2009 Nissan Maxima

Nissan Maximas were not always boring cars; long ago, they were marketed as "four-door sports cars." They never were sports cars, of course. It's all but impossible to make a front-wheel-drive sedan handle like a sports car, but Maximas were quick enough daily drivers with their excellent V-6 engines. However, it all drifted away as Nissan overspent and underdelivered. I recall reading that there were more than seventy different steering wheels in production for the Maxima at one time, a microcosmic example of why Nissan was billions of dollars in debt and bound for bankruptcy when Renault stepped in with a pile of money and sent King Carlos Ghosn to straighten out the follies.

A few months ago, Nissan organized a media event called Nissan 360 in Portugal. More than five dozen Nissan products from around the world were on hand for journalists to drive. I chose to try as many vehicles as possible that aren't available in either the American or western European markets. But the car I most wanted to drive - apart from the incredible GT-R - the 2009 Maxima, was locked up and its keys hidden away. So all I could do was walk around it in the bright sunshine of Cascais and admire - and puzzle over - its complex lines and surfaces.

The new Maxima is a handsome beast, with an exaggerated "Coke-bottle" plan view and some hard lines high on the fenders to emphasize that shaping. The grille is a straightforward, but totally unimaginative, simple rectangle that is flanked by tortured headlamps with a painted arrowhead pointing forward on the outside of the front fenders. There is a similar looping line at the leading edge of the taillights, visually directed artfully up the C-pillar. A moderately dumb-looking optional spoiler on the trunk lid is there to validate the sporty pretensions of the model. After the complex longitudinal sunroof of the outgoing model, I was delighted to see a simple metal roof, one that finally recaptures the fine centerline profile of Nissan's Arc-X concept car from 1987.

Unfortunately, Nissan has chosen to join the crowd in using the characteristic BMW side-window profile at the C-pillar, but I suspect that this detail is imposed on design departments the world over by marketers who want some of the German brand's magic aura to rub off on their more mundane products. As in BMWs, the interior is focused toward the driver, and it appears to be extremely well-done. I like the fact that there is no extraneous trim on the body sides, and only enough on the rear to provide a place for license-plate lamps. Altogether it is a very good design, a family sedan to take seriously, but it's not yet a great one.

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