Imagine being one of the venerated Japanese automotive nameplates being reduced to having its future dictated by a French car company.

After all, the French have designed some beautiful automobiles that are a joy to see. Getting a French car to move down the road is another matter entirely.

Japanese cars are just the opposite. There are some truly memorable Japanese car designs, but they are, for the most part, uninteresting in appearance. But they always start in the morning.

This is especially true at Nissan, where Nissan's California-based Nissan Design International chief Jerry Hirschberg has come up with better design theory than with great designs. However, senior management at Nissan probably deserves more of the blame than Hirschberg.

Renault, a French automaker, bought a 37 percent controlling interest in Nissan in March. So, maybe now that Renault is calling the shots at Nissan, the cars will start to look better. Certainly the Maxima could use some help.

This car has had its ups and downs, something reflected in the new model now on sale.

The exterior of this car is different, though few would call it attractive. The front end features a grille that looks more like the dark hole of Calcutta. The greenhouse looks similar to the previous model; there's little that is offensive here. The back end has some truely attractive tail lamps surrounded by a heavy looking bumper. Modern? Yup.

Inside, the stylists did a much better job.

"Wave" design is quite stylish. Subtle ridges frame the area that houses climate controls and audio systems. The air-conditioning vents have a particularly post-modern industrial design that is pure art. The design and controls are typically Japanese: convenient to understand and operate. The only downside is the controls at the top of the stack are canted forward, away from the driver. Because of this, changing the stereo is quite a reach.

But it's not design that's the story here, it's the engine. Nissan's 3-liter V-6 gets more power for 2000, jumping from 190 to 222 horsepower. This double-overhead-cam 24-valve V-6 is a real sweetheart, with gobs of power delivered in a refined, smooth fashion. Power is fed through a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.

There are three trim levels: base GXE, sport SE and top of the line GLE. The test vehicle was a base GXE.

For those of you who think of the Maxima as a sports sedan, go for the more firmly suspended SE. The GXE test car had a very firm ride, bordering on harsh, yet it tended to keel over in corners a bit too easily. Surprising and disappointing.

Nissan continues to use a beam rear axle in this car, which they claim helps handling. Most drivers won't notice the difference, but the beam axle, also used in the previous design, is less costly to manufacture than the more precise independent rear suspension.

Stopping power was good, thanks t o standard four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock. Traction control is an available option on the SE and GLE models.

The cloth-covered seats were firm and comfortable. Leather, along with front seat heaters, is an option.

The wheelbase is longer, adding additional passenger volume to the interior. Certainly, the car feels spacious. The 15.1 cubic-foot trunk was roomy. A cargo net prevents items from sliding around, a nice touch.

Other nice touches include a center console that Nissan claims can hold 16 compact discs, one-touch express open and close driver's window and sunroof, automatic on/off headlamps, two power points and an optional 200-watt Bose audio system.

While not exceptionally good-looking on the outside, Nissan's new Maxima has a lot going for it inside that makes this a competent, nicely built sedan and a powerful pleasure to drive.

Now maybe Renault can do something about its looks...

>> 2000 Nissan Maxima

Vehicle type: Mid-size front-wheel-drive 4-door sedan
Engines: 3-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission: 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 108.3 inches
Length: 190.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,235 pounds
Cargo volume: 15.1 cubic feet
Tires: P205/65R16
EPA rating: 20 city, 28 highway
Test mileage: 24 mpg
Fuel type: Regular