Here we are, the final pair in the quest for an enjoyable, affordable family car two years ago. The 2016 VW GTI was the benchmark to beat, and lightly used Acuras, Lexii, and Bimmers failed to do so. Only the Infiniti G37 remains, but if Lexus and BMW couldn’t cut the mustard, then Infiniti would certainly face an uphill battle here, right? Nissan hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire with either quality or appeal for the better part of two decades. And yet, they did produce the 370Z and GT-R so there’s a crazy uncle somewhere in that family. The question is, did the G37 inherit these wild recessive genes or is he another Johnny-9-to-5 square who gave up all hobbies because that lawn really should be mowed every Saturday, and Walmart’s running a sale on weed-and-feed this weekend but maybe I’ll kick my feet up and watch the game with a beer if I’m feeling crazy afterwards? That dude is certainly not going to stand a chance against VW’s hot hatch. So, toward which side of this incongruent family does the G37 hew?
2014 Infiniti G37
Certainly not the Sentra side. The RWD G37 is in no way a warmed-over version of something from Nissan’s economy car division. He has 4 doors, which is akin to a sensibly-funded 401K, but does so because it comes with his day job as a helicopter pilot. He took the job so he could fly, not so he could have the 401K. He does not pass up a chance to canyoneer with his buddies in order to mow the lawn. He is also a different animal than his segment competitors, which add a thicker ganache of refinement and trendy technology to attract luxury lessees. Most of those entry-level sports sedans are a bit serious, sterile, or remote despite their impressive capabilities. Those guys are the airliner pilots.
As with the Lexus, the Infiniti is conflicted. But it’s conflicted in a way that I like. It is absolutely nothing to look at from the outside. Rounded. Anodyne. Anonymous. Invisible in the greyscale spectrum they all seemed to be painted in. Yet underneath dwells some potent old-fashioned mechanicals. This car was outdated when production ceased in 2015. The platform was then 9 years old, the V6 is from an aged engine family and relies on displacement rather than forced-induction, the transmission is a torque-converter automatic, there are no drive modes to fiddle with, NVH was apparently not the top priority, and the steering is hydraulic.
Such a list would be a litany of grievances for many lessees and reviewers, but for me they coalesce into a charismatic whole with comfortable long-term reliability. The G37 is a brash and tactile quasi-pony car thinly masquerading as a respectable luxury sedan. Pushing the bounds of hyperbole, perhaps it is a warhammer with a nice leather handle and some pretty gilding on its lethal head. The engine doesn’t fire up or idle with the Lexus’s exemplary smoothness, nor does the suspension so skillfully straddle that difficult line between controlled compliance and harshness, but that was forgotten before I crossed half the dealership’s lot.
Why? The steering has feel. I’m doing 15 mph across a parking lot and already the steering has feel. When was the last time you enjoyed driving across a parking lot? There’s texture, resistance, the subtle vibration and push and tug of the front wheels transmitting back through the column and wheel into my palms and I haven’t even pulled out onto the street yet. Once I do, the tactility remains without becoming annoying. The steering tune isn’t overly sensitive and jerky. The brake response is excellent and the 7 speed automatic isn’t as quick as the BMW’s ZF but is responsive enough. The Infiniti is very enjoyable to drive around town and I haven’t been able to say that about any other car in this series.
The engine is fully warmed by the time I reach the onramp, so I give it gas like a teenager and holy hell this is what a 5 second sprint to 60 feels like. I’ve been driving slow cars for too long. I am Mr. Mow the Lawn. The 3.7-liter VQ V-6 may originate from an old engine family, but this is no low-revving 2-valve mod motor expected to serve duty in both pickups and pony cars. It has been meaningfully updated over the years and makes nearly 330 horsepower without resorting to direct injection. The redline is well above 7000 rpm and it lunges for it, emitting a vigorous, loud, and perhaps uncouth growl while pulling all the way up the tachometer. It’s such a happy, terrifying engine. Between this beast and the ultra-refined 3.5s in the Acura and Lexus models, I don’t know why anyone wants a 2.0 turbo four. They offer nothing. Well, efficiency–this Infiniti will use 40% more fuel than the GTI. So there is some similarity with pickup trucks there.
The G37 exudes old-school character and driving charm you would never suspect when looking at it. It’s a joy to drive and encourages rude reckless behavior, but there is a price to pay for that. A bit too much tire roar enters the cabin at highway cruise, much like the Acura. The characterful engine is coarse compared to the Honda/Toyota sixes. This may simply be a case of paying to play–it doesn’t cosset or exude quality the way the Lexus does but it’s far from spartan or uncomfortable and it makes me smile in a way the Lexus didn’t.
The interior makes a good visual impression of a luxury car. There’s nice brightwork here and there, the center console and shift lever surround do a very convincing impression of solid metal, and the tasteful dashboard design is not a copy of anything else. The leather is real, all critical touch points are padded, and if you don’t care about modern infotainment the feature list is fairly rich.
The impression of a luxury car does begin to fade once you start poking about, though. Build quality doesn’t approach the Lexus or GTI. The seats are just OK. The brittle-feeling window switches are lifted straight out of an Altima, which in turn were lifted straight out of a Sentra, which in turn were lifted straight out of a Versa, where they finally feel price appropriate. This is the opposite of VW, whose switchgear tends to feel lifted out of an Audi. That’s the proper way to raid the parts bin. The problem with these flubbed details is you will never, ever forget that you are in a late-2000s Nissan product. If you’ve owned a late-2000s Nissan product as I have, you may understand why that is not an appealing association.
Oh well. Start that monster VQ up and go for a drive. You’ll forget all about it. The G37 is a riot without punishing you for it, and it is not hard to find very low mileage final-year examples for just over $20K. That’s probably the best deal going for a practical RWD sport sedan that you can buy to keep. Consumer Reports reliability statistics are encouraging. If you are waffling, just go for it. They don’t make them like this anymore, and probably never will again.
2016 VW GTI
If the Infiniti is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, then the Mark VII GTI takes a somewhat opposite approach. The GTI is a practical semi-premium car pretending to be a hot hatch. The GTI is shockingly mature and restrained when compared to the childish wing-bedecked wastegate-popping WRX, Civic Si, and Focus ST it competes with. Only the narrow profile tires give away its intentions.
The doors open with that delightful solid kerchunk! and close just as well, the driving position is faultless for my six-foot height, and the seats are nearly as good as the Lexus. All the touchpoints are padded, fit and finish is remarkable for the price, and there is unusual attention to detail throughout. How they sell these at $28K MSRP and $24K real-world is a mystery to me. I’ve often wondered if VW raids the budget for mechanical durability in order to fund its interiors and driving refinement, and when sitting in this car I also wonder if it isn’t worth it.
The refinement continues when in motion. During the daily grind it is quiet and civilized, shoved ahead effortlessly by the invisible hand of torque from the turbocharged engine, not really drawing any attention to itself or annoying you with boy-racer drone and road noise. In these conditions, it feels like a larger, more expensive car than it is. Your freeway commute will be quiet and comfortable, with laser-sharp tracking at speed. The only giveaway is the stiff ride–you will feel potholes and railroad crossings more than in the Lexus or 328i.
Yet, this refinement doesn’t filter out every sensation that makes driving enjoyable. The electrically-assisted power steering isn’t as informative as the hydraulic G37 but you still receive more sensation through the wheel than the BMW, Acura, and Lexus and there is no dead zone on center. The hatchback that felt like a little big car on the highway shrinks when bombing through town, whipping through right-handers and into parking lots with an agility and responsiveness that had me smiling. It isn’t necessary to push this car hard in order to enjoy it.
The two-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine is also a charmer. I know mere paragraphs before I wrote that this engine format offers nothing over a big V6, but this one comes close enough that I wouldn’t be complaining much. Turbo lag feels minimal and it seems to have a wider powerband than, say, the Ford 2.0 turbo that runs out of steam long before redline. Straightline performance is essentially even with the BMW 328i, yet the VW’s engine sounds better and is more refined. It revs very smoothly. The soundtrack is dominated by the Soundaktor-amplified exhaust note rather than the machinery under the hood, and I’m undecided about that. I didn’t find it obnoxious or synthetic over these short drives, but it may grate on the nerves long term. The internet will teach you how to disable that function, or you can make the dealership do it while the paperwork is being signed.
A far larger concern is the DSG dual-clutch automated manual transmission in the GTI. The one benefit is lightning-quick upshifts. The transmission comes alive during aggressive driving. Wind it up towards redline, and it will snap instantly into the next gear, keeping the engine on boil and the car hurtling forward. Driven this way, the GTI is genuinely quick. The DSG provides far more snappy manual control over the gears in more aggressive driving than the laggardly manu-matic function in the G37. That car is best left in “D”. However, there’s a dark side. I’ve driven two DSG examples in town, and while one was decent the other was absolutely hateful under the low-speed part-throttle situations that make up most of our daily driving: unresponsive, slow to downshift, slow to apply power from a stop. When it’s good, it still isn’t as good as the ZF 8-speed in the 328i. And when it’s bad, it’s a full-stop deal breaker. Fluid changes are also pricey. I recommend the manual transmission that I cannot have for household reasons.
The GTI has carved out a brilliant niche for itself. It covers a lot of ground well without making any obvious mistakes. You can commute or take a road trip in comfort. You can take it to a track day. You can have fun on a mountain road. You have straightline power and fuel efficiency. You can enjoy the simple act of running errands. You can do all this while six-foot adults are comfortable in the rear seat. For those of us with young ‘uns, a rear-facing infant car seat will fit behind a six foot driver–if only just. It would seem to be the obvious choice in a world without the G37.
This is a difficult decision. The GTI is quick and agile and tactile, but the G37 even more so. The G37 blends comfort and practicality with performance, but the GTI even more so. The GTI has a long warranty but is more likely to need it. The G37 is my last chance to experience a nearly-extinct branch on the automotive phylogenetic tree while the GTI is likely to hang around for awhile. There’s no obvious winner here. In the end I did make up my mind with a purchase…and it’s a very weird ending to this cross-comparison. I’ll write about it next time since it requires an entire article. Meanwhile, I’m genuinely curious what you would have done. Which would have been your pick for a 7-year ownership horizon? And no, an Olds Toronado or resto-mod Fairlane is not an appropriate answer, even here on Curbside!