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To Infiniti (and beyond)

Nissan is the comeback kid, revived after what many describe as a "near-death experience."

Led by Brazilian-born Carlos Ghosn, who joined the company in 1999, Nissan went through a round of layoffs, plant shutdowns and procurement cost cuts. Although Japanese workers are legendary for their team spirit, former Michelin executive Ghosn’s revival plan included persuading the disgruntled workforce to cooperate more fully. Nissan posted its first profit since 1996, making $2.6 billion in 2000.

Also in 2000, Nissan unveiled plans to build a $930-million light-truck plant in Mississippi. Facing tough competition from Toyota’s Sequoia SUV and Tundra pickup, Ghosn declared, "We have to increase our volume potential in the U.S."

On the ropes just two years ago, now Nissan is producing a full range of high-quality cars and trucks, including the long-awaited 350Z. I think that 3.5-liter coupe, which sports a 24-valve V-6 producing 287 horsepower, is a cunningly designed tribute to the gorgeous Audi TT. The new version of the Altima has won much praise, including some "Best of the Year" awards. Everyone likes the new high-end Q45, and I did, too. In 2003, the Murano, a combination SUV and sports car, debuts.

With all the hoopla over ultra-profitable SUVs, do rebounding companies like Nissan even care about building cars anymore? Sedans were once the flagships of Japanese automakers, which still care more about them than, say, GM does. There was a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal recently about the domestic auto scene in Japan, where nine companies compete for a market a fraction the size of the U.S. The result in a country with very high gas prices: lots of tiny cars we never see over here, few SUVs and frequent model changes.

All this leads to the Infiniti I35 I’m test driving. It’s proof not only that Nissan is rebounding, but that the company still makes an effort to build excellent cars. Like the 350Z, it sports a 3.5-liter V-6, producing 255 horsepower. The engine is connected to a smooth four-speed automatic, which can be manually shifted if desired. Fuel economy, at 26 mpg on the highway, is pretty good, but it’s too bad the car needs premium gas.

For a fairly large car, the I35 handles well, thanks to standard traction control and a taut suspension (which can be made even tauter with a $1,700 sport-tuning package, which includes 17-inch wheels, stability control and that all-important performance add-on: side-sill extensions).

The interior is quite classy, and highly reminiscent of the Q45 with its big leather seats, maple trim and "quality timepiece" in the center of the dash. Five people will be quite comfortable, even if the back-seat passengers are big guys. My little guys weren’t happy back there, but don’t blame the car: They were squabbling. The bottom line, in a single luxury trim, is about $33,000. There are plenty of other quality cars at that price, but this one’s a powerful contender.

My other recent ride was a Subaru Legacy sedan, with the standard five-speed and, as with all Subarus, four-wheel drive. Now, my wife drives a Legacy with a five-speed, and I’m pretty familiar with the breed, but try as I might I just could not pilot the 2002 with anything approaching good manners. I jerked off the line at every stop sign. No matter how subtly I maneuvered clutch and accelerator, I lurched down the road like a 16-year-old taking driving lessons.

A pity, because I liked the Legacy in every other way, even though I think the design is getting a bit stodgy. I hate to say it, but the automatic is the way to go with this one. By the way, only Audi offers another four-cylinder car with all-wheel drive.

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