There were some pleasant surprises when J. D. Power and Associates’ dependability rankings came out late last summer. These measured how well models held up in three years of use. The rankings thus looked at the Car Class of 2004.
The biggest surprise to many: Buick tied for first place. That's a position occupied almost exclusively by Lexus for a decade and a half.
Shockingly, many GM and Ford products bested imported competitors in dependability. Now, the big remaining hurdle is to change the perception among many Americans that American cars are inferior. They won't do that with J. D. Power's other rankings, the initial quality awards and appeal awards. Lexus and Porsche nail the initial quality. Mercedes-Benz this year staged a quantum leap in quality. So did Kia.
What these rankings show us is that competitors don't stand pat, satisfied with present quality. Lexus’ slogan, "The Pursuit of Perfection," in fact, is another way of saying that "raising the bar" creates a moving target for Detroit.
I recently test drove two bars that have been raised: The Lexus IS250 sedan and Infiniti G35 Sport 6MT sedan. True to the idea that Lexus takes on Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti competes with BMW, the Lexus model was a paradigm of comfort and convenience. The Infiniti was a speedster.
For what I'd want in a car today, the Lexus emerged the winner. Were I younger, more desirous of intense acceleration and superb handling, I'm sure this Infiniti would be on my must-buy list.
Both are four-door models with a two-door shape, very streamlined and aerodynamic. The Lexus had a base price of $31,425 and the final sticker was $37,772. The Infiniti had a base price of $32,250 and ended at $35,300.
The Lexus had numerous convenience accessories, including a navigation system with a rear-view camera, 18-inch wheels, high-intensity headlights that turn with the front wheels, Bluetooth and voice control of the nav system, and ventilated seats that blew cool air onto my thighs and back as I drove.
The Infiniti had only a single "premium" option package that added a super sound system, a sunroof, a Bluetooth phone system and some other items. It did not have a navigation system or rear-view camera.
Under its hood, the Lexus IS250 had a 204-horsepower, 2.5-liter V6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that could be manually shifted by paddles on the steering wheel. The combination returned an EPA-estimated 24 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway.
In contrast, the powerful Infiniti had a 3.5-liter V6 that pumped out an impressive 306 horsepower. To the right of the driver is a six-speed manual gear shifter, with reverse selected by a difficult down-and-back press. Power goes through the rear wheels on both cars and the Infiniti would happily chirp the rear tires on the shift into second gear. Its power setup is good for 19 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway.
Both want premium unleaded gasoline.
Don't think the Lexus is a slacker, however, just because its engine is a liter smaller and a hundred-plus horsepower in arrears. For all driving conditions on public roads, the Lexus IS250 is sufficient. But, make no mistake; the Infiniti is considerably quicker.Lexus, of course, makes an IS350 with an engine to match the Infiniti. In many ways, these competitors are then comparable. Your choice might come down to how much you like a local dealer. Both cars and their parent manufacturers have great reputations for impressing owners and returning reliable service for years. Buy either with confidence and don't look back.
Both testers had one identical problem: difficulty of entry/exit. The Infiniti’s doors, both front and rear, open 90 degrees, but it’s the low seats that provide a challenge. Young people will have no problem. They'll drop in and slide down, much as they do in a Porsche or Corvette. Older folks will move slowly and struggle to exit, however. And women in skirts should be on their best behavior as they swing legs out to leave either car.
Both cars also had the "keyless" start-stop system. If a key fob is in the vicinity of the car, a driver simply presses an "on" button on the dash. The car starts. A would-be car thief can press all he wants and these cars won't start.
I'm not sure how far away the fob can be read, but I do know that my wife elected to stay in the Lexus while I made a quick purchase on Sunday. I left the engine running, air conditioning on. When I returned two minutes later, the car was off. As I walked away, the car had sensed the fob was no longer in the vicinity and turned off the engine off. I'm not sure my wife could even have lowered the one-touch up and down power windows without the fob or engine running. This conjures scary scenarios, doesn't it?
Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by email at [email protected]