low end where you need it, horsepower is more than enough, and shift ratios are close – it’s such a shame that someone at Lexus decided to take the steering wheel paddle shifters away. Riding on 17-inch wheels, the GS performs capably, unless you plan to drive it like a clown.
If you do, the VDIM will kick in and settle you down. And that’s part of the problem, because, well, I kinda like being a clown. Then that darn VDIM kicks in, you get that irritating beep, beep, beep and ABS starts pulsing…thanks, Lexus. Yeah. THANKS. Please, put the electronic dogs on a leash or something – and while you’re at it, please tune the electronics in your brake-by-wire setup. This much brake fade and pedal travel is not okay in a $45,000 car.
At least, given the VDIM and the brake play, drivers will be muttering in a nice interior. Really, the only reason Lexus comes in second here is because the Infiniti offers a refreshing take on luxury design, and surprisingly, the Lexus has left a few screws loose. Interior design is typically Lexus in precision and simplicity, with the right amount of everything in the right place. The same sentence defines the navigation, which is easily the easiest to use. A few weaknesses pop up, however, such as the flip-down control panel. It fights for space with knees and the steering wheel can block visual access. On the outside, the Lexus GS has significantly more sex appeal. It makes the other two contenders look dumpy by comparison. All in all, a good buy if you don’t plan to carve foothills on the weekend. If you do, however, here’s the rub: At $45,000 and change for the AWD version, the advice here is to shop Infiniti. If you like the GS inside and out, though, consider the rear-wheel drive GS 300. Yes – it is the base model. But look at the upside: It means that you’ll make your alimony payment this month, and besides, the rear-drive GS 300 has got to be a hoot to drive with that lively little powertrain. – Brian Chee
1st Place – 2006 Infiniti M35x
Ouch. What the Infiniti M35 does to the Lexus GS and the Acura RL is akin to walking up to someone, a stranger, and for no reason – just because – whipping around and kicking them, hard, on the keister.
Right there, on the tailbone. The pain lasts for days, as it surely does for Lexus and Acura when they take a look at the M. The excellence of an interior that takes a new approach to luxury with a unique mesh fabric headliner, matte wood trim and an instrument panel that is unique, sensible and brilliantly designed puts the traditional fuzzy lids and leather to shame in the GS and RL.
Come on guys. Think outside the box.
On the road, meanwhile, the Infiniti is a better ride overall, though there are some aspects of the RL and GS that trump the M, namely noise and vibration. While the M can get to it better than the competition, a long commute on a freeway exposes some rough edges. Fun over function, is what I say, however, and the fun of a hip luxury car with plenty of power, and nice design and a great interior overpowers the function of a quiet interior and a softer ride. Fun, after all, is having a sedan that’s powered by a 3.5-liter, 280-horsepower V6 engine that generates 270-lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm. Fun is riding on 18-inch wheels. The M35 is fun – because when you pull up to the office or up your driveway, you’ve chosen the car that’s slightly different, slightly irreverent and, well, slightly more fun than the competition. Drive it and you will at least feel how much fun you can buy for $50,000. – Brian Chee
Opinion – Wardlaw
Opinion – Wardlaw As a daily driver the M35 is louder inside than the Acura and the Lexus, and it rides stiffer, and I found it to be the least comfortable from the driver’s seat – but I can live with those things. Because on the weekend, I want my wheels to fly.
3rd Place – 2005 Acura RL
Staid styling keeps me from choosing the interesting Acura RL over the buttoned-down Lexus GS as the Asian luxury sedan I’d park in slot #2 of my fictional personal garage. To my eye, the RL looks like a warmed-over 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora, minus the Aurora’s bulging sheetmetal contours. This Acura exhibits cab-forward design in a world that increasingly prefers the appearance of a long hood and short rear deck. The headlights are too big, the front overhang is excessive, and the wheels look like they were cribbed from a Chevy Cavalier rental. On the freeway one night, I was flanked by a last-generation Acura Legend and a first-generation Acura RL. Of our trio, the guy with the cheapest car also was the guy with the best looking car.
What’s frustrating is that from a design standpoint, the Acura RL’s interior is a work of art. Its fascinating blend of arcs and curves results in a distinctly architectural flavor that makes the RL my favorite spot to sit in traffic. And sit in traffic I will, because the highly-touted but almost impossible to activate feature that is supposed to re-route a driver around rush-hour freeway jams is hard to find in the RL’s navigation, climate, audio, and information menus, the buttons for which are smashed together with main climate and audio controls on the dashboard’s artfully tapered center stack.
Then, when the roads clear and get twisty, the RL tries my patience further. The SH-AWD system is fantastic, and the powertrain is the best in this test, but Acura shods the car with wimpy Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 tires that give up too early, and equips the car with a suspension that inadequately handles body roll and weight transition. To fix this, Acura wants thousands more for an A-Spec handling package, which doesn’t pencil out as a good value to me.
Acura’s got some work to do on the RL, but if the utter lack of corporate attention bestowed upon the previous version is any indication, we might be into the second term of a Hillary Clinton or John McCain White House before anything changes to resolve my criticism of the Acura. – Christian Wardlaw
2nd Place – 2006 Lexus GS 300 AWD
Kudos to Lexus for continuing to do what it’s always done best in creating the redesigned Lexus GS. This car is beautifully executed in terms of interior materials, ergonomics, and quality. The front seats are comfortable, the cabin is quiet, and every single touch point exudes refinement. The design is evolutionary, uncharacteristically rakish, but rear seat space suffers for it.
Like any Lexus, or Toyota for that matter, there isn’t much to complain about, but neither is there much to rave about…at least in the way that driving enthusiasts love to rave. The Lexus is competent up to about 7/10ths, carving clean arcs from apex to apex, quelling body roll, and accelerating between turns with verve. The manual shifting feature is a joy to operate, even though it lacks the Infiniti’s rev-matching feature. Don’t ask much of the brakes, and they won’t ask much of you, except patience while the pedal travels to the point of engagement. Crank up the pressure, and the GS falls apart pretty quickly, the nose pushing wide in turns, the suspension bobbing and weaving, and the brakes fading just when you need them most. Some critics have carped about how intrusive the Lexus Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system is, but I found an acceptable performance envelope before engagement. Honestly, I can’t fathom driving the car hard enough to where VDIM’s nannying becomes an issue.
The Lexus is the luxury car of this group, the car least likely to intrude upon your daily grind, the sanctuary after a long day at work. But I prefer something more engaging to drive. – Christian Wardlaw
1st Place – 2006 Infiniti M35x
My reasons for choosing the Infiniti M35 over the Lexus and Acura are clear: The Infiniti is stylish, luxurious, and fun to drive. Though I was perhaps the only person in America that loved the unique, slab-sided look of the first Infiniti M, and I feel that this new car looks too much like everything else on the road, the redesigned M is the best-looking car of our trio, thanks in part to its gorgeous, thick-spoked wheels. Inside, the matte-finish rosewood trim, metallic and chrome accents, plush perforated leather, and two-tone décor are enough to make me forget the ugly woven headliner that looks more like a velour knit polo shirt circa 1978 than the subdued mesh cloth of a modern Audi.
But critical thoughts about the headliner evaporate once the M35 is guided onto a lonely country road. Infiniti targeted the previous-generation BMW 5 Series when developing the new M’s driving dynamics, and this diligence results in an experience on par with that vaunted Bavarian sport sedan. Driven hard, the M35, just like most any BMW product, disappears from your consciousness. The Infiniti immediately obeys every input and command, and the M35 communicates every nuance of the road without drumming it into your hands, feet, or backside. At the end of our testing, the top third of the sidewalls on the Acura’s Michelins were cooked, but our Infiniti’s Goodyear Eagle RS-As looked almost new. Steering, braking, and handling are exceptional, and the automatic transmission’s manual shift feature includes a rev-matching throttle blip for smoother – and sportier – driving.
Yeah, as a daily driver the M35 is louder inside than the Acura and the Lexus, and it rides stiffer, and I found it to be the least comfortable from the driver’s seat – but I can live with those things. Because on the weekend, I want my wheels to fly, and the Infiniti M35x might just be the best mid-luxury sports sedan from any continent, let alone Asia. – Christian Wardlaw
Photos courtesy of Ron Perry