One of the pioneers of the near-luxury segment (dating from before that segment was so identified), the Nissan Maxima was once a real standout in both looks and performance. For the legions of college students who drove rusty but trusty Datsun 210s and then, with the arrival of a first real job, graduated to the Sentra, the Maxima was something to aspire to. The Maxima juggernaut peaked in the first half of the 1990s, but with the past couple of redesigns, the Maxima's star dimmed. Outside, it had become an overgrown and overwrought Altima; inside, the cabin was laden with features but light on quality; underhood, its V-6 sent the wide front tires far more power than they could handle. Even people within Nissan acknowledged that the car had lost its way.
Now comes the new 2009 Maxima, and Nissan is crowing that it's the return of the four-door sports car ("4DSC" being the Maxima's 1990 tagline). While Nissan is to be credited for turning around the Maxima, this really is not a return to the halcyon days.
The Maxima is completely restyled, and we're glad to say that the effort has been largely successful (see design editor Robert Cumberford's analysis on page 24). 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 left is further visually shortened by the angled corners, which give the new Maxima the athletic look of a rear-wheel-drive car.
We had hoped that the Maxima might 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 platform, which also underpins the Altima and the Murano.
Predictably, the reduction in length and wheelbase shrinks interior space, which, based on pure volume, is now less than that of the Altima. Still, rear-seat space is OK 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, undersize, 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, logical switches, supple optional leather, and an available navigation-system interface lifted from Infiniti. Only the console and the lower door panels still appear designed to warm the heart of Nissan/Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn, once celebrated as "le cost cutter."
The Maxima might look convincingly like a rear-wheel-drive car from the outside, but that illusion dissipates 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 swell that rises ahead of the driver, creates a view that's a bit like looking out over a roiling sea.
At least the Maxima's chassis is unlikely to induce seasickness. Riding on the available sport suspension (with upgraded springs, dampers, and antiroll bars), our test car was very buttoned down yet absorbed bumps well. It did suffer a side-to-side rocking motion, a common pitfall of cars with stiff antiroll 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-road dancer.
The car's steering is now speed-sensitive, providing decent feel once you're up and rolling but too much assist in low-speed maneuvering. You can certainly feel the torque (all 261 lb-ft of it) flowing to the front wheels, but when you stab the throttle, the Maxima now has manners enough to fight off the urge to go hunting around its lane.
Speaking of urge, Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6 provides plenty, as it's been fortified with an additional 35 hp, bringing the total to 290 hp. (Despite the extra power, fuel economy improves slightly, to 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway.) Nissan is unique among automakers in its dedication to continuously variable transmissions, which have replaced conventional automatics in most Nissan models. 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 imitate a geared automatic and so well-thought-out is its programming. Unlike some paddleshifted gearboxes, the console shift lever doesn't 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 4DSC, back in the day. Despite a shapely new exterior and an improved cabin, the Maxima hasn't really returned to its golden youth, when it stood head and shoulders above other mid-size offerings. The Maxima is a bigger, more powerful car today, and that has brought the limitations of its front-wheel drive 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.