DRIVEN: 2009 Nissan Maxima

August 25, 2008
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A return of the four-door sports car?
0808 20 Z+2009 Nissan Maxima+front Three Quarter View
Nissan wanted its latest Maxima sedan to go back to its roots, back to being a true four-door sports car just like it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Scanning the specs of the 2009 version, all looks to be very promising. The wheelbase and overall length have been chopped and the exterior dramatically altered. The V-6 engine gains 35 hp and there is a plethora of sporty features either standard or available including paddle shifters, 19-inch wheels with performance tires, a rear wing, and sport seats with adjustable thigh support. But is the end result a proper sports sedan or just another Maxima trying to act the part?
A muscular new look
0808 14 Z+2009 Nissan Maxima+interior
This is area the Maxima's trump card; it looks really good. The wider track and bulging fenders combined with the shorter overall length give the Nissan a distinctive look. One might even think the Maxima is a rear-wheel-drive sedan based upon the design but, alas, the power is still fed to the ground through the front wheels. Interior space is diminished somewhat by the aggressive exterior styling, and we wouldn't recommend taking a fifth person along on a trip of any length.
Much is standard; more is optional
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The Maxima is nicely equipped as standard and there is no shortage of optional equipment. The latter includes a heated steering wheel, navigation with real-time traffic info, a 9.3 GB music hard drive, a rear-view camera, a power-adjustable steering column, power seats with memory, a Bose audio system, a climate-controlled driver's seat, and Bluetooth. Nissan continues to offer more and more equipment that used to be reserved only for their premium Infiniti brand.
A familiar V-6, tweaked for more output
0808 18 Z+2009 Nissan Maxima+engine
Both the Maxima S and SV models feature the same powertrain. The 3.5-liter VQ-series V-6 develops 290 hp and 261 lb-ft of torque in this car. As with the last Maxima, the power is transferred to the ground through a continuously variable automatic transmission. No manual gearbox is available. At least a manual mode and a sport mode are offered. Additionally, paddle shifters are packaged in both the optional sport and premium packages that are available on the higher-spec SV model.
A further evolution of an existing architecture
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The Maxima is now based on Nissan's "D" platform, which also underpins the less-expensive Altima sedan and coupe as well as the Murano crossover. Nissan refined and fiddled with the platform to enhance the driving experience in the Maxima. The steering system was heavily revised and the suspension retuned. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard and buyers can spec a sport suspension that includes stiffer suspension as well as nineteen-inch wheels. There is even an option for summer performance tires on the nineteen-inch wheels.
Despite some very smart technology, still hindered by its front driving wheels
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The Maxima may look like a rear-wheel-drive car, but there is little doubt of its front-wheel-drive setup when you're behind the wheel. Nissan did a fair amount of work making the sedan a sporty proposition but there is only so much you can do with nearly 300 hp running through the front wheels. Yes, the rear end does some of the work while cornering briskly, but that strong V-6 engine overwhelms the chassis quickly. Nissan fit the Maxima with a quick steering rack but the steering effort is far too light at low speeds and slightly too heavy at highway speeds. Additionally, torque steer creeps in far too often, even at higher speeds. We could forgive some of those faults if the sport package-equipped Maxima rode better, but the large wheels and stiffer suspension give the Nissan a very brittle ride. We do like that the CVT transmission works well when driving the Maxima at a normal pace. Also, the manual mode is very capably follows the driver's intent when swapping ratios. It's only when you floor the accelerator in automatic mode that you encounter the usual CVT quirk of the engine sitting at a near-constant high RPM as the car accelerates.
Trying too hard to be sporty
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Nissan really did inject a fair amount of sport back into the Maxima but the end result is a car that is slightly confused. Our sport-package-equipped test car didn't handle well enough to be a sports sedan or ride well enough to be a luxury car. We expect that the standard car with its eighteen-inch wheels and softer suspension might be a better package overall. In the end, Nissan engineers didn't build a four-door sports car. They did add some much-needed style to the Maxima but if they wanted to make a true sports sedan, they should have started with the rear-wheel-drive platform that underpins the Infiniti G35/37 and the 350Z and they should offer a manual transmission. It's only when you look at the Maxima as a stylish offering in the near-luxury market and not a back roads dancer that it begins to make sense.
2009 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV
0808 13 Z+2009 Nissan Maxima+front Three Quarter View
Base Price: $32,650
As Tested Price: $35,130
Powertrain
Engine: 3.5-liter 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 290 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 261 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission: CVT Automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
Measurements
Dimensions (L x W x H): 190.6 x 73.2 x 57.8 in
Legroom (F/R): 43.8/34.6 in
Headroom F/R: 38.5/36.4 in
Cargo capacity: 14.2 cu ft
Curb Weight: 3579 lb
EPA Rating (city/highway): 19/26 mpg
0808 16 Z+2009 Nissan Maxima+headlights

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