2009 Nissan Maxima

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.

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