2009 Nissan Maxima

2009 Nissan Maxima

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.

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