The Maxima is a storied nameplate, at least at Nissan. It's actually older than the Nissan name in the United States, as it dates back to the Datsun days. For a long time, the Maxima enjoyed a reputation as a fast, comfortable, sporting machine, back when most Japanese sedans were depressing econo-boxes. Years ago, it was advertised as "the four-door sports car." Recently, Nissan has resurrected that claim. But is that still the case?
As it has been for decades, the Maxima is powered by a substantial V-6 driving the front wheels. Back in the day (that day being around 1990), that combination, together with athletic chassis tuning and an available stick shift, put some substance behind the 4DSC claim. The muscular V-6 is still here, and it's more powerful than ever, with 290 hp and 261 pound-feet of torque. Alas, the manual gearbox is long gone, and now the only transmission available is a CVT -- hardly the enthusiast's choice.
No manufacturer more fervidly embraces the continuously variable automatic transmission than Nissan. The good news here is that a CVT doesn't call that much attention to itself when paired with larger, torquier engine, like this V-6. When a prod of the go pedal sends the tach needle only up to 3000 or 4000 rpm and it stays there for only a few seconds, it's a much different situation than when a CVT keeps a tiny four-banger screaming along at 5000 rpm or better while the car slowly gains speed. Presumably, the CVT helps in the fuel economy department, but EPA ratings of 19 mpg city and 26 on the highway are only about average for the segment; my experience exactly matched those figures, with an indicated 19 mpg after several days worth of in-town driving and the dash readout showing 26 mpg over an eight-hour highway trip.
The 3.5-liter V-6 delivers acceleration that is plenty strong, but stomping on the pedal can sometimes cause the steering wheel to get a bit squirmy, as the big V-6 is sending a lot of torque to the front wheels. The steering is otherwise pretty good, though, and the handling is competent. Stiff antiroll bars create some side-to-side body motions, however. There's an optional sport suspension (my test car was not so equipped) but it hardly seems necessary and probably wouldn't do the ride quality any favors.
The real issue for the Maxima is that there's not a whole lot to recommend it over an Altima. The Altima's optional V-6 is the same 3.5-liter unit and it's paired with the same CVT. Granted, in the Altima it has 20 fewer ponies, but it's also lugging around 200 fewer pounds.
The two sedans ride on the same, 109-inch wheelbase, and they're the same length, although the Maxima is 2.5 inches wider. The Altima, though, has the roomier interior, by nearly 5 cubic feet.
Yes, the Maxima has totally different styling, and a very nicely finished cabin, with Nissan's excellent and highly logical combination of a touch-screen and hard buttons. Surprisingly, however, leather is standard only on the higher, SV, trim level and navigation costs extra on all Maximas. Frankly, it's hard to see $10,000 worth of value here, compared to the Altima, which has just been restyled for 2013.
How might Nissan more effectively separate these two? The Maxima could grow larger, more Toyota Avalon-sized, but that grates against its sport-sedan image. As it is, the Maxima's size already makes it feel like a high-speed cruiser rather than a car you'd throw into a corner.
One idea would be to give the Maxima all-wheel drive -- ideally with a rear torque bias. That could imbue some of that premium, rear-wheel-drive feel during cornering, eliminate the last vestiges of torque steer, and provide a useful traction benefit for buyers in the snowbelt states. It would also help put the Maxima on a tier above mid-size sedans. The downside would be the likely fuel economy penalty.
Even as it is, the Maxima isn't exactly suffering in the marketplace. Last year, it outsold just about every competitor we could think of: the Acura TL, Hyundai Azera, Lexus ES350, Volvo S60, Volkswagen CC, Toyota Avalon, and (just barely) the Buick LaCrosse. It also just squeaked past its in-house competition, the Infiniti G -- a car that lays a much more secure claim on the title four-door sports car.
But even if its sales aren't bad, the Maxima would almost certainly benefit from a clearer image and a higher profile. There was a time when the Maxima was really something special. The current car may be nice but it's no longer a standout.