Don’t consider this a quiz as much as a good ol’ fashioned jog of the brain: Quickly now, what ever happened to the Nissan Maxima?
You remember the Maxima, right? It was the sedan signified by . . . (We’ll wait for the response.)
OK. Wasn’t it the one that had the unique . . . (Still waiting.)
To be fair, you couldn’t be blamed if you forgot about the Nissan Maxima, especially with the recent explosion of the Altima, its smaller cousin. Maxi-who? Maxi-what?
In the swirl of press surrounding the redesign of the Altima, it is understandable if you can’t put your finger on the Maxima’s whereabouts. The Altima did, after all, take home a rather memorable Car of the Year honor not long ago. Maxima? More like minimalist in the big picture of things.
The truth is, it’s easy to misplace something that suddenly seems overpriced, undersized and underwhelming – especially lined up next to the Altima. At least it was.
Redesigned and more upscale than ever before, the 2004 Maxima re-emerges as the car it used to be – one of the best combinations of performance, luxury and value in the midsize segment. It arrives with a roomier interior, lots of upscale options and a V-6 that purrs. It bounces back in its original role as Nissan’s “premier” car, second only to the Z in name recognition.
(So much for anonymity.)
Credit the cousin for the change. Now planted on the same underpinnings as the Altima – which is good and bad (more later) – the Maxima attempts to spice up what was once a little vanilla.
From a reworked exterior to a boost under the hood, there is a lot to like. It is significant again mainly because it distinguishes itself again. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. And for a model that looked on its way out, it’s a nice save for a company that has been making a few big ones of late.
With a lineup reduced to two trim levels – the SL and SE – there are only a couple of ways to order one: Sporty or luxury.
The SE, our one-week tester, is the sportier of the two versions, offering a firmer suspension, a metallic-trimmed interior and 18-inch wheels. The SL is all luxury, complete with wood trim, a 320-watt Bose audio system, a softer suspension, an eight-way power driver’s seat and (regrettably) only a four-speed automatic. An “elite” package will take things even higher in the option department, changing the three-seat setup into a two-seater with more room.
In either version the good news is about adding inches. The Maxima has improved itself this year by growing where it needed to most: the passenger compartment. For a while there, the Altima outgained its older relative. Now the Maxima’s caught up. That means the ’04 version has added 3 inches to the wheelbase, more room on length, height and in the trunk (15.5 total cubic feet).
What that really means is that you have a new option in the sedan sweepstakes. If you’re an Accord buyer, it’s an alternative – a costly one, but an alternative. When comparing the SL to the Accord EX with a 3-liter six-cylinder model, you will pay about $3,000 more for the Maxima than the Honda. But the Maxima is still less than an Infiniti G35 (its other cousin), the Toyota Avalon and the Volkswagen Passat.
And it still feels more fun than nearly all of the above.
The Maxima has long boasted one of the best V-6s in the industry and the new model carries on that tradition. The award-winning VQ-series DOHC, 24-valve, 3.5-liter V-6 is a burner. In the SE version it pushed us all over the road, in and out of turns and off the stoplight in a hurry. It’s 10 horses more than before (265 horsepower) and now 20 more than the V-6 Altima.
Rev it up in either the five-speed automatic or the six-speed manual (3.5 SE model), and it’s easy to find the torque, a plentiful blend of growl and bite that will still get you 20 mpg in the city and 28 on highway. Decent stuff.
Now if only the suspension would match.
The revised suspension is now independent. But while the SE promises to be firmer than the SL, much to our chagrin, it’s too much like the Altima. Steering feel is a little numb and although the suspension provides a comfortable ride, it’s almost too comfortable for a “sports” sedan. Body roll is also a little too much for this category. For the SL buyer, it might be just fine.
Inside and out, the cosmetic changes on the Maxima make it seem like a more grown-up, sporty version of the Altima. Styling has always been a winner, and there it doesn’t disappoint. With a wide, toothy grin up front and crouching, rounded lines to the back, the Maxima is a vast improvement over the old design. Distinct. Different. A little daring.
Interior space is now downright abundant with plenty of seating for five. Up front, the seats are a little short, making long trips a little tiresome, and headroom is a little tight. Nissan makes up for it with a standard Skyroof, a large fixed glass panel strip up top that makes things appear more roomy, if not a little odd. Seen from above, the Skyroof looks like a bandage placed over the center spine of the roof. The trouble is, it doesn’t open and it looks strange.
The Maxima’s cabin consists of quality materials with gauges that look like they were borrowed from the 350Z and a logical center stack that holds all audio and climate controls in a tightly organized manner underneath a large navigation screen.
Some nice touches: The SE offers the option of a heated steering wheel – great for the winter months. Power-folding side mirrors are also a plus.
Annoying things: With the same engine as the 350Z, the Maxima suffers from excessive torque steer, or the loss of control from excessive pulling out of the front wheels on a brisk takeoff.
On the safety side of things, the Maxima uses four-wheel-disc brakes and Electronic Brake Force Distribution, a system that makes sure you are applying enough force on the brakes, as well as brake assist to activate the anti-lock when it senses panic.
Standard features on all models include power locks/mirrors/seats/windows, dual-zone automatic climate control, remote keyless entry and a ton of air bags.
But don’t think all of this comes cheap. In what some critics say is a confusing price scheme, the Maxima arrives at less than $27,000 but gets up there in a hurry. Equip it with some of the options and packages and extras that were on our test model ($6,400 “Elite” package including heated rear seats, a DVD-based navigation system, leather seats and the premium sound) and you are into the mid-30s.
That starts to put the Maxima in big competition – Lexus ES300, BMW 3-Series. That may still be a leap.
At least, for a change, it’s something that’s worth a look.
2004 Nissan Maxima
High gear: Roomy, aggressive, sporty and stylish, the Maxima steps into the forefront for midsize sedans by combining the things that used to separate it from the pack.
Low gear: Steering feel and handling is a little numb, front seats could use a little more length and packages get pricey when you start adding on all the extras.
Vehicle type: Front-wheel-drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger midsize sedan.
Key competition: Honda Accord, Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Impala, Toyota Avalon, Volkswagen Passat
Base engine (SE): 265 horsepower, DOHC 24-valve 3.5-liter V-6
Torque (SE): 255 lbs-ft. @ 5,800 rpm
Safety equipment: Standard anti-lock brakes as well as front, side and head air bags; optional stability control; traction control not available.
Wheelbase: 106.9 inches
Length: 186.2 inches
MPG rating: 20 city/28 highway
Manufactured: Smyrna, Tenn.
Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; drivetrain is five years/60,000 miles; roadside assistance is three years/36,000 miles; and rust is five years/unlimited miles.
Base price: $26,950
Price as tested (SE model, including options, destination and delivery): $34,790