With Nissan, it`s all or nothing. Not one new model bearing the Nissan name has arrived in showrooms in the last two years, and then the Japanese automaker springs four entries on themarket for 1989. The 240SX, the Axxess
front-wheel-drive/four-wheel-drive mini-van, arestyled 300ZX and a larger Maxima with new sheet metal will debut for 1989. The 240SX was a pleasant departure from the 200SX itreplaced. The Maxima sedan we test drove, Nissan`s top-of-the-line model
forthe next 12 months, is even more satisfying. Maxima gets top billing until next fall, which is the debut of Infiniti,Nissan`s full-size, V-8 luxury model that will compete with the best thedomestics and Europeans have to offer in the $35,000
range. The Maxima we test drove is somewhat a hybrid in that Nissan boasts it``offers a combination of European styling and handling, Japaneseinnovation and quality, and American comfort, convenience and practicality.`` Japanese car with
European styling? Perhaps that`s what`s meant byglasnost? Maxima was designed for the U.S. market this time. It`s longer and wider, though about 20 pounds lighter, than its predecessor. It`s built on a 104.3-inch wheelbase and is 187.6 inches long,
which is up from a 100.4-inchwheelbase and 181.5-inch length for 1988. Width was expanded to 69.3 inches from 66.5 inches, a major concession to U.S. tastes. Maxima is powered by the 3-liter, V-6, fuel-injected engine offered inthe 300ZX,
which is why Nissan favors calling it a four-door sports sedanrather than a luxury sedan. But, four-door luxury sports sedan is moreappropriate. For 1989 there are two versions, the sporty SE and luxury GXE. We droveboth. Clean, rounded aero
styling with color-keyed wraparound bumpers, color-keyed protective bodyside molding and a slight rear-to-front slope combine to leave an impression of greater size and length than you`ve come to expect in aMaxima. The SE adds a deck lid spoiler in back
and fog lamps up front. First thing that comes to mind when slipping behind the wheel of theMaxima GXE, offered with automatic only, is Audi, because Maxima has a shiftlock mechanism that prevents moving the car into any gear until you depressthe
brake pedal. The changes in interior dimension from 1988 are noticeable. Room isabundant front and rear. Japanese cars sold in the U.S. for too long haveskimped on width. That`s because there`s a tax on cars based on width in thehome country,
making Japanese car width taxing for U.S. motorists until now.Good job by Nissan. A few weeks ago (Autos, Oct. 9) we noted a flaw in the rear seat designin the 1989 Cadillac DeVille and Fleetwood in which the high-standingheadrests rob some rear
vision. In the Maxima the rear seat head restsprotrude out from the seat, not up from it. Comfort without blocking thedriver`s rear view. Another nice touch. Trunk space wasn`t sacrificed to i
ncrease passenger compartment room.There`s massive cargo capacity for groceries, luggage or a couple sets of golfclubs. As for performance, the GXE has automatic and the SE we drove standard 5- speed manual. Automatic is about an $800 option in the
SE. The 3-liter V-6 is peppy in both, but you`ll encounter some noise at initial acceleration withthe automatic in the GXE that you won`t with the smooth-shifting 5-speed inthe livelier SE. Still, the 5-speed doesn`t fit the Maxima`s luxury image.
And you have to wonder how much call there`ll be in the used-car market for a 5-speed Maximaat trade-in. Maybe in California, but not in the Midwest. The ride and handling in the GXE and SE are above average, but thedifferences are noticeable
between the two. The GXE comes with a level 1suspension, the SE with level 2. Level 2 in the SE means tigher corners and turns with less body sway ormovement. Level 1 in the GXE is softer, level 2 in the SE firmer, but wi
thout being harsh. The SE is more sure footed. A sonar suspension system is optionalon the SE that adjusts to road surfaces for soft or firm ride. Level 2 was so good in the SE we drove, we can only wonder how much better the sonar wouldbe.
Performance is one thing, controlling the power another. The power discbrakes in the SE were very firm and very quick to respond to pedal pressure,more so than in the GXE. We strongly question Nissan`s decision to make antilock brakes an optiononly
in the SE and not in the GXE. And $1,500 is a stiff price to pay for the best safety feature in the automotive market. With a newly styled car comes some innovations. Maxima adds a Bose soundsystem for 1989, which certainly was loud and clear.
All-season 15-inch radialtires are a good touch as well. Automatic seat belts fasten around thedriver`s and front-seat occupant`s upper torsos when the car`s turned on. Goodfirmness without grabbing at the neck or slipping into the lap. Another
nifty feature is the steering wheel adjustment button to the left of the wheel. A gentle press and the wheel adjusts quickly. No fighting tofind the adjustment knob, much less use it as in so many cars. Keyless entry is offered, but rather than
just push a series of numberson the car door to lock/unlock doors and decklid, you can select numbers that will roll down the windows. If the car has been parked in the sun, loweringthe windows before you get in releases some of the heat first.
Clever. And kudos for the safer spring held hood and not a metal prop job. There are some annoyances, however, and worst of all is the back lighting on the SE instrument cluster. Gauges and dials have black numbers encircled inwhite in
daylight. At night the circles turn black, the numbers white. Thewhite backlight looks terribly cheap and almost appears to be a clusterglommed from the bone yard and not the one that came with the car. It bothers usthat Nissan could focus on
roominess yet make reaching some controls so difficult. Power window buttons on the driver`s armrest areblocked by the door handle, which becomes a knuckle slapper if not careful.And why bury the rear window defroster button behind the steering
wheel?Smokers will find the ashtray behind the 5-speed gear shifter, so spray thecarpeting with fire retardant or foresake the habit. The 1989 Maxima goes on sale next week and firm prices haven`t beenannounced, but the GXE will start at about
$18,500 and the SE at about$18,700.