The Nissan Maxima was one of the original near-luxury cars, a fast and comfortable sedan that was a real standout, both visually and in its performance. But with the past couple redesigns, the Maxima's star dimmed. Even people within Nissan acknowledged that the car had lost its way.
Now comes an all-new 2009 Maxima, and Nissan is crowing that it's the return of the four-door sports car (that being the Maxima's 1990 tag line). While Nissan is to be credited for turning the Maxima around, this really does not turn the clock all the way back to the Maxima's halcyon days.
The car is completely restyled, and the effort has been largely successful. The length has been trimmed by almost four inches, the wheelbase by about half that much. The track, however, is wider, a fact emphasized by the bulging fenders. The front overhang has been snipped, and what's there is further visually shortened by the angled off corners, which give the new Maxima the athletic look of a rear-wheel-drive car.
We had hoped the Maxima might in fact switch to rear-wheel drive (perhaps borrowing the Infiniti G35's excellent chassis), but alas, it was not to be. The Maxima rides on Nissan's D-sized platform, which also underpins the Altima and the Murano.
Predictably, the reduced length and wheelbase shrinks interior space, which, in a measure of pure volume, is now less than that of the Altima. Still, rear-seat space is okay for adults up to six feet tall, although toe room under the front seats is tight. The outgoing car's restrictive four-seat option, with a rear-seat center console, has been dropped and we can't say that we miss it.
Nor do we miss the odd, undersized, front-to-back, fixed-glass moonroofs in the previous car. In their place is a conventional sunroof or, as an option, a two-piece full glass roof with an opening front section.
The Maxima's interior has received a much-needed, comprehensive upgrade, punctuated by a nice, fat-rimmed steering wheel. Other highs include deeply cushioned armrests, supple leather (an option), logical switches, and a nav screen interface lifted from Infiniti. Only the console and the lower door panels still appear designed to appeal to Nissan/Renault chairman Carlos Ghosn and his once-celebrated persona as "le cost cutter."
The Maxima might look convincingly like a rear-wheel-drive car from the outside, but it's a different story when you're sitting behind the wheel. The windshield slopes far away from the driver, in the manner of a classic, cab-forward, front-wheel-drive sedan. More strangely, the hood sweeps up at the sides and has a bulge in the middle with a curved inset at the rear. This, combined with a deep dashboard with a swell that rises ahead of the driver, creates a view that's kind of like looking out over a roiling sea.
At least the Maxima's chassis is unlikely to induce seasickness. Riding on the available sport suspension (upgraded springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars), our test car was very buttoned down yet it absorbed bumps well. It did suffer a side-to-side rocking motion, a common pitfall of cars with stiff anti-roll bars. The upside is that the Maxima turns in with alacrity and doesn't plow straight ahead in the manner of many big, front-wheel-drive sedans. Ultimately, though, the Maxima is too big and heavy to be a back roads dancer.
The car's steering is now speed-sensitive, and provides decent feel once you're up and rolling but too much assist in low-speed maneuvering. You can certainly feel the torque (all 261 foot-pounds of it) flowing to the front wheels, but the Maxima now has manners enough to fight off its urge to go hunting around the lane when you stab the throttle.
Speaking of urge, Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6 provides plenty, as it's now fortified with an additional 35 horsepower, bringing the total to 290 hp. Nissan is unique among automakers in its dedication to the continuously variable transmission - which has replaced conventional automatics in most Nissan models - and the payoff is evident in the Maxima's standard Xtronic, which is the most sophisticated CVT we've ever driven. Our test car came with shift paddles (part of the sport package), which may seem absurd with a CVT but they actually worked great, so convincingly does this transmission ape a geared automatic and so well-thought-out is its programming. Unlike some paddle-shift gearboxes, the console shift lever does not have to be moved to the side (activating the Sport mode) before the paddles can be used. But if it is, the transmission will hold a paddle-actuated "downshift" indefinitely. If the lever is in D, the transmission will upshift and return to automatic operation a few moments after the driver paddles down to a lower ratio. Very smart. The only time this transmission acts like a CVT is when you floor the accelerator and hold it, which sends the revs to the top of the tach and keeps them there.
For all the CVT's cleverness, however, we couldn't help wishing for the option of a manual gearbox, a choice that went away in recent years and which, in our eyes, was one of the hallmarks of the four-door sports car back in the day. Despite a shapely new exterior and an improved cabin, the Maxima really has not returned to its golden youth, when it stood head and shoulders above other mid-sized offerings. The Maxima is a bigger, more powerful car now, and that has brought the limitations of its front driven wheels into sharper relief. At the same time, a whole field of competitors (including Nissan's own Altima) has grown up around the Maxima. The one-time obvious choice for those seeking a quick, comfortable, well-appointed sedan is once again a good choice, but it's just one good choice among many.