(first posted 3/10/2016) The focal point of Nissan’s new prestige brand was the Q45, much like the LS400 was to the Lexus brand. Both Nissan and Toyota realized, though, that they couldn’t launch new luxury brands with one model each. Lexus initially offered a smaller, front-wheel-drive JDM sedan (the ES250) as a stopgap, and similarly Infiniti supplemented the Q45 with a JDM offering: the M30, a rebadged Nissan Leopard. Slow-selling and short-lived, the M30 didn’t make Infiniti’s rocky start as a brand any smoother.
While the Lexus ES250 was nothing terribly exciting – it was effectively a rebodied Camry – the M30 was a curious offering that really underscored how confused Nissan’s handling of its new Infiniti marque was. The Lexus LS400 went right for Mercedes-Benz’s jugular with similarly imposing styling and impressive refinement and build quality. Infiniti’s debut model, the Q45, took a decidedly different tack: no grille, no wood trim and decidedly more spirited and sporting handling than its rival. But the M30, the entry-level Infiniti priced $15k lower, was nothing so daring.
The M30’s biggest handicap? Styling. Being a coupe, there is already going to be some sacrifice of practicality. Two-door vehicles must compensate, then, with attractive styling. The M30 was clean, inoffensive and forgettable. That is to be expected, given it was based on the 1986 Nissan Leopard. No effort was made to restyle the Leopard to look more like the Q45, and Infiniti’s first two models had completely different visages unlike the two Lexus sedans. The Q45 looked ready for the 1990s, while the M30 looked like a vestige of the 1980s, which it was.
Those who were aware of Infiniti’s parentage might have scratched their heads at the M30’s price. It debuted with an MSRP of $23,500, around $4-5k higher than a Nissan Maxima. Infiniti had not yet established any cachet as a brand and was relying on marketing to establish itself as a bonafide luxury player. The M30 may have been RWD while the Maxima was FWD, but they shared the same engine – a gutsy 3.0 V6 with 162 hp, 180 ft-lbs and a 0-60 time under 10 seconds – and both had Nissan’s Sonar Suspension II available. The Maxima was also a newer and fresher design and was, of course, more practical.
To drive, the M30 was comfortable and pleasant but never exciting. The Sonar Suspension II, standard on the M30, used sensors that analyzed road conditions and adjusted the shock absorbers; the driver could also select between “comfort” and “sport” settings. Although rear-wheel-drive is praised, especially today, for providing more balanced handling, Motor Trend found the FWD Acura Legend to be a much more enjoyable drive. In their words: “In every way, the Legend’s more sophisticated suspension better deals with the compromises of ride, handling and control.” The Legend featured upper and lower control arms front and rear; the M30 had a MacPherson strut front suspension and semi-trailing arms at the rear. While a Legend couldn’t cosset as well as the M30, it had a similarly smooth V6 and the availability of a five-speed manual; the M30 had only a four-speed automatic standard.
The M30 came with one engine, one transmission and one very well-equipped trim level. Standard fitment included anti-lock brakes, a driver’s airbag, automatic climate control, sunroof, leather seats and power windows, locks and driver’s seat. Unfortunately, the interior design was not as slick as the Q45’s with a very dated and angular dashboard.
Direct rivals for the M30 were few, as cars like the Cadillac Eldorado and Lexus SC300 were priced around $7-10k higher. That left the Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado for those buyers happy to spend their $23k on a domestic car, or the Acura Legend. The first-generation Legend Coupe was already a bit of a looker, but a new second-generation coupe arrived for 1991 and blew the M30 away with an even more powerful 3.2 V6 and beautiful styling. Alas, prices also rose, making the M30 seem like a bit of a bargain at a $5k lower price. But a slightly lower sticker price isn’t always a tremendous draw for somebody buying a luxury coupe, an inherently impractical purchase. In total, just 12,000 M30s were imported from 1990-92.
One thing Lexus and Acura didn’t have was a convertible. The M30 did, with the droptop bowing in 1991. It was a conversion by American Sunroof Corporation and cost a whopping $8,200 more, a lofty price especially considering the modification made the M30 look even more like a Nissan Stanza. Only 2500 were produced over 1991-92. Jim Mateja of the Chicago Tribune said an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme was a more refined drive, while MotorWeek criticized the droptop’s body flex and said the stiffness of the M30 convertible’s chassis was “nowhere near that of less expensive convertibles… like the Dodge Shadow.” Ouch.
After a strong start, Lexus hit some bumps and the Germans recovered from the Japanese assault to soar to higher heights. For Infiniti, the road was much more jagged and tortuous. The M30 was never intended to be a long-term fixture in the lineup and for 1993 it was replaced by the J30, a polarizing, curvaceous sedan that was little more successful. Earlier, in 1991, the European Nissan Primera had donned the G20 nameplate and become the entry-level Infiniti; with crisp dynamics and a four-cylinder engine, it was more a rival for the Acura Integra than it was a Lexus ES contender. There was no consistent design language or consistent purpose in the Infiniti lineup and sales were always a half or two-thirds of Lexus’ numbers. Halfway through the 1990s, Nissan dumped any real aspirations of Infiniti being a brand of sport sedans: the Q45 was softened and depowered, the Maxima-based I30 impersonated the Lexus ES and the QX4 was a rebadged Pathfinder. Despite this, Infiniti was still nowhere near Lexus or even Acura in sales, let alone the Germans.
It was revealed a while ago that the axing of Infiniti was considered at one point. Although the timeframe is unclear, it was possibly during the late 1990s when Nissan’s financial situation was imperilled and Infiniti was faltering. But Infiniti was saved by one car: the Infiniti G35, also known as the Nissan Skyline. Total production volume for Infiniti almost doubled from Infiniti’s dark days of the late 1990s. With a powerful V6 engine, sharp dynamics and attractive styling, the G35 was easily the most engaging Infiniti since the original Q45 but featured styling that was much better received.
This history lesson may be interesting but you all must be wondering what this has to do with the M30. Well, the rise of BMW in the 1980s had really elevated the sport sedan in the North American market. Gone was the idea that a luxury brand sedan needed to be plush and overstuffed. Nicely-weighted steering and excellent cornering abilities were just as valuable as luxury amenities. The Nissan Skyline would eventually save Infiniti in the 2000s. Why did Infiniti wait so long? Instead of offering the stopgap M30 and the poorly-received J30, why didn’t Nissan launch Infiniti with the JDM Skyline?
Available as either a coupe or sedan, the 1989 R32 Skyline was available with several engines, from a 1.8 four-cylinder, through 2.0 and 2.5 inline sixes, right up to a twin-turbocharged 2.6 inline six with 276 horsepower in the GT-R. Rear-wheel-drive was standard with all-wheel-drive available in the performance models. Those performance models are legendary and remain highly sought after; an Infiniti Skyline would have bolstered the performance image of the brand. Quite simply, Infiniti would have had a consistent brand identity and a tiered lineup of sporty vehicles: G20, Skyline and Q45. The Skyline could have been offered as a coupe or sedan, well-specified, and like its big brother the Q45, bereft of wood trim and other traditional luxury ornamentation. Lexus hilariously referred to its ES250 as a “sport sedan” in promotional materials. The Skyline would have blown the doors off of it and ran circles around it, fortifying Infiniti’s brand identity as a high-tech, Japanese BMW.
Instead, they fumbled and futzed around during the 1990s with disappointing models like the M30. To be fair, the M30 was hardly a bad vehicle. It was well-equipped, comfortable to drive and reasonably well-priced. But when you launch a new premium brand, you have to put your best foot forward. The four-year-old Nissan Leopard wasn’t that foot.