2009 Nissan Maxima

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.

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