Nissan Motor Co. is behaving like a typical C student. It exhibits flashes of brilliance, as evidenced by its excellent 2000 Maxima sedan and its exceptional Xterra sport-utility vehicle. Then it comes out with a "near luxury" car, the 2000 Infiniti I30, that shows it hasn't done its homework--or, worse, that hints it doesn't care.

Do not be confused by the Infiniti badge. Infiniti is Nissan's luxury marketing division. It doesn't actually develop, design or assemble cars. The I30 is assembled by Nissan at a plant in Oppama, Japan.

And do not mistake this for criticism of the new Infiniti I30's quality. The car scores high marks in construction integrity and road performance.

The problem is that there is no reason to buy the I30 over the equally well done, less expensive 2000 Maxima.

This is a case of shared parts, but not in the manner of the 2000 Lincoln LS and the 2000 Jaguar S-type. Those two cars share the same platform but look and feel different. It's hard to tell they are close relatives.

The I30/Maxima, on the other hand, is a case of shared parts done poorly--in terms of feel, aura and differentiation.

Put another way, it doesn't feel good to be seen in a luxed-up I30 and have someone ask, "Hey, that's the new Maxima?" I mean, where's the psychic value in that?

That didn't happen in the Lincoln LS and the Jaguar S-type. Why? The developers of those cars clearly understood that they were dealing with different audiences. They radically altered exterior sheet metal, used distinctively different interiors and tweaked the mechanicals enough to change ride and handling. Even more, they gave those cars discernibly different spirits.

But other than the Infiniti badge, some uninspired rebending of exterior sheet metal, a slightly more powerful engine, and that darling, Tiffany-type clock in the center of the dashboard, there is little that positively sets the new I30 apart from the 2000 Maxima (which definitely has a prettier rear end than the I30).

The I30 has a longer body--193.7 inches compared with 190.5 inches for the 2000 Maxima. But both bodies sit atop the same 108.3-inch wheelbase. The I30 has standard 16-inch wheels and tires, compared with a standard 15-inch set for the 2000 Maxima. But both 16- and 17-inch tire-and-wheel sets are available for the Maxima, just as they are available for the I30.

The I30 comes with a 227-horsepower, 24-valve V-6. The Maxima gets a 222-horsepower, 24-valve V-6. I can't see how five more horsepower makes much difference.

You get a choice of a five-speed manual or an electronically controlled four-speed automatic with the new Maxima. Infiniti believes that the automatic is all the choice you need for the I30. The suspensions are practically the same, and so is almost everything else--except the attitude. And here the advantage goes to the 2000 Maxima.

The Maxima knows what it is--an exceptionally well-done family sedan--and it is proud of it. The new I30 is a wanna-be that hasn't put in the work necessary to be better.

Nuts & Bolts

2000 Infiniti I30

Complaints: Enough said.

Praise: Excellent build quality and excellent overall highway performance, same as the new Maxima.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The I30 gets aces in all three categories, same as the new Maxima. If you can forget that, theoretically, it is supposed to be better than the new Maxima, you can enjoy it, assuming you also forget the difference in price.

Head-turning quotient: "Hey, is that the new Maxima?"

Engines: The I30 is equipped with a 3-liter, aluminum-alloy-block, double-overhead-cam 24-valve V-6 designed to produce 227 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 217 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. The 2000 Maxima comes with a virtually identical engine that produces 222 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and yields exactly the same amount of torque.

Brakes: The I30 gets standard power-assisted vented front discs and solid rear discs with four-wheel antilock backup. The Maxima gets a comparable brake package, with the key difference being slightly smaller rear discs.

Capacities: Both cars seat five people. Both have 18.5-gallon fuel tanks that must be filled with premium unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: The I30 gets about 24 miles per gallon city/highway, as does the Maxima.

Safety: Side-impact air bags are standard on the I30; they're optional on the Maxima.

Price: According to Intellichoice's latest available numbers, the tested 2000 Infiniti I30t (touring) has a base list price of $31,540 and a base dealer invoice of $27,821. Add $525 in destination charges and average taxes and fees of $1,663 for a total price of $33,728. The comparable 2000 Maxima GLE has a base list price of $26,249 and a base dealer invoice of $23,590. Add $520 destination charge and average taxes and fees of $1,409 for a total price of $28,178.

Purse-strings note: For $5,550 more, I want some additional funk, some attitude, something really cool to justify the extra bucks. The I30 doesn't give it.