Nissan makes au fait sedans for younger families and naughtier coupes for the higher spirited who take their driving seriously.

Bouncing between both demands, capable of romping or simply strolling through life, has been Nissan's Maxima.

Visually . . . it's a four-door sedan.

Physically . . . it's a high-ceilinged sports car with a performance legacy that began in 1980 with an engine borrowed from the 240Z sports car.

Realistically . . . well, more than 90% of Nissan's car sales are of socially acceptable sedans: Altima, Maxima and Sentra. The company's sporty coupes, the 240SX and the 300ZX, remain toys for a gymnastic minority.

And as the high energies and fine handling of 130-m.p.h. four-doors such as Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, Honda Accord and Chrysler's first family of LH cars become silky norms, the demand for sedans that snarl is no more.

So the 1995 Maxima was built to paddle steadily toward the mainstream of mid-size.

The legacy of every car in the new Maxima lineup remains hearty handling and V-6 athleticism. But they move with a quieter step while handling the irritations of traffic and road surfaces with higher sophistication. There's even a maxi Maxima, all wood-trimmed elegance, lustered upper crust and puffy-leather softness very suggestive of Infiniti luxury.

It takes, however, more than better mechanicals and Ritz-Carlton interiors to buck the best of today's market.

So Maxima, depending on the model, is priced between $700 and $2,500 lower than last year. More significant of the tussle ahead, they cost $900to $2,000 less than the intended target: the V-6 Toyota Camry.

Honda's Accord still has the edge on price--but even 1995 versions do not offer a V-6 engine.

Ford Taurus underprices Maxima--but its V-6 is skinnier by 50 horsepower.

From two trim levels of last year, Maxima has advanced to three with the addition being that kinder, gentler, plushier sedan with a price tickling the velvet tootsies of Mercedes C-Class.

From a choice of two V-6s, Maxima has mellowed its power source to one lighter, more compact, double cam, 3.0-liter engine. It still produces 190 horsepower but runs cleaner, more economically and produces heftier torque.

If bargain basements are your lifestyle, the Maxima GXE with manual transmission is your car and costs $19,999. Those nines, of course, fool no one because base prices conveniently exclude unavoidable taxes, registration and destination charges. So get real and figure on more than $21,000 with an additional $999--or $1,000 to be on the safe side--for a four-speed automatic.

Ample goodies are standard on the GXE and include dual air bags, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and steering, rear window defroster, cut pile carpets, dual mirrors and courtesy lighting from trunk to ashtray.

Next in line at $20,999--or $22,000 with all the hid den bits--is the manual-transmission Maxima SE. This is a chariot for the warmer of blood who understand the real benefits of stiffened shocks, firmer struts and stickier tires. Also for those who believe that a leather-wrapped steering wheel, body-colored door handles, rear-deck spoiler, polished wheels and driving gloves are synonymous with speedy progress.


Then there's the Maxima GLE, our test car, which, if not the lap of lady luxury, certainly lounges at her feet.

The sticker of $24,199--c'mon, work out the true price among yourselves--includes needless, therefore desirable, luxuries that are native customs on European cars. Such as leather seats, bun warmers, heated mirrors and a Bose CD sound system that will rupture eardrums two cars over. There is key-less entry, a thinking climate control, an automatic security system and other programs aimed at one day rendering the human touch obsolete.

Anti-lock brakes are a $995 option throughoutt e line.

Strangely, Maxima styling, sketched by Nissan Design International in San Diego, is a flop. Head-on, the three-lip grille with blacked-out mesh is a dark smirk from Morticia Addams. The car stands a little high, almost perching. The rear shrieks of Toyota Corolla.

Heads do not turn at Maxima's passage simply because in silhouette it makes only one positive statement: This is just another Japanese car.

The GLE's interior has much more to say and, again, Infiniti is the language being spoken. Leather-faced seats are soft quality with a magnificent, eight-way driver's chair that would adjust to Gumby. Walnut trim on the dashboard, center console and arm rests is deep and rich, albeit fake. And the switch gear works in deep whispers, not harsh clicks.

These are comfortable, friendly accommodations with understated touches to prevent luxury from becoming intimidating.

Spaciousness, as Casey Stengel might have allowed, is everywhere. Thanks to a longer wheelbase and compact suspension, cabin height has been improved until front-seat occupants no longer need open the sun roof for additional headroom. There's more leg, knee and shoulder space in the back seats.

But a hand brake set to the right of the driver's seat and barely three inches from the face of the console is an exercise in clumsiness. It needs relocating, at least shortening to keep from rasping and gouging a driver's knee.

Alarm and central locking controls--including remote-control opening of front windows to release solar-basted summer air--work flawlessly. Also silently. A clearly audible chirp or kerchunk would be a better way of advising a departing owner that the Maxima is armed and secure.


Performance remains Maxima's might. It is not improved radically but has certainly been burnished carefully into a smoother, tighter, less strenuous package.

There's a new rear suspension at work. Last year it was an independent, multilink setup thought to favor ride before handling. Now Maxima is fitted with a multilink beam axle feared by some to improve handling at the expense of ride.

Who knows? Nissan says the new system attains an optimum balance of stability and ride comfort.

Who cares? Bottom line is that average bottoms will sense only that the GLE maneuvers securely, always in balance and with suspension capabilities far exceeding the day-to-day abilities of Freddy Freeway.

Speed-sensitive steering performs perfectly, tightening noticeably as speeds climb into the passing ranges. Here, Maxima delivers effortless, sweeping acceleration with large surpluses of brakes and steering should the manners of other road users start deteriorating.

The car's four-speed automatic unquestionably is best in class with shifting made seamless by electronic sensing. A button on the gear shift disengages overdrive, which makes entering and exiting quick corners more fu n than Formula One.

Maxima went on sale this month and is adding many fresh elements to showroom shopping for a mid-size sedans. One is certainly its increased threat to the best-selling reputations of Taurus, Accord and Camry.

1995 Nissan Maxima GLE

Price: $24,199, base.

The Good: Closer to mainstream, but still a street-fighter. Automatic transmission smoother than glycerine. Comfortable, friendly interior. Priced below last year.

The Bad: Suffers ergonomic nits. Boring styling.

The Ugly: A scowling, dark front end.

Cost As tested, $26,633 (includes automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, two air bags, automatic climate control, cruise control, central locking and alarm, Bose CD sound system, sun roof, leather-faced seats and faux walnut trim.)

Engine 3.0-liter, 24-valve, V-6 developing 190 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, sports sedan.

Performance 0-60m.p h., with four-speed automatic, 9.2 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 130 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 21 and 28 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,097 pounds.