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2000 Infiniti I30

So, what's with this near-luxury segment, anyway? Will customers really pay thousands more for a Nissan, Honda or Toyota, just because it has an Infiniti, Acura or Lexus badge on it?

QUEBEC CITY — So, what's with this near-luxury segment, anyway? Will customers really pay thousands more for a Nissan, Honda or Toyota, just because it has an Infiniti, Acura or Lexus badge on it?

Even if those names were spat out of a marketing consultant's computer? Even if, unlike Audi, BMW or Mercedes Benz, they have absolutely no history or heritage associated with them?

Yes, apparently they will. Go figure.

The trick appears to be to offer enough difference, either in the car, the sales experience or both, to justify the price hit.

So while the car aficionado knows that a Lexus ES300 is a Camry dipped in gold, that an Acura 3.2TL is a stretched, steroid-injected Accord and that an Infiniti I30 is a thinly-disguised ,1.0 Maxima, the buyers either don't know, or they don't care. This is one of the fastest-growing segments in the industry.

The latest dancer on this stage is the all-new Infiniti I30.

As you can guess, it's based on the all-new Nissan Maxima.

And, of its closest competitors the 3.2TL and ES300 it is the least-changed from it's donor vehicle.

Nissan notes that while the I30's shares its wheelbase with Maxima, as is apparently the case with all the glass and the roof, the rest of the bodywork is unique. The I30 is handsome, but just try to find something here that you haven't seen before, something that surprises or delights you.

I guess you can't blame the designers; the last time Infiniti tried something original, the first Q45, it flopped.

Some days, it just doesn't pay to get up off the tatami mat.

Inside the I30, you'll find a handsome, spacious, well-equipped interior. But apart from the jewel-like analogue clock in the middle of the dash top, it will all look very familiar.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing; after all, BMW and Mercedes have signature interior features, and they do all right.

Nissan does maintain that the I30, along with the 2000 model year Q45, will be the first Infinitis in North America to use new whip-lash-reducing headrests for the front seats.

Similar to those introduced by Saab a couple of years ago (Volvo uses a different design) and adopted by other GM cars recently, the headrests move forward and upward in a rearend crash, cradling the head and neck to prevent rearward snap.

The front-wheel drive platform and suspension basics are also identical to Maxima. So it's MacPherson struts up front and Nissan's multilink beam axle at the rear.

Chassis tuning is unique to I30. The Touring gets Z-speed rated P225/50R17 tires (versus P25/55R16's on the base car) and more aggressive suspension settings.

The Touring also gets high-intensity discharge headlamps with smoked covers.

Nissan's 3.0 L V6 has garnered awards everywhere; no arguments from this chair it's a pretty nice motor, and even better in its most recent guise.

Eschewing the expensive and complex variable valve timing favoured by some competitors, Nissan is now using a variable intake manifold, which creates a longer intake air passage at low speeds, to create a resonance effect which boosts low-range torque, and a shorter passage at higher revs to maximize peak power.

The I30 version of the engine is distinguished from its Nissan counterpart by a less restrictive exhaust system. Its marginally better breathing allows the I30 to claim 227 hp, 5 more than its lesser sister.

This is largely an advertising advantage; peak torque is identical, at 217 lbft at 4000 rpm, so acceleration will be virtually identical.

Any way you slice it, though, this is 37 more ponies than the previous I30, from the same displacement. That, my friends, is progress.

Only a four-speed electronically-managed automatic transmission is available on the I30. Traction control and Nissan's exclusive viscous-coupled limited slip differential are both standard on all Canadian-spec I30s; in the U.S., they're available only on the Touring edition.

A couple of ride-and-drive routes around the ancient capital of la belle province may not have tested the I30 to its limits.

But if you have never visited l'Ile d'Orleans, in the middle of le fleuve St. Laurent, near Quebec City, you owe yourself. It's beautiful.

Its roads are mostly well-paved and low-speed, so opportunities to test how well the new suspension works were, likewise, limited.

The afternoon run north of the city and around Lac Beauport offered somewhat more challenging conditions. But one thing I was most interested in discovering how the revised rear suspension copes with high-speed bumps, something previous iterations of the multilink beam weren't very good at will have to wait for another time.

The cruising pace did provide ample opportunity to enjoy the spacious comfort of the I30, its mostly-good ergonomics (still too many pushbuttons, though) and smooth, quiet ride.

The V6 deserves all its laurels, offering strong performance, good low and midrange torque and a pleasant rumble as you lean on it a little.

The transmission isn't the smoothest-shifting in the world, and is sometimes reluctant to downshift.

Pricing was released earlier this week. The base car is $39,700, and the Touring edition $41,500. No options in either case, although you can get your dealer to install a trunklid spoiler if you really insist.

Even ignoring the additional power and other improvements in the car, and about $2000 worth of extra stuff compared to last year, these prices represent about a 4 per cent reduction and should also represent good value, except for two things.

First, Nissan's own Maxima. To my eyes, the I30 doesn't offer enough styling, equipment or technical advantages to be worth the extra cost.

Second, the Acura 3.2TL. The reigning Automobile Journalists Association of Canada Car of the Year offers similar performance, room and specifications to the I30, for $35,000.

Infiniti's marketing people say Acura isn't really a luxury brand, and that the 3.2TL isn't a direct competitor. But 8000 3.2TL owners, and me, would probably beg to differ.

Nonetheless, the previous-generation I30 made a good enough impression that happy owners will reup willingly, and probably convince some of their friends. Infiniti dealers provide award-winning service, so those who take the plunge will probably be happy with their cars.

All of which should be enough to allow Infiniti Canada to meet their 1500 unit sales target.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by Nissan Canada. Email:jbkenzie

@ interhop.net

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