Between 1986 and 1989, three new luxury marques were introduced by Japan’s three largest automakers. While two were met with instant success and acceptance, it took quite a bit longer for the third, Infiniti, to find its way. Unlike Acura and Lexus, who successfully carved out solid footholds in the luxury market almost immediately, Infiniti struggled quite a bit more to find its place during its early years. Between its ill-fated introductory ad campaign, poorly received designs, and unwelcoming interiors, early Infiniti sales were dismal, and industry analysts already had Infiniti on death watch by the mid-Nineties.
But then, in late-1995, Infiniti added a softer-tuned, mid-size, front-wheel drive, V6-powered sedan that was for lack of a better term, a gussied-up Nissan Maxima (more specifically, it was a rebadged JDM Nissan Cefiro, which was sold in other markets as the Maxima). This car, which was called the I30, immediately became Infiniti’s best-selling model, and proved to be a savior for the brand, largely carrying it through until the arrival of the G35 in 2002.
While the first generation I30 gained unique fascias, wheel designs, and wider chrome-trimmed bodyside moldings, it still bore a heavy visual resemblance to the North American-spec Maxima. The interiors were also more or less identical, with the I30 gaining the same artificial wood trim and leather available on higher-end Maximas.
Redesigned versions of both sedans would appear for the 2000 model year in North America, with greater distinction between the two. Midsections were again similar, but the Infiniti now had a healthy dose of unique sheet metal at either end for a decidedly more elegant look. The interior was also treated to an attractive makeover, but the most dramatic transformation would come two years later.
In 2002, the I30 became the I35 by way of a new 3.5L V6 replacing the existing 3.0L. Output was up to a very respectable 255 horsepower and 246 lb-ft torque, figures both higher than the standard engines of its closest competitors, the Acura TL and Lexus ES. Exterior styling was also revised for a bolder look, with new wheel designs, standard HID headlights, revised taillight clusters, and grille sporting a larger Infiniti logo.
As alluded to earlier, the interior was treated to some enhancements which mostly included new woodgrain trim. Although this change may seem minor, the switch from simulated burl walnut (which was found in many luxury cars at the time) to simulated bird’s eye maple made a major (you might even say “maxima”) impact. Let it be said that I take no issue with faux woodgrain trim, so long as it’s attractive and half convincing. The lighter wood tone Infiniti added to the I35 gave its interior a warmer, inviting quality that newer Infinitis, including the G35 and FX, would lack. Among other luxury features was an available navigation system, which cleverly popped up out of the dash.
The Infiniti I35 was certainly more polished than the I30, and overall, it was a decent mid-size front-wheel drive luxury sedan. That being said, the I35 didn’t excel in its class the way the Acura TL did for sportiness and handling or the Lexus ES did for comfort and opulence. Offering neither sporty handling nor a luxury car ride, the I35 got lost in the middle. Sales seemed to reflected this point. In 2002, the ES and TL sold just over 71,000 and 60,000 units respectively, while the Infiniti brand as a whole only reached sales of 87,911 vehicles.
With a new focus on performance and new edgier-styled cars to reflect this, Infiniti’s growth finally began to take off, after over a decade of remaining relatively stagnant. The aging I35, naturally did not fit into this strategy, and was discontinued after 2004. It was replaced in Infiniti’s lineup by a smaller and larger car, the G35 and the M35/45. Both offered more modern powertrain, better driving dynamics, and rear- or all-wheel drive. Especially with the G35, Infiniti finally had a car that would be the cornerstone of their lineup for the next decade.
The I30/35 may not be well-remembered today, but its sales kept Infiniti afloat during the rough times, and without it Infiniti may not have lasted through the new Millennium.