(First posted July 28, 2013) Having had somewhat recently divested myself, for no particularly good financial reason, of a fairly new VW Jetta and a decently running motorcycle in favor of an aged Subaru, I, along with my girlfriend, then decided to move from San Francisco to San Mateo, one of the suburbs on the Peninsula. Of course, this meant that although my girlfriend’s commute would get much shorter, mine would increase quite a bit. For a short time I took the train and later used the Subaru as a daily commuter. It wasn’t long before I’d become tired of it, so when an opportunity came up to buy a car I’d always found very attractive, I jumped at it…
Behold the 1993.5 Infiniti G20. Offered as an entry-level introduction to the brand, the G20 was basically a Rest-Of-World’s top-of-the-line Nissan Primera wearing Infiniti badging. Having never offered a Primera in North America, this initially appeared to be good strategy on Infiniti’s part. As you probably know, Infiniti started their U.S. venture with the excellent Q45 and lukewarm M35 coupe (basically a rebadged and somewhat aged Nissan Leopard), but soon discovered the need to expand their range: Thus was the G20 introduced.
Having previously lived near an Infiniti dealership, I often took evening strolls around the grounds and had seen many a G20 when they were introduced. In the end, they probably never lived up to management’s sales expectations, and were often advertised as “loss-leaders” with heavily discounted pricing. Usually they were the base model, and, well, this was exactly what I found advertised by a private party in the San Francisco Chronicle classifieds.
After driving up to San Francisco one dark evening to take a look at it, we met the seller, a nice guy named Blaine. It turns out that when the car was new, it was given to Blaine to use as a company car for two years, and was offered the chance to buy it when he left the company. Since he liked the car, he did so; now, some time later, he’d decided to start his own organic soup company and needed to sell the Infiniti to help raise cash for the venture.
We looked at the car, test-drove it around the city, pulled into a well-lit gas station and found that its only cosmetic flaws were a one-inch-diameter black ink stain (thanks to Blaine’s fiance’s mother, as it turned out) on the back seat, and some surface scuffs and scratches on the horizontal surfaces, likely from placing materials on top and then dragging rather than lifting them off. Mechanically everything seemed great, even though the mileage was already just over 80,000 on a 3.5-year-old car. After we’d agreed on a price of about $8,000, and he’d thrown in a few jars of his homemade organic soup (yummy), we drove the car home. (The top two pictures are of my actual car.)
You’ll recall I mentioned it was a 1993.5 and not a 1993 or 1994 model. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d buy a half-year model, and this one definitely was different than those of the adjacent years. Versus the 1993s, the mid-year models had dual airbags instead of motorized seatbelts, R134a A/C instead of R12, an upgraded audio system and some different options. The 1994s also received a revised front grille, chrome plated door handles, a different (and not quite as highly regarded) version of the engine and slightly larger tires. So the 1993.5 was sort of a half-step between them.
Mine was black, with a gray velour interior. Yes, mine was probably one of the “loss-leader” versions, with its cloth interior, no sunroof and stick shift. If it was a Lamborghini, it would probably be called a Superleggera and command a premium price; in mass-market America, a car with a luxury badge, cloth seats and no sunroof is usually just called sales-proof. Fortunately, I like quality cloth upholstery and don’t really care for sunroofs, so it was perfect for me.
Overall, I think these would have sold better at another time. For the most part, the early-to mid-90’s were a time of $1.20/gallon gas in Northern California. Where I lived, large engines were still very much in vogue and premium manufacturers did not offer many four-cylinder engines. Nowadays, it’s a totally different story, and I am surprised that Infiniti (and Lexus, for that matter) don’t offer much to compete with the smaller European offerings, virtually all of which now are four-cylinder (albeit turbocharged)-powered.
Size-wise, these are very similar to a Jetta of the same vintage. Performance-wise, they’re in a whole different league. The 2.0-liter, 140-hp DOHC (code SR20DE) is the same engine people rave about in the Sentra SE-R. Contrary to popular opinion, the G20 is not based on the Sentra at all despite sharing the Sentra’s top engine option; in actuality it is a size larger and very close to the original Altima but again, doesn’t share anything of note with it either. With a redline of 7, 500 rpm and coupled to an extremely smooth five-speed manual transmission, the engine delivered great performance and excellent fuel economy, and was an absolute pleasure to drive in any situation. (Note: I understand that the automatic version is a lot less interesting, but I’ve never driven one personally.)
Standard features included power everything, four-wheel discs with ABS, A/C, Bose stereo, alarm, cruise control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Weight averages about 2,700 lbs., depending on transmission and options.
All in all, a very high quality, well-built car that felt solid, drove great and looked nice. I drove it all over the place, and nothing ever went wrong with it, it was extremely comfortable, had plenty of room for four people and their luggage, and was just a joy. I replaced the tires (at the time, 185/60-14 was a very common size, so there were plenty of options to choose from) and found annoyance only when it was time for an oil change.
I did try to change the oil myself a couple of times at first. While doing so wasn’t really a problem, it was still a bit different than with most other cars: the drain plug is in the expected place, but the filter is not. Instead, it’s located near the top of the engine, which seems great until you realize that its horizontal mounting causes about half a quart of oil (with no obvious way to contain) to drain out when you loosen it. What’s more, it’s sort of buried under other stuff, thus necessitating either very small hands or a large supply of band-aids. After a couple of times of cleaning up oil and bandaging myself, I just started taking it to quick-lube places.
Once, I found a coupon for a place I’d never been before. Knowing it was a pain to change the filter, I watched them from the waiting room. The time from the car leaving the waiting area to when it came back was under 10 minutes. I couldn’t believe they’d managed to change the filter in that time, since Jiffy-Lube always took longer. I popped the hood before leaving, and peering through the wiring I could just make out the red “Ji” on the Jiffy-Lube filter. Problem was, this place wasn’t Jiffy-Lube, which had done the last oil change. I dragged over the manager (who was refusing to believe me) and asked him to please show me what in his inventory of filters matched what was currently installed on my engine. Obviously unable to do so, he offered to redo the work; naturally, I refused and took a full refund instead. Then I went to Kragen, bought a filter and oil and, once more, did the job myself in my driveway.
The only other thing of note was a persistent minor water leak in the front-passenger foot well. During a heavy rain, (and especially with the car in motion, not parked), water would drip from under the dashboard onto the carpet. There never was a huge amount of it, and it would dry overnight in the garage if I left the windows cracked open, but I never did track down the source of the leak. More an annoyance than a serious issue, it was nonetheless just a bit out of character for the car and its otherwise total sense of quality.
A couple of years after buying it, we found ourselves moving again, this time to our first owned home, in Dublin, an East Bay suburb much farther from my work in San Francisco. At this point the car had over 120,000 miles on the odometer, and while it still ran great, it was time to end the relationship. With somewhat mixed feelings, I sold it, and while some potential buyers were turned off by the cloth seats and no sunroof, the eventual buyer was able to look beyond that to see the wonderful car underneath. A great car, one I’d buy again in a heartbeat. It was perfect for the time and place, and I highly recommend it.