Fifteen years ago, the Maxima was in a class by itself, as it was about the only affordable sport sedan from a mainline Japanese automaker. In the car's prime, performance aficionados considered it a Japanese BMW due to its affordability, practicality, and dynamic edge. Over the years, the Maxima has grown in size, eventually evolving into a mature, larger-than-midsize alternative to heart-of-the-market mainstream sedans and even near-luxury cars.
Nissan's flagship sedan continues to emphasize its combination of performance, scale, luxury, and affordability, but today the Maxima finds itself in the thick of one of the most competitive segments of the car market. In fact, you need more than two hands to count all the desirable sedans with performance flair now available in the Maxima's general price range.
The Maxima was all new for the 2004 model year, built on a front-wheel-drive platform shared with the Nissan Altima. With the latest redesigns, these two corporate siblings have seen their roles evolve. For the past decade, Nissan chose a two-prong attack for the midsize market with the smaller, four-cylinder Altima and the larger, V-6-only Maxima, rather than offer a single vehicle with two powerplants, like Honda and Toyota. In the current generation, the Altima has grown in size and power to rival the Accord and Camry, offering both an I-4 and V-6. Meanwhile, the new Maxima has increased in size to more closely match the Toyota Avalon, and it boasts a more robust version of the six-cylinder engine shared with the Altima 3.5L.
Like many cars in the $25K-$30K price range, the Maxima straddles the tenuous line between a sport and a luxury sedan. To that end, it's offered as both the performance-oriented 3.5SE and the more luxury-minded 3.5SL. Both models come with the same standard powertrain, but the 3.5SE can be equipped with a slick, six-speed manual transmission, which does separate the Maxima from many of its competitors. A fully loaded 3.5SL, for its part, is a reasonable alternative to so-called "entry-luxury" cars such as the Acura TL and Lexus ES 330, providing more interior space for thousands of dollars less.
The Maxima greets the world with Nissan's new signature grille, which features a repeated pattern of little chrome squares with Nissan's logo prominently plastered across a giant chrome buck tooth. The sleek headlight housings can be equipped with high-intensity-discharge Xenon lamps. The overall design carries dramatic arches and vertical lines, expressing the geometric language now seen on most Nissan vehicles. Its shape is quite similar to the Altima's, making it look simply like a long-wheelbase variant. The rear glass is recessed within the C-pillars for a subtle design flourish. The short decklid visually emphasizes the interior space, yet allows for a reasonably spacious trunk. Four exhaust tips poke out from the lower rear apron, announcing the car's performance character. Eighteen-inch, six-spoke alloy wheels are standard on the 3.5SE and look better than the 3.5SL's 17-inch footwear.