The engine's the thing in the Nissan Maxima - what turns a nice sedan into a sports sedan, what makes the Nissan flagship a strong contender against automobiles costing thousands more.

Displacing just three liters, the V-6 purrs smoothly at highway speeds or under normal acceleration. Or it will emit a satisfying snarl when pushed to release all 190 horses, feeling more like an exotic Italian automobile than a practical Japanese machine.

I found myself pushing it often to redline, enjoying the silky rush of power, without harshness or excessive noise. It was all too easy to merge aggressively into freeway traffic in third gear, shifting up into fourth and fifth after the Maxima is up to speed, way past slower traffic.

Yes, it has a five-speed stick shift, which is becoming something of a rarity in four-door sedans powered by V-6 engines and, overwhelmingly, automatics. Stick gives this midsize car the extra sporting edge, the kind of performance enhancement for which BMW buyers lay out the big bucks.

Of course, I'm going against the trend here, with a growing percentage of cars in every segment going automatic, if stick shift is offered at all.

But the Maxima, which used to call itself a Four Door Sports Car, or 4DSC, seems intent on attracting those of us who need a decent-size four-door to transport our families but still want something interesting to drive.

And that engine, which was upgraded and enhanced two years ago, takes Maxima a long way toward that goal. It even gets decent gas mileage.

On the road, the Maxima is stable and steady, though lacking the sharp handling edge of BMW, the solid highway manners of Mercedes-Benz, or the bump-absorbing sophistication of its upscale brother, Infiniti. There's a bit less aggressive cornering, a bit more looseness, a little more harshness, but considering the price differential, the Maxima can stand on its own merits.

Infiniti's I30 is built on the same platform as Maxima, though with a more luxury-oriented ride and interior. And certainly no five speed.

Maxima has been a consistent top seller for Nissan, creating a segment into which Toyota and Honda eventually grew and now compete in.

"It's been a real successful flagship for Nissan," said Greg Elliott, manager of Nissan's West Coast corporate communications. "It does have room and presence and great performance."

The Maxima tested here was the performance-tweaked SE model, with tighter suspension, speed-rated tires on 16-inch alloy rims, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and some cool, retro-inspired white-faced gauges with black numbers and red pointer.

Those gauges really evoke the feeling of a vintage race car, although they contrast jarringly with the otherwise mild interior. I like these gauges, but I'd be happier if Nissan designers were able to pick up some more retro touches on the dash to create a more tuned-in look.

As it is, the dash and interior are comfortable and funct ional, but not terribly interesting. Aside from those gauges, that is. Legroom and headroom are very good, with broad supportive seats. The big console in our test car was wobbly, but I don't know if they are all like that.

The beefier suspension helps nail down the Maxima's handling, though it could still use some shock-absorber upgrading. There's a bit too much body movement and bump rebound for a car with sporting aspirations.

The four-wheel disc brakes are a welcome addition, though anti-lock braking should be standard instead of optional.

The Maxima has always been something of a bargain, considering performance and standard features, and the latest SE seems like a lot of car for the money. The GXE is the base model, and starts at $21,500. The upper end GLE can go up in the top $20s, so a comparison with the I30 might be in order.

Maxima faces some new competitionwith some of the next generation of General Motor's midsize cars, but the Nissan has establi shed a ter ritory for itself that it seems unlikely to relinquish. For drivers with families, it's a good combination: sporty road manners, four doors and room for the kids, and pulled by a sweet, powerful V-6.

Plus, stick shift for those who still think sporty driving is a hands-on experience.

1997 Nissan Maxima

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel-drive. Base price: $23,299. Price as tested: $26,865. Engine: 3-liter V-6, 190 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 205 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 3,010 pounds. Length: 187.7 inches. Wheelbase: 106.3 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, optional anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. Highs: Great engine. Interior comfort. Decent price. Lows: Bland interior. Anti-lock brakes cost extra. Needs better shocks.