Fifteen years ago, the Maxima was in a class by itself, as it was about the only affordable sport sedan from a mainline Japanese automaker. In the car’s prime, performance aficionados considered it a Japanese BMW due to its affordability, practicality, and dynamic edge. Over the years, the Maxima has grown in size, eventually evolving into a mature, larger-than-midsize alternative to heart-of-the-market mainstream sedans and even near-luxury cars.
Nissan’s flagship sedan continues to emphasize its combination of performance, scale, luxury, and affordability, but today the Maxima finds itself in the thick of one of the most competitive segments of the car market. In fact, you need more than two hands to count all the desirable sedans with performance flair now available in the Maxima’s general price range.
The Maxima was all new for the 2004 model year, built on a front-wheel-drive platform shared with the Nissan Altima. With the latest redesigns, these two corporate siblings have seen their roles evolve. For the past decade, Nissan chose a two-prong attack for the midsize market with the smaller, four-cylinder Altima and the larger, V-6-only Maxima, rather than offer a single vehicle with two powerplants, like Honda and Toyota. In the current generation, the Altima has grown in size and power to rival the Accord and Camry, offering both an I-4 and V-6. Meanwhile, the new Maxima has increased in size to more closely match the Toyota Avalon, and it boasts a more robust version of the six-cylinder engine shared with the Altima 3.5L.
Like many cars in the $25K-$30K price range, the Maxima straddles the tenuous line between a sport and a luxury sedan. To that end, it’s offered as both the performance-oriented 3.5SE and the more luxury-minded 3.5SL. Both models come with the same standard powertrain, but the 3.5SE can be equipped with a slick, six-speed manual transmission, which does separate the Maxima from many of its competitors. A fully loaded 3.5SL, for its part, is a reasonable alternative to so-called “entry-luxury” cars such as the Acura TL and Lexus ES 330, providing more interior space for thousands of dollars less.
The Maxima greets the world with Nissan’s new signature grille, which features a repeated pattern of little chrome squares with Nissan’s logo prominently plastered across a giant chrome buck tooth. The sleek headlight housings can be equipped with high-intensity-discharge Xenon lamps. The overall design carries dramatic arches and vertical lines, expressing the geometric language now seen on most Nissan vehicles. Its shape is quite similar to the Altima’s, making it look simply like a long-wheelbase variant. The rear glass is recessed within the C-pillars for a subtle design flourish. The short decklid visually emphasizes the interior space, yet allows for a reasonably spacious trunk. Four exhaust tips poke out from the lower rear apron, announcing the car’s performance character. Eighteen-inch, six-spoke alloy wheels are standard on the 3.5SE and look better than the 3.5SL’s 17-inch footwear.
Any family sedan with more than 100 cubic feet of total interior passenger volume is fairly roomy, and the Maxima measures 103.6 cubic feet. However, the more affordable Altima is almost as roomy as the Maxima, at 102.8 cubic feet. For further comparison, the perennially popular Honda Accord holds 102.7 cubic feet of passengers and belongings inside its four doors, while the new Ford Five Hundred offers a whopping 107.5 cubic feet. The Maxima’s trunk takes in 15.5 cubic feet of Samsonite, but that total is reduced to 13.7 cubic feet if you choose the optional full-size spare tire.
Unique among non-luxury cars, Nissan offers a four-passenger seating configuration in the Maxima’s Elite package. Optional on both SE and SL models, bucket seats flank a center console, replacing the traditional three-across bench rear seat. A power-operated sunshade, heated seats, a 12-volt power point, and automatic up/down rear windows complete the Elite package’s first-class rear accommodations. Cloth upholstery is standard in the 3.5SE, with leather optional, while all 3.5SL models have leather as standard. An eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat and a four-way power adjustment for the front passenger’s seat are standard on the SL and optional on the SE. A driver’s-seat memory system that controls seat, steering wheel, and exterior mirror adjustments is optional on both models.
The Maxima’s interior decor aims for a blend of high tech and elegance, with questionable results. The gauges–which illuminate in orange at night–are suitably sporty and legible, and the center stack spills nicely down the instrument panel in a logical array of climate controls and audio switchgear. The steering wheel and the gearshift knob are swathed in leather. Dual-zone climate control, automatic on/off headlights, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, and wood-tone (SL) or metallic-like (SE) trim are standard.
One of the Maxima’s most unusual and appealing features is its standard Skyview glass roof, which is an elongated, rectangular glass panel stretching from the entire length of the roof to create an airy feeling inside the cabin without compromising the solidity of the roof structure. It’s equipped with sliding sunshades. A conventional power glass sunroof is available in place of the
The Maxima is competitive with its peer group in terms of safety equipment, with dual-stage front-seat airbags, front-seat side airbags, and side curtain airbags. The front seats feature whiplash-resistant “active” head restraints, and all seating positions have three-point seatbelts. Anti-lock brakes and traction control are standard, but stability control is optional only on models equipped with the automatic transmission.
Nissan makes its simple: it equips the Maxima with one spectacular 3.5-liter/265-horse DOHC V-6 engine mated either to a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission. The latest derivative of Nissan’s highly regarded V-6s, it produces 255 pound-feet of torque with sharp throttle response, an eagerness to rev, and a broad power band all the way to the 6,600-rpm redline. Output in the Maxima bests the Altima by 15 horsepower, but it falls 15 horses short of the Avalon and trails the Toyota slightly in fuel economy.
As suggested, the Maxima delivers swift straight-line acceleration from a standstill or when passing. However, as is the case with most powerful front-wheel-drive cars, when you punch the Maxima’s gas pedal, you’re likely to feel a sideways tug at the steering wheel. This phenomenon is called torque steer. It’s not hard to rein in, but it feels like the engine is battling the rest of the car, and it’s something you won’t experience in a rear-wheel-drive car. Therein lies the rub with the front-drive Maxima: it isn’t as good to drive as rear- or all-wheel-drive competitors, such as the Infiniti G35, which is far more rewarding for not much more money. And some lux-minded front-drivers, such as the Acura TSX, are more nimble. The Maxima is a great cruising or highway car, with generous power and a comfortable ride. It’s less satisfying as a true sport sedan, as it tends to squirm and wallow when pushed aggressively on twisty roads.
The Maxima brings personality and a distinct design flair to a price category dominated by well-engineered yet bland sedans. It offers “sport” as defined by a rev-happy, powerful engine, a smooth-shifting transmission, and big, sticky tires, yet plays second fiddle to more dedicated performance sedans in handling prowess. The Maxima has plenty of available luxury features to satisfy nearly everyone this side of a Lexus or Mercedes driver. Contrary to trends seen on other vehicles, IntelliChoice data show the best ownership cost value is the top SL trim, earning a Better than Average rating. The Maxima’s reliability should be very good, as the platform and engine have been in production longer than this generation Maxima. The three-year/36,000-mile overall warranty is supplemented by five-year/60,000-mile powertrain coverage, which is usually the province of luxury brands.
Maxima brings power, prestige, and space in an alternative to both the mainstream, midsize sedans and the premium-brand near-luxury cars.
The Maxima essentially is the same car it was two years ago, when it launched, but improvements for 2005 included smart airbags, which detect the size and presence of seat occupants and deploy accordingly; black-tone brake calipers; titanium-tinted interior trim; chrome interior door handles; and traction control as a standard feature.
The Elite package, which replaces the standard rear bench seat with two bucket seats flanking a handy center console, is an intriguing way to create a luxury sedan for far less than a luxury-sedan price.
Nissan traditionally has equipped the Maxima with an audio system whose performance rivals that venerable VQ V-6. An eight-speaker, 240-watt stereo with redundant steering wheel controls is standard on the SE, while an eight-speaker, 320-watt Bose audio system with a six-disc CD changer and even a cassette player is optional on the SE and standard on the SL. Satellite radio is available with either stereo. Nissan’s excellent navigation system, with a crisp, seven-inch color display screen and a “bird’s-eye view” of topography and roads, is also optional.