Infiniti released the original I30 in 1996 as a replacement for their aging J30 sedan, which was a rear-wheel drive car. The I30 was notably sportier than the J had been, and sported a more aggressive look than the J, although it was never considered a true sports-sedan. Although the overseas Nissan Primera based G20 was technically Infiniti's least expensive model, the I30 was often considered to be the company's entry-level luxury car (at least briefly), whereas the G20 really did not have any direct competitors. Infiniti often claimed that the car was aimed at buyers who would otherwise be considering the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5 Series and Saab 9-5.
Infiniti made several revisions to the I30 throughout the mid and late 1990s, including a fairly significant styling update for 1998, which included improvements to the Bose audio system and the addition of side impact airbags. The Touring model included more aggressive suspension tuning as well as a spoiler and BBS wheels, and a small percentage of first-generation I30s had 5-speed manual transmissions, many with VLSD.
The I30 was redesigned for 2000 along with the Maxima. Engine power was up to 227hp (169kW) but the manual transmission was no longer offered.
In late 2001 the model got its most significant host of upgrades, including minor revisions to the interior, new optional equipment, larger brakes, a re-tuned suspension system, and standard stability control. The car was renamed I35 to reflect an engine-displacement increase from 3.0 to 3.5L. Nissan's VQ35DE V6 produced 255hp (190kW). Styling was also updated.
Infiniti wanted to convince buyers that the new suspension tuning, enlarged brakes, stability control and 255 horsepower engine had transformed the I into more of a sports sedan and less of sedate entry-level model, but was largely unsuccessful. The model was only available with a 4-speed automatic transmission and front wheel drive, meaning that the ES300 and Acura's pre-existing second generation 3.2TL remained its closest competitors, with models like the BMW 5-Series remaining out of its league.