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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Kelsey Mays
November 17, 2006
Ever since the Altima became a midsize sedan with an optional V-6, experts have wondered why anyone would pay thousands more for the equally powerful, slightly larger Maxima. Nissan says the Altima targets Toyota Camry shoppers, while the flagship Maxima takes aim at the Toyota Avalon and Chrysler 300 crowd. Given that the 2007 Maxima has several changes that bring it closer to these targets, I think that's a fair assessment.
How does the Maxima compare? It isn't quite as roomy as they are, it suffers from several design bungles and its side-impact crashworthiness could stand to improve — but on the whole, it's quite refined and engaging to drive. If you're looking for a larger car that's good for a few driving thrills, this one is worth considering.
This year marks the Maxima's first major update since the sixth-generation sedan bowed in early 2003. Changes include a fresh front end, an upgraded interior and several mechanical revisions that will appeal to those who value comfort over performance. Trim levels include the sporty SE and upscale SL. I drove a well-optioned Maxima SE. Exterior & Styling The Maxima's nose job includes reshaped headlights, a single-piece grille and a revised bumper with separate fog light portals. It gives the car a boxier face, though the rear remains as bulbous as ever. Several details — like the indented grille and slicked-back headlights — mimic those on Nissan's other cars, many of which have been redesigned this year.
Seventeen-inch alloy wheels come with P225/55R17 tires on the Maxima SL, while my SE test car had 18-inchers and P245/45R18 tires.
At just less than 195 inches from bumper to bumper, the Maxima is nearly 5 inches longer than Nissan's smaller Altima, but it isn't quite as big as its full-size competitors. Despite the outside disparities, its cabin and trunk volume are competitive in the segment.
Source: Manufacturer data *Excludes destination charge.
Ride & Handling Last year, the Maxima SE offered performance-oriented tuning, while the SL's riggings erred more on the side of comfort. This year, Nissan says both trim levels have SL-spec suspensions.
Those used to a cushy ride may still find the Maxima too harsh, but I think the majority of shoppers will be pleased. Even with its low-series 18-inch tires, my test car's standard four-wheel-independent suspension did a fine job smoothing out major ruts and potholes. Over prolonged stretches of rough asphalt — where softly suspended cars typically come undone — it remained reasonably planted.
The steering wheel feels evenly weighted and never artificial, like the steering in some full-size cars. Parking lot maneuvers can become burdensome, however, as it takes a lot of wheel turning to produce the desired effect. Indeed, the Maxima's 40-foot turning radius is among the worst in its class.
In faster corners, the chassis tends toward mild understeer and moderate body roll, and pavement grooves can quickly send the wheels skittering sideways — evidence that no matter what it used to be, today's Maxima is no sport sedan. Going & Stopping Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6 is standard. It makes 255 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 252 pounds-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. Due to new rating procedures, those numbers are slightly lower than 2006 figures, though actual output hasn't changed.
What has changed is the transmission. Nissan scrapped the Maxima's previous offerings — a five-speed automatic and a six-speed manual — for a continuously variable automatic transmission. The CVT helps the Maxima achieve slightly better highway gas mileage, and Nissan says it enhances performance, too.
At first, I was wary of this claim. Some CVTs take too long to adjust to driver demand, serving up lackluster acceleration as they scramble to deliver the engine's peak torque — hardly a recipe for strong performance. Fortunately, the Maxima exhibits very little of that. Credit the well-groomed V-6, which offers usable power from as low as 2,500 rpm all the way to the engine's 6,200-rpm redline. With this sort of flexibility, the CVT has minimal scrambling to do.
On the highway, passing response is more or less immediate, with virtually none of the delay it sometimes takes for conventional automatics to find a lower gear. The tachometer needle simply jumps to 3,500 rpm or higher, and off you go.
There are a couple of caveats. One is torque steer — the tendency in a powerful front-wheel-drive car to yank the steering wheel side to side during spirited acceleration. The Maxima has it in spades. It's apparent even on the highway, where quick lane changes combined with a healthy dose of gas can unleash a tugging sensation on the steering wheel.
The second issue is transmission performance at low speeds. In my test car, coasting to a stop induced repeated periods of CVT indecision. It often began engine braking, but then felt like it disengaged entirely into neutral. When I needed to accelerate again, it snapped to attention a few moments late. Nissan couldn't provide any answer for this phenomenon, so it may be an anomaly with my test car. If you test drive a Maxima, pay close attention to the transmission's behavior as you approach stop signs and red lights.
All Maximas have standard four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS. I found the pedal smooth and easy to modulate, and it delivered strong stopping power when needed. The Inside Tall drivers may find the Maxima cramped, as the standard power driver's seat offers limited travel. I'm 5 feet, 11 inches tall, and I had just a smidge of extra headroom with the seat cushion all the way down and most of the way back. Fortunately, the steering wheel tilts and telescopes, so drivers of all sizes can position themselves a safe distance away.
Thanks to the redesigned instrument gauges and center controls, the Maxima's cabin has an upscale, executive appeal. Materials in my test car were top notch, with well-cushioned seats and high-quality leather. The dashboard controls felt expensive, though the layout could be better. I frequently mistook the stereo's volume knob for a climate control knob — they're positioned inches from each other, and both have the same chrome finish. The navigation system could also use some work, as most functions rely on a hyper-sensitive joystick below the 7-inch screen.
Visibility is another problem. The low rear window significantly cuts the view in back, and the side mirrors do little to remedy things. Their tapered borders suggest they were designed for aerodynamics, not visibility, and I found myself wishing the car had clip-on mirror extensions.
There is adequate legroom in back, though it's not nearly as commodious as in some full-size cars. Those who enjoy a backseat snooze will appreciate the low backrest angle and rearward-sloping head restraints, though some competitors' rear seats slope lower still — not necessarily a good thing. Safety All Maximas come with standard active head restraints, which automatically extend forward during a rear-end collision to better protect occupants from whiplash. Also standard are side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. Four-wheel-disc brakes have ABS, and traction control is standard. An electronic stability system is optional for both trim levels.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the Maxima Good in frontal crashes but Marginal in side impacts. Despite the side airbags, IIHS said the Maxima did not offer adequate protection for the driver's midsection.
Head restraints come in all but the middle rear seat and offer ample height adjustment.
Latch child-seat anchors are included for both outboard positions in back. They're spaced several inches toward the center, which moves children farther away from potential impact zones. Top-tether anchors are clearly marked on the rear shelf above all three positions. Cargo The Maxima's trunk offers 15.5 cubic feet of cargo room, competitive with the Avalon and 300. Opting for the electronic stability system also adds a full-size spare tire, which reduces trunk space to 13.7 cubic feet. (The full-size spare replaces the standard spare, which is a smaller, temporary tire.) A standard 60/40-split, folding rear seat offers a smooth transition from the trunk floor to the seatback with no major shelf. An optional rear center console, which converts the Maxima to a four-passenger car, eliminates the folding seat. Features For about $28,000, the Maxima SE includes Infiniti's Intelligent Key system (see photos for more information), as well as a power driver's seat, dual-zone automatic climate control and an eight-speaker CD stereo. Nissan's SkyView roof is also standard; it's a narrow, fixed glass panel that traverses the length of the cabin. For $900, it can be replaced with a conventional moonroof. The $30,300 Maxima SL adds a Bose stereo, heated leather seats, a power passenger seat and xenon headlights. All of these are options on the SE. A fully loaded Maxima comes with such amenities as heated rear seats, power-folding outside mirrors and a heated steering wheel. It will set you back around $36,000. Maxima in the Market If the Maxima is truly intended to be a full-size contender, Nissan needs to make it larger. I suspect the next generation may come through on that. For now, the current car offers a high-quality — if somewhat flawed — cabin and engaging road manners. Car shoppers who want midsize performance should save some scratch and get the V-6 Altima. Those who prefer elegance and luxury should buy the Avalon. Somewhere in between, there's a group of buyers for whom the Maxima is just right.