Versus the competiton:
Take the sporty Altima sedan, stretch it a bit, give it its own special exterior styling, boost the power a bit, and fill it with premium amenities.
The result: Nissan’s flagship sedan, the Maxima, which appeared last year in its newest generation and continues this year with no major changes.
Not that it needed any changes, mind you. This is arguably the best sedan you can buy for under $30,000, although our test car, the uplevel SL version, rang up at $31,160 with options and freight.
The biggest surprise to me is that this car doesn’t sell as well as, say, the Toyota Avalon, which is essentially the equivalent vehicle in the Toyota fleet. Those of us who enjoy driving, as opposed to just riding, fully appreciate a car such as the Maxima, which is designed to be a true sport sedan, one that puts a smile on the driver’s face at every turn.
Nissan got a jump on Toyota by rolling out the redesigned Maxima more than a year ahead of the new Avalon, which went on sale in February and is just now arriving at dealerships in any significant numbers. You can see from the improvements that Toyota was targeting the Maxima with its remake of the Avalon — changes such as boosting horsepower to 280 from 220 in the previous model, and trying some more-exciting styling.
Frankly, I believe that the Maxima still wins the styling race even though the Avalon has the edge in horsepower. Torque ratings are a lot closer, though — 255 foot-pounds for the Maxima and 260 for the ’05 Avalon.
To create the Maxima, Nissan took the platform of its already best-in-class midsize Altima sedan and stretched it by eight inches, similar to what Toyota did with the Camry chassis to come up with the new Avalon.
And while Toyota was aiming for consumers with a median age of 59 for the Avalon and hoping to get some buyers younger than that interested in the car, Nissan is happy that the Maxima seems to be most popular with buyers in their late 30s to early 50s. The difference is that the Maxima has always been positioned as a premium sedan car for more-affluent younger consumers, whereas Toyota has always aimed the Avalon at those who might otherwise buy midsize (or larger) Buick sedans.
The Maxima, almost from the start, has been seen as a sort of “reward” vehicle for thirty-somethings who have done well and wanted a vehicle that showed their success without being flashy. The fact that older baby boomers might like it as well is just a bonus for Nissan, whose entire product lineup introduced in the past five years has pretty much turned to gold.
Of course, the Maxima does push into the realm of the midsize Infiniti G35 sedan as far as prices go, but there are significant differences between the two vehicles that keep them well-separated in the minds of savvy consumers. First, the G35 doesn’t have the interior space of the Maxima, which borders on being a full-size sedan. There is ample room for three adults in the rear of the Maxima, whereas the biggest complaint I hear from people who have checked out and passed on the G35 is that rear leg room is quite limited.
The other difference, of course, is that the Maxima (like the Altima) has front-wheel drive, while the sportier G35 comes with rear- or all-wheel drive, and is similar in its mechanical design to the Nissan 350Z sport coupe. The Maxima, then, is the preferred family car for those who would choose one of these two makes.
After my recent review of the Avalon, a reader wrote to tell me that he thought the Avalon was essentially a less-expensive Toyota version of the new Lexus GS 300, but that comparison is similar to trying to call the Maxima a cheaper version of the G35. The Avalon is a stretched version of the front-drive Camry, which makes it similar to the Lexus ES 330; the GS 300 is a rear-drive sport sedan in the vein of the G35 or Infiniti M35.
Maxima prices actually begin at $27,500 (plus $560 freight) for the SE model, which gives the consumer a very well-equipped premium sedan without having to add any extras.
In keeping with its position as a premium sedan, the base price includes a choice of six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission; the 265 horsepower V-6 engine; and a whole list of standard equipment that put this car at the top of the midsize, non-luxury sedan heap.
Included in the base price of the SE model are 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, automatic halogen headlights, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, fog lights, eight-way power driver’s seat, 60-40 split-folding rear bench seat (rear bucket seats are optional), AM/FM/cassette/compact-disc audio system with eight speakers, full analog gauges with digital clock and outside temperature reading, leather-wrapped shift knob, cruise control, power windows/mirrors/door locks (with remote), Homelink universal garage/gate opener, trip computer, center console with dual storage boxes, side-impact curtain air bags (front and rear), dual-zone automatic climate control, and remote fuel-door and trunk releases.
The SL model, with a base price of $29,750 (plus freight), tacks on heated leather bucket seats, a four-way power passenger seat, Bose audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer, color-keyed heated power outside mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, luxury suspension, xenon headlights, and upgraded tires.
With this latest generation, Nissan is building these cars in the United States rather than in Japan. They are built alongside the Altima, Frontier and Xterra in Smyrna, Tenn. Although the Maxima is built on the same chassis as the Altima, it is definitely more upscale and offers some premium features not available on the Altima, such as 18-inch wheels. Odd, though, that the uplevel SL models get 17-inch wheels, whereas the base model has the 18-inch.
The interior is designed to hold either four or five people, with the four-place version being billed as a four-door sports car. That’s a bit of a stretch, but the back seat is much more comfortable with two people in it than three — as it is in any car. With the optional rear bucket seats, there is a center console and a rear power sunshade.
Options included on our test car were traction control ($300), which is always something I can do without; a five-piece floor/trunk mat set ($150), probably a good buy; and a “driver preferred package” ($800), which added folding outside mirrors with memory, power driver’s seat with two-position memory and power lumbar adjustment, and a heated/power tilt/telescopic steering column with memory. (As for the traction control, Nissan says that it is now standard on all Maxima models as of November; that change is reflected in the base price of the SE, which began the 2005 model year with a base price of $27,100, but is now $400 more).
Other available options include stability control and full-size spare tire ($600 as a package); power glass sunroof ($900); Bose audio upgrade ($1,000 on SE, already included on SL); and a “sensory” package ($2,350) for the SE model, which adds the premium audio system, leather seats, four-way power passenger seat, heated front seats and mirrors, and a compass in the rearview mirror.
Also for the SE, there is a “driver preferred package” ($2,350) that includes the sensory package as well as a rear spoiler, xenon headlights, driver memory system (memory seat, steering wheel and outside mirrors), driver’s seat power lumbar support, heated steering wheel, and power entry/exit system for the driver’s seat.
A DVD-based GPS navigation system can be installed at the factory on either model for $2,000. Eighteen-inch chrome wheels are a $1,550 option on the SE model.
Each Maxima also comes with the Nissan advanced air-bag system, passenger seatbelt warning chime, an additional 12-volt power outlet, black-tone brake calipers, new titanium-tinted interior trim, chrome interior door handles and satellite radio availability.
EPA fuel-economy ratings are 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway with the automatic gearbox; the manual transmission raises the highway rating to 29 mpg. The tank holds 20 gallons of fuel and unleaded premium is recommended (but not required).
G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. You may contact him at (210) 250-3236; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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2005 Nissan Maxima
The package: Premium, midsize, four-door, four- or five-passenger, V-6 powered, front-drive sport sedan.
Highlights: Nissan’s flagship sedan was completely redesigned last year for its sixth generation, and of course this is the best one yet. This essentially is a stretched version of the popular Altima sedan, but with distinctive styling and more standard amenities. Power is impressive from the 265-horsepower V-6 engine.
Negatives: Can get a bit pricey, especially when compared with some entry level luxury sedans such as Nissan’s own Infiniti G35 that cost not much more.
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic or six-speed manual.
Power/torque: 265 horsepower/255 foot-pounds.
Length: 193.5 inches.
Curb weight: 3,485-3,493 pounds.
Trunk volume: 15.5 cubic feet.
Towing capacity: 1,000 pounds.
Fuel capacity/type: 20 gallons/unleaded premium.
EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city/28 highway (automatic); 20 city/29 highway (manual).
Major competitors: Volkswagen Passat GLX, Buick LaCrosse CXS, Honda Accord EX V-6, Toyota Avalon, Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum, Pontiac Grand Prix.
Base price: $27,500 plus $560 transportation (SE model).
Price as tested: $31,160, including freight and options (SL model).
On the Road rating: ***** (five stars out of five).
Prices shown are manufacturer’s suggested retail; actual selling price may vary according to manufacturer and/or dealer rebates, discounts and incentives, if any.