When Nissan introduced the redesigned Maxima to the media, it took pains to emphasize the sedan’s back-to-basics approach: It’s smaller, nimbler and it’s intended to be nothing less than the best-performing front-wheel-drive sedan on the road.
Whether or not the Maxima achieves that is debatable. Absent the Sport Package, the car performs deftly but never tempts you to take the long way to work. The sport-tuned version goes a long way toward fixing this, but given Nissan’s target audience for the Maxima — middle-aged men — I suspect ride and cabin quality will matter far more. Nissan scores on both counts; this car feels upstream of the similarly sized Altima. Think of it as a credible alternative to a $40,000 luxury car rather than a conventional full-size sedan, and I suspect you and your bank account will find plenty to like.
This redesign marks the Maxima’s seventh generation; I spent a very busy — and very humid — day in North Carolina driving a number of trim levels.
New Maximas hit showrooms in late June. Nissan hasn’t announced pricing yet, but says it will be close to the 2008 model, which ranges roughly from $28,000 to $35,000.
The Maxima uses Nissan’s popular 3.5-liter V-6, groomed here for a not-too-shabby 290 horsepower. It moves the car easily, with fairly seamless torque from a stop to freeway speeds, and it should prove exciting enough for most drivers. Passing power is strong, and under hard acceleration the engine has a high-pitched whine that recalls that of the 350Z. Most impressive is the near-absence of torque steer, which is possible thanks to some very clever chassis tuning — so feel free to mash the accelerator from a standstill, even going into a turn.
Much of the performance story is tied to the continuously variable automatic transmission, which is the only transmission available this year. (Nissan offered a stick shift in the previous Maxima’s earlier years, but said just 2 percent of buyers chose it.) CVTs are supposed to continuously adjust among possible gear ratios for the best mix of efficiency and performance. The Maxima’s is one of the more responsive examples of this type of transmission. It moves from a fuel-sipping 1,800 rpm to an acceleration-friendly 3,500 rpm or higher with a tap on the gas, and it suffers none of the low-speed hiccups a conventional automatic might.
CVTs fall short, at least in perception, under hard acceleration, where the tachometer needle wanders its upper limits with droning uncertainty. My journalist co-driver and I concluded that this is probably why CVTs have made limited inroads in the luxury segment.
The uncertainty may be purely sensory — you’re accelerating swiftly the whole while — and it rarely bothers me in cars or SUVs where performance is not the emphasis. The Nissan Rogue is one such example. The Maxima is not. Its hard-nosed character encourages the sort of driving a responsive five- or six-speed automatic might complement, and in such situations the CVT inspires little confidence. You can shift it in manual mode — there are six fixed ratios that simulate gears, shifted either via the gearshift’s manual gate or the optional steering-wheel paddle shifters — but doing so makes the car slower than it would be if you just left it in Drive and stood on the gas.
Nissan attempted to address this with Drive-Sport mode. Rather than pick between the manual mode’s six ratios, Drive-Sport chooses and holds any of the infinite possibilities, moving from one to the next to simulate upshifting and downshifting. As such, it’s supposed to allow you to nail the gas coming out of a turn, with the progressive rpm buildup of a well-geared automatic. It sort of works, holding the line better than if you left the gearshift in Drive, but it still fudges rpm a bit as it tries to find its footing. As with all automatic transmission Sport modes, fuel economy is sure to suffer.
The standard four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are sure-footed and linear, and the drivetrain yields gas mileage of 19/26 mpg city/highway — 1 highway mpg better than the 2008 Maxima managed. Nissan says premium fuel is required. Most luxury cars recommend or require premium, but many non-luxury full-sizers do not. Nissan says a diesel Maxima will arrive next year with projected mileage improvements of 20 percent to 30 percent. (Note that, as of this writing, the average national price of diesel fuel is $4.70 per gallon, which is 10 percent more than premium gas.)
Among six-cylinder sedans that cost around $30,000, here’s how mileage compares:
| Gas Mileage Compared
| Honda Accord 3.5L
| Toyota Camry 3.5L
| Toyota Avalon 3.5L
| BMW 328i 3.0L
| Premium (required)
| Lexus ES 350 3.5L
| Premium (recommended)
| Nissan Altima 3.5L
| Premium (recommended)
| Nissan Maxima 3.5L
| Premium (required)
| Lincoln MKZ 3.5L
| Cadillac CTS 3.6L
| Acura TL 3.2L
| Premium (recommended)
| Volkswagen Passat 3.6L
| Premium (recommended)
| Chrysler 300 3.5L
| Midgrade (recommended)
| Infiniti G35 3.5L
| Premium (recommended)
| Buick Lucerne 3.8L
Augmenting the Maxima’s four-wheel-independent suspension is Nissan’s new Twin Orifice Power Steering system, which varies power assist with an emphasis toward quicker response at higher speeds. I initially thought TOPS was, well, tops: It allows one-finger steering at low speeds but firms things up to a satisfying, weighty feel on curvy roads, and steering feedback is surprisingly good. After a few hours, however, I started to get annoyed by the suddenness of the transitions. The steering feels too buoyant around town, unwinding after turns with an over-assisted, artificial feel. At 20 or 30 mph it’s downright wobbly on-center, becoming more precise — and rapidly so — only when you hit faster speeds. I’ve driven plenty of variable-assist steering systems, as most cars employ them these days, and the Maxima’s is a bit bipolar for my taste.
Not so if you add the 3.5 SV trim level’s optional Sport Package. Its steering setup is identical, but a number of other factors, from lower-profile 19-inch tires to a sport-tuned suspension, give the wheel a weightier feel and better turn-in precision at moderate speeds. The transition from more to less power assist feels altogether smoother, and the suspension cuts most of the non-Sport model’s acceleration squat and body roll — something especially prevalent with the available dual-pane panoramic moonroof, which adds weight where you least want it. (Appropriately, the Sport Package precludes that option.)
Often a sport-tuned suspension returns choppy ride quality, as it does in the Altima. The Maxima feels significantly more refined — at highway speeds the cabin remained surprisingly quiet, even as trucks barreled by in the next lane. The suspension soaks up bumps with little rebound; sport-tuned models yield rougher responses, but the car never feels downright brittle, like, say, an Acura TL Type-S.
A common criticism of the outgoing Maxima was how close it was to the Altima — to wit, you’d pay thousands more for a very similar car. The redesigned ’09 should put some of those critiques to rest. Its aggressive styling allows it to look like a Nissan, but without the previous model’s ballooned-Altima look. The L-shaped headlights and crouched-forward grille will generate strong reactions. Mine are less than favorable, but risky styling produces loyalists in a way safer approaches don’t. Perhaps the only major Altima similarity comes in the tail, which drops off at a similar angle; I think the Altima’s tail finishes things nicely, so I won’t argue with more of a good thing.
If you need justification for the Maxima’s $4,000-plus premium over a V-6 Altima, the cabin ought to suffice. Dashboard quality rivals a Volkswagen Passat or Lexus ES, with gap-free panel fits around the glove compartment, center controls and steering wheel. The doors have wide armrests and softer materials, and the center controls feel luxury-spec.
Equally luxurious are the Maxima’s options, many of which aren’t available on an Altima. Among them are power controls for the tilt/telescoping steering wheel, a power rear sunshade, tri-zone climate control and a heated and cooled driver’s seat. The optional navigation system uses Infiniti’s excellent setup, though models without navigation have an information display with blocky red letters on a black background. It’s probably the cabin’s low point.
Base models come with cloth seats. Nissan expects about 90 percent of Maximas to have leather, though, which came in all the press cars I drove. The front seats have ample bolsters for ambling along a winding road, if not sharper corners at higher speeds, and their soft inserts provide good long-haul comfort. (Not so with the rock-hard head restraints, which bothered me when I was sitting shotgun.) There’s an optional premium-leather upgrade, but my Butt-O-Tronic meter couldn’t tell a substantial difference between that and the regular stuff. An eight-way power driver’s seat is standard, and its wide range of adjustments leave enough legroom to accommodate an NBA player.
The front seatbacks are sculpted to enhance rear legroom. Even so, it’s adequate but not generous. The same is true for headroom. Full-size cars like the Avalon and Chrysler 300 have larger cabins and trunks — the Maxima’s measures just 14.2 cubic feet — so if you frequent the golf course with adults and their clubs in tow, this is probably not the best choice.
| Roominess Compared
| Toyota Avalon
| Chrysler 300
| Honda Accord
| Nissan Altima
| Toyota Camry
| Lincoln MKZ
| Cadillac CTS
| Acura TL
| Infiniti G35
| Nissan Maxima
| Lexus ES 350
| Volkswagen Passat
| BMW 328i
As of this writing, the new Maxima has not yet been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include front and side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows and active head restraints. Antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are also standard.
Nissan expects just 10 percent of customers to get the base Maxima 3.5 S, so if you’re looking for a cloth interior, it might be hard to come by. Standard features include dual-zone automatic climate control, power front seats, Nissan’s Intelligent Key access system, a moonroof and an eight-speaker, six-CD stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack.
The automaker expects most consumers to get the 3.5 SV, which adds leather, nine-speaker Bose audio, fog lights and more. The Sport and Premium packages, which come only on the 3.5 SV, are mutually exclusive. The Sport Package adds 19-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and a rear spoiler, among other things; the Premium Package adds rear climate control, the dual-panel moonroof and upgraded leather. Both include heated seats, paddle shifters and a heated power-tilt/telescope steering wheel. A Technology Package can be added separately; it includes a navigation system but replaces the six-CD in-dash changer with a single-CD slot.
Forget the Altima comparisons. The Maxima isn’t appreciably bigger, but it is more upscale — enough so that the key comparison should be between the Maxima and an entry-level luxury car. Don’t mistake that to mean it’s a value winner, though. If you’re serious about value, a Ford Taurus or Chevy Impala offers much more space for the money. What the Maxima does offer is luxury for the money — in features and quality — so if you can endure a dealership experience more along the lines of your teenage neighbor and his Sentra than your brother-in-law and his Lexus, this car could be an appealing choice.