For its sixth generation in the U.S. marketplace, Nissan's front-wheel-drive flagship gets a stronger VQ engine and a new Skyview roof that features a narrow glass panel running lengthwise between the front and rear seats. A new Elite Package includes a fixed, full center console that allows four-passenger seating, with buckets in each position rather than the traditional rear bench seat.
"The Maxima has always had the power and performance that has earned it a reputation as a true four-door sports car," said Bill Kirrane, vice president and general manager of Nissan Division. "Now it also looks the part." As Chief Product Specialist John Yukawa put it, the Maxima is a "premium four-door sports car [that has been] enhanced with the soul of the Z." He was referring to the automaker's recently introduced 350Z coupe.
For the first time, the Maxima is being manufactured in the United States. Sales begin in March 2003. Maximas will be offered in performance-oriented 3.5 SE and luxury-focused 3.5 SL editions.
Stylists sought to combine performance and luxury cues by adapting several elements from the 350Z sports car and creating what Nissan calls a chiseled, muscular shape, especially at the rear quarter panels. Distinctive C-pillars that extend beyond the rear windshield in a "flying buttress" configuration form a coupelike silhouette. A high rear deck promises easy accessibility to the trunk. The new Maxima presents a notably hunkered-down profile, especially in the rear half.
All Maximas get the new Skyview roof, which promises an open environment for front and rear passengers while maintaining a solid roof structure. A traditional-type front sunroof is optional.
Boldly sculpted fender openings add to the sporty nature of the new Maxima. Sculpted combination headlight clusters can be equipped with optional xenon bulbs (standard on the 3.5 SL). Six-spoke alloy wheels hold 18-inch tires on the 3.5 SE, while the 3.5 SL gets 17-inch tires.
The 2004 Maxima's wheelbase has grown from 108.3 to 111.2 inches, and it is 1.4 inches wider than its predecessor. Two fully independent suspensions are available: sport/performance-tuned for the 3.5 SE and luxury-tuned for a supple ride in the 3.5 SL.
Seating five people in standard form, the Maxima can be fitted with an Elite Package that includes twin bucket seats and a console in back, rather than the usual three-place bench. The package also includes heated rear seats and a powered rear sunshade.
According to Nissan, all major interior dimensions have increased, and the driver faces a three-spoke steering wheel. Suedelike door panels extend into the cowl. The instrument cluster contains three hoodless meters with antireflective lenses. Trunk space has grown slightly to 15.5 cubic feet.
An eight-speaker 320-watt Bose premium stereo with an in-dash six-CD player and either XM or Sirius Satellite Radio capability is standard in the 3.5 SL sedan. A DVD-based navigation system is optional for both models.
Under the Hood
Nissan's 3.5-liter VQ dual-overhead-cam, 24-valve V-6 engine produces 265 horsepower and 255 pounds-feet of torque. That engine in the 3.5 SL drives a five-speed-automatic transmission. A five-speed automatic is standard in the 3.5 SE sedan, and a close-ratio six-speed-manual gearbox is optional.
Standard features include four-channel all-disc antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain-type airbags. The front seats have active head restraints. Vehicle Dynamic Control with traction control is optional on models equipped with an automatic transmission.
Even though the Maxima delivers more road noise than expected, it's otherwise a top-notch highway cruiser. Ride quality in the SE is excellent, though hardly gentle. Riders will feel significant bumps, but that's a small price to pay for such sporty handling and precise response. Surprisingly, the Maxima does approach sports-car sensations and remains impressively flat through curves.
Expect plenty of energy from the refined V-6, which cruises comfortably and pulls avidly whenever called upon. The five-speed-automatic transmission in an SE performs with extra-smooth gear changes and prompt reactions, and the SE's ride is stable and beautifully controlled, with little harshness. The optional six-speed-manual gearbox in an SE is exceptionally smooth; it couples with a clutch that permits gentle takeoffs yet is set up for sporty shifting. Well-cushioned seats are supportive and driver oriented, but not confining. Over-the-shoulder visibility is better than expected. The Skyview Roof is most appealing to rear occupants, but not everyone is likely to favor it over a conventional sunroof.