Though the Acura and Lexus possess design strong points, it is the Infiniti M35x that proves aesthetically superior to the GS 300 AWD and simpler to use than the Acura RL.
Americans wear automobiles as costume. What a car is, and what it looks like, amounts to a personality statement and success meter, regardless of whether or not it accurately reflects who you are or what you do. And the more money you spend, the more design matters. A luxury car’s appearance must convey this real or imagined sense of self more clearly than most vehicles. But luxury also is about simplicity, making life easier. How the interior works is as important as how the exterior looks in ensuring owner satisfaction. In this contest, Acura stumbles twice, while Infiniti finds the right recipe for success.
3rd Place – Acura RL
Sporting cab-forward styling in a long-hood, short-deck world, the 2005 Acura RL reminded one of our staff members of a decade-old Oldsmobile Aurora, but with the distinctive flared fenders sanded off. The RL looks nose heavy, and its huge headlights only serve to make the frontal acreage appear smaller. Couple these proportions with featureless slab sides, cheap-looking wheels that caused one editor to note that the RL looked like a guy wearing a suit with white tennis shoes, and an abbreviated decklid, and you’ve got an ungainly plain-Jane cruiser. Everybody liked the sexy twin exhaust outlets, though.
Inside, the Acura RL presents an artful, architectural design quite unlike its uninspired exterior. The basic forms of the dash and door panels flow, curve, and bend in an almost sensual manner. But this design is at the expense of ergonomics, because the navigation, stereo, and climate controls get crammed together on the tapered center panel where everything is clearly labeled yet hard to find and use. There is no tuning knob for the stereo, and the navigation system has no touch screen. Plus, the display screen is located way up top on the dash, forcing dual reference points when making what should be simple adjustments to audio and climate functions.
Everybody commented on how difficult it was to access the RL’s manual stereo and climate features through the navigation system. Gratefully, Acura’s navigation, climate, and stereo functions can be controlled using voice commands, so once you learn the RL’s language, life gets easier. Also, all secondary controls and switches are intuitively placed and clearly labeled. The sunroof control is even located overhead rather than on the lower left side of the dashboard, which was an Acura hallmark.
Visibility is excellent thanks to a terrific forward view, big side mirrors, and power retractable rear headrests that don’t block an ounce of the rear glass. Storage is decent inside the Acura RL, though more than one editor noted that the jewel cases for the DVD audio discs that came with our test car did not fit inside the center console storage bin. And finally, the glowing blue gauges with red pointers look terrific at night.
Shy, artsy types will love the Acura RL’s boring exterior and exciting interior, but we think most people want something more expressive on the outside and easier to use on the inside.
2nd Place – Lexus GS 300 AWD
Typically, few automakers can match Lexus, or its parent company Toyota, when it comes to functional design. Emotion, however, has not been part of the corporate styling mandate. The 2006 GS marks a turning point for this luxury automaker, which has changed its marketing tagline to “the passionate pursuit of perfection,” and introduced its distinctive L-Finesse design vocabulary with this new Lexus.
“Lexus now has sex appeal,” said one editor, while another called the GS 300 AWD “sporty and aggressive.” Our more cynical critic said that the roofline wasn’t much different from previous GS models, that the back end was too chubby, and when viewed from a front 3/4 angle, it looked like a hatchback.
Inside, we all agreed that the GS 300 AWD was a model of luxurious simplicity, though the combination of dark wood and a darker interior color was deemed dour. We also weren’t too thrilled with the funky little control pod that deploys out of the lower left dash and hides the controls for several secondary features from view. Our main problem with this design was that the fuel door release is stowed here, and it’s a function used too often to be tucked away in such a manner.
Though equipped with a navigation system that is bundled with stereo and climate controls, the GS 300 AWD’s touch screen and simple menu buttons didn’t frustrate anyone on staff, making this the first time in history that we haven’t minded accessing common functions through a display screen. Lexus thoughtfully provides hard buttons on the dash or steering wheel for the most commonly-used features of the stereo and climate control, and makes it easy to get to the proper menu on the touch screen. This design should serve as the benchmark for every luxury automaker on the market, in particular those headquartered in Germany. Making things even better is that the navigation system is extremely easy to program, is loaded with useful information and features, and the touch screen is sensitive but accurate. This is the best we’ve seen yet.
1st Place – Infiniti M35x
One idiot on our staff found himself wistful for the old M45, claiming that this new version of the M looks too much like every other car on the road. We seriously considered demoting him to the mail room. Or promoting him to his greatest level of incompetence. Take a look at this car, which despite somewhat tall and narrow dimensions looks like a larger version of the hot Infiniti G35. Handsome and possessed of more character than either the Acura or Lexus, the 2006 M35x handily won the exterior design competition. Just look at those 18-inch wheels, will ya?
Inside, the Infiniti proved aesthetically superior to the Lexus and simpler to use than the Acura, landing it in our top slot for interior design. Real wood trim splits the cabin into lighter colored top and darker colored bottom zones, in the case of our test car tan over taupe. The matte-finish wood glows, enhanced by gathered material in the door panels and metallic rings around the gauges. The M35x’s interior might not be as artful as the RL, but neither is it as impersonal as the business-like GS 300 AWD.
As much as we like the way the Infiniti M35x looks inside and out, we love the fact that the optional navigation system is completely separate from the stereo and climate controls. If Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz choose to ignore the brilliance of the Lexus’ bundled system, perhaps they’ll take a closer look at the Infiniti’s separated controls. As for the navigation system, it features a controller similar to the Audi MMI and BMW iDrive systems, easier to use but still frustrating. On a positive note, the main menus are accessed using buttons that glow translucently at night, making them extremely easy to find at all times, and there’s a “Back” button that works like the web browser on your home computer. Plus, Infiniti is wise to provide giant “Zoom In” and “Zoom Out” buttons to make it simple to gain perspective during long trips. Programming the thing, however, is not as easy as in the Lexus.
The Infiniti provides the best outward visibility of the group, thanks in part to the small rear quarter windows just forward of the relatively thin C-pillars. The side mirrors are huge, and the fender blisters on either side of the hood make it very easy to place the M35x’s front wheels. As for storage, the Infiniti is on par with the Acura and Lexus, but note that the optional rear DVD entertainment system eats up plenty of center console space. Interestingly, the M35 provides a slot to hold the key fob that controls the keyless ignition and locking system, which is both good and bad. It’s good because the fob doesn’t sit in the cupholder taking up space or in the door bin constantly sliding around. It’s bad because it’s easy to forget that the fob is tucked away in its dashboard cubbyhole.
Why can’t we just have a regular old key?