Perceptions matter. Republican "communications strategist" Frank Luntz tells his party’s candidates not to use the phrase "global warming" because "climate change" sounds much less threatening and "more controllable."
But global warming is very real and very intractable, so the auto companies — masters of spin — are still fighting to keep their profits up in the face of scientific demands. To the growing anti-SUV chorus, General Motors’ Bob Lutz says it’s the bottom line that counts. Even though GM’s SUV sales fell 20 percent in February, he denies that the SUV’s image has been seriously wounded. "I believe the anti-SUV faction is trying to create the demise of the SUV by reporting its demise when in fact no such demise is taking place," he said.
GM is committing itself to producing a full range of fuel-efficient hybrids, and that’s clearly where the industry is going. The regulators are going there, too: Last week, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was ready to rescind its longstanding 2003 battery car mandates in favor of rules favoring hybrid technology. Given the electric car’s limited range (usually less than 100 miles) and its poor sales (Toyota sold only 1,200 electric RAV-4s), CARB’s move simply recognizes reality.
A British government report, also released last week, said the best global warming results would be realized by using hybrid cars with high-tech batteries and 42-volt starter/generators as a stopgap on the way to hydrogen car production around 2020.
All this planning for the day when internal combustion finally takes a tumble is certainly exciting, but meanwhile we’re stuck with business as usual. When I look at all the big-boat, gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks in the parking lot, it may as well be 1985.
Against all that blandness, the Infiniti G35 sports coupe certainly stands out, particularly in electric blue. What a pretty car, and quite a departure from the relatively staid sedan! It’s low, voluptuous and aerodynamic ("practically an airfoil," says the Dallas Observer), like one of those gorgeous show cars that never make it into showrooms.
The low stance is complemented by a low seating position, which maximizes headroom. Driving the G35 reminds me of the early Toyota MR2 and my old Volvo 1800S, both of which featured the "bathtub" approach. Think of it as the anti-SUV (you’re not driving "above" the traffic, but "beneath" it).
The car is as high-tech as it looks. The driver controls a six-speed manual transmission that works quite well, though it’s difficult to launch smoothly. The car is powered by a 260-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 that delivers plenty of grunt in this relatively small car. It makes wonderful growling noises. Expect decent 19/26 mpg fuel economy.
The G35’s natural road-hugging tendencies are enhanced by traction control and vehicle dynamic control, which uses sensors to control brake pressure and engine power. There’s also a very taut sport suspension.
Even if by some amazingly dunder-headed play you managed to roll it over, there’s the security of front and side airbags, plus side airbag curtains in the roof.
If there’s a problem, it’s inherent in the sport coupe design. Back seat passengers just aren’t treated all that well. Access isn’t great, and both head and legroom are a problem back there. The trunk is small but functional.
In the near-luxury category, the G35 is a comparative bargain at $29,100. Of course, if you don’t need to be quite this cool you can buy a Honda Civic hybrid, get $9,000 back, a $2,000 federal tax credit and honorary status as a global warming hero (excuse me, "climate change agent").