28 December 2016

The Infiniti M30 was always an American-market cruiser

For being such an original thought, Infiniti leaned on parent and benefactor far too often at the beginning of its life. That’s a viable excuse for delivering the M30 to the world, in an era before luxury meant high performance and style.

Where the Q45 was svelte, ovular and curvy on the outside, the M30 espoused a floppy disk’s rectangular, forthright personality, particularly in an all-black exterior finish. You could contend that the original Infiniti lineup was intended to comprise a melange of shapes and profiles, and that the M30 was the foil to the Q45 and later J30

Like so many of the original Infiniti models, the M30 was, in fact, a warmed-over product of the Japanese domestic market, the Nissan Leopard. The two-door M30 coupe went on sale in 1989 and continued through one product lifecycle before being discontinued in the United States. The M30 convertible was a rare breed when it was new, and seeing one today is a rare sight, indeed, particularly if its top is intact and operational. The -30 in its name stood for its 3.0-liter V-6 engine, which routed 165 horsepower through a four-speed automatic transmission. Its performance was nothing to celebrate, then or now, but the M30 was never about going fast.

No, the M30 was a personal coupe in the American tradition, intended for relaxing, stress-free drives and making a subtle but cultured statement. A cursory look at its long hood, shortish rear deck, relatively long wheelbase, and airy passenger compartment offers a clue as to the M30’s reason for being. It’s the type of design found on the backs of school notebooks, with three distinct boxes. The M30’s designers resisted that urge to play with the M30’s proportions, resulting in a sedanlike form with undersized wheels and tires. It’s like the M30 is wearing a simple cocktail dress and little makeup, but its shoes are noticeably too small. (I happen to think that look is beautiful.)

I’ve wanted to drive an M30 since I first saw one slink by when I was growing up, and luckily, there was an 1100-mile example available at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tenn. It was nearing the middle of my day of testing at the museum when I had the chance to take out the M30, and my time with it was regrettably brief. Initial impressions: It’s amazing for what passed as a luxury product in the early Nineties, when lavishness meant refinement, not gadgets. The interior of the M30 mirrors the slim, wide exterior styling. The front doors feel huge, while they’re not even close to the un-shuttable doors of today’s coupes. In either of the front seats, you feel like you have plenty of room to move around, with a full-size back row. White, sans-serif type all around the cabin adds to the period feel.

To celebrate the underrated Infiniti design icon, I departed the Lane for a lesser-known Nashville attraction, the Parthenon: a near copy of the Greek edifice. Traffic was unusually heavy for a weekday afternoon in the tourist district, and plenty of folks were wondering why I was stopping to photograph such a plain-looking coupe. Somehow, its styling fails to transcend Japanese cars’ squared-off ‘90s flair, even as it remains a clean design. In fact, the M30’s plethora of right angles contrasted against the classically beautiful Parthenon—even if it is a replica.

As I departed the Parthenon, headed back to the Lane, which is located just outside of Music City’s bustling downtown zone, I switched on the turn signal and paused at the stop sign. The clicking sound of the M30’s indicator reverberated like the beat of a familiar ‘90s song. Traffic cleared on both sides. I turned the steering wheel gently to the left and stepped on the accelerator. The M30 hums, and never roars: It’s a period piece that reflects a very specific moment.

The M30 would only live for one generation, but the M itself became synonymous with comfort as the Q skewed larger and the incumbent G took the honors as the small, sporty model. Today, M30s are unusual cars for collectors, saying as much about owners’ tastes as they do the brand.

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