Dream car

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In 1969 I had my first job delivering Toyota Corollas for a Dodge dealership that had taken on this novel Japanese compact. The owner, who drove a souped-up orange Charger with a vinyl roof, used the scrappy little cars as novelty items to get his "real" Chrysler customers in the door. Who’d have thought that, in 30 years, Toyota would be the prestige marque?

The upscaling of the Japanese auto market, via the Infiniti, Acura and Lexus, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nissan, for instance, didn’t study the luxury niche until 1985, when it formed a task force. The Infiniti division was green-lighted the next year, and the first car, the Q45, started development. Remember the Q’s launch, which featured TV commercials that talked about rocks, trees and water — but said nothing about the car? Scratch one advertising agency.

The Q45 and M30 were launched in late 1989 as 1990 models. Executives at traditional luxury marques like Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac were complacent, but the grins soon faded as all of the newcomers from Honda, Nissan and Toyota began to make serious inroads. J.D. Power was praising the Infiniti’s customer satisfaction rating by 1991, and Road and Track was writing paeans to its performance. By 1994, Infiniti had sold 200,000 cars, and it would surpass 300,000 by 1996.

Infiniti is now an established brand name, and the Nissan connection is fading for most people. But the sleek and very sophisticated Infiniti G35 I’m driving this week has some truly humble origins. Its venerable ancestor is the non-U.S. four-cylinder (and all of 60 horsepower!) Prince Skyline ALSI-1 series of 1957-58, produced in sedan and station-wagon form. That, and the befinned second series of ’58-’63, resembled mid-’50s Hudsons in two-toned awfulness.

Most of the Skylines were fairly hideous until the fifth series of 1977-81, which at least had some styling — and a turbo version. In the 1990s there were some very potent Skylines. The G35 is actually the first Skyline to be imported into the U.S., and it makes its debut as an Infiniti. A sports coupe version is part of the package, too.

The G35 is the entry-level successor to the G20, which came to the U.S. in two models starting in 1991. It’s a much more impressive car, featuring not only high performance but practically every luxury extra as standard equipment.

Add 200 horsepower to the ALSI-1’s 60 and you get the 260 hp of the $27,100 G35, which is powered by a 3.5-liter (hence the name) V-6. A five-speed automatic with self-shifter is standard, and a six-speed manual is also offered. You’d think it was a Volvo: Safety gear includes a full complement of airbags, antilock brakes, traction control and active front headrests. I tested the upmarket sports leather package ($28,950), which adds 17-inch wheels, leather seats and a power driver’s seat. A navigation system and sports suspension are also available.

The G35 is a superb road car — smooth, comfortable, powerful and quiet. Night rides become adventures, with the bright high-intensity discharge headlights (a big theft target, by the way) pointing the way. Infiniti is going after BMW territory here, and I’d be worried in Stuttgart, especially since the new car is relatively affordable.

One small caveat is the brakes, which are superb but very sensitive. Perhaps I’m spoiled by the anchors in the Audi A6, which are probably the best I’ve ever encountered. The G35 is being advertised as a return to the bold "dream" cars of the 1950s, and it is a bold styling statement, but it’s what’s inside that counts. And the G35 delivers.