2016 Nissan Maxima

DETROIT — Maxima is many things to Nissan. It is Nissan’s longest running, continuously offered nameplate, and the leading large V6-powered sedan (in terms of retail sales) in the U.S. Though referred to as Nissan’s “4-Door Sports Car” (4DSC), it competes with a variety of plain and sporting sedans; everything from the Acura TLX, Audi A4 2.0T, BMW 328i, and Lexus IS to the Buick Lacrosse, Chevy Impala, Chrysler 300, Ford Taurus, and Toyota Avalon.

In a nutshell, it is the sedan for those buyers who are luxury intenders, but looking for a vehicle that is more sporting in both appearance and road manners. Based on this mélange of attributes, you could say the Maxima is somewhat schizophrenic; not knowing if it is a luxurious family car of family focused luxury car.

The competition in these segments is changing so rapidly, Nissan had to take a much bigger leap than ever with the Maxima’s design. According to Vishnu Jayamohan, product manager of Product Planning at Nissan North America, the design team visited the Blue Angels at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, and came back energized by fighter jet design. “The ‘Energetic Flow’ theme is a ‘Shock and Awe’ design meant to make the Maxima stand out from the crowd,” he says with just a hint of understatement and irony.

.The 2016 Maxima is 2.2 in. longer and 1.3 in. lower than the seventh-generation car, and looks like nothing else on the road. It is all thrusting fascias, flowing character lines and floating roof panels on the outside, and a driver-oriented cockpit with quilted seats, contrasting stitching, a center stack angled by seven degrees toward the driver, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel on the inside. Subtle it isn’t.

Subtlety is overrated, as — apparently — is playing it safe. Rather than sell the Maxima in a limited number of versions with a Montana-sized options list, Nissan took a different path with the eighth generation. It packaged the sedan into five grades (S, SV, SL, SR, Platinum), then decreed that no options would be offered, though this claim isn’t strictly true.

There are a number of items like floor mats, spoilers, wheels and trim pieces that can be added, but you can’t add something from a higher grade onto a lower one. Therefore, if you see something you like and can’t live without, you’d better order that grade (or the next higher) to get it. This simple change decreases the number of potential build combinations, should increase build quality, and helps keep costs in check.

All you have to do is pick a grade, an interior and exterior color, and go. And unlike the seventh-generation Maxima, only the S will not carry any exterior grade badging.

The three top grades offer Blind Spot Warning with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Intelligent Cruise Control, Predictive Forward Collision Warning, Forward Emergency Braking, a heated steering wheel, Active Sound Enhancement (a.k.a. noise cancellation), and an 11-speaker Bose premium audio system. The Platinum grade adds Driver Attention Alert (DAA) and Around View Monitor. The DAA determines whether or not a driver is getting drowsy by monitoring steering wheel inputs and comparing them to those generated during the first 15-20 minutes of travel. If necessary, the system places a drowsiness alert in the seven-inch screen located in the gauge cluster and sounds an audible warning.

Because it uses an algorithm tied into the electric power steering system, there is no need for an expensive driver-facing camera that may not be able to read eye movements if the driver is wearing glasses or sunglasses. And the Around View Monitor uses cameras mounted in the grille, exterior mirrors, and trunk lid to aid parking, and includes a composite view that looks at all side of the vehicle as if from above. In addition, it has Moving Object Detection, which adds a visual and audio warning if a moving object is detected within the area displayed in the Around View Monitor’s composite image.

Under the skin, the changes continue. Still powered by a 3.5-liter V6 mated to a CVT automatic transmission and built off a variant of the Nissan Altima’s platform, the 2016 Maxima seems little different. However, the 300 hp V6 has 61% new parts, including new cylinder heads with redesigned intake and sodium-filled exhaust valves, shorter and wider intake runners for better airflow, and a stiffer oil pan to reduce NVH levels.

Friction levels in the CVT transmission were reduced 40% by using a downsized oil pump, higher efficiency chain, and lower viscosity oil. The ratio spread was increased from 5.4 to 6.3, bringing it in line with conventional seven- and eight-speed automatics. Acceleration and efficiency are improved, the annoying “moaning” sound that would appear with the combination of light throttle openings and higher ratios appears to be gone, and both fuel economy and acceleration are improved.

The structure itself has been heavily revised, and Nissan claims the 2016 Maxima is 82 lb. lighter than the seventh-gen
eration car, and nine pounds lighter than a BMW 328i, despite being 10 inches longer than the Bavarian. The strategic use of ultra-high-strength steels and new chassis reinforcements cut 4.3 lb., while a new brace directly behind the rear bumper increased rear lateral stiffness 27%.

The front strut tower reinforcement was changed to a tubular section with a greater thickness, and this improved front lateral stiffness by eight percent while decreasing weight by 2.2 lb. But one of the greatest weight reductions came via the use of new seat frames that are, cumulatively, 23 lb. lighter than before.

ZF Sachs monotube dampers are used for the first time on Maxima, and contributed to a one pound per damper weight reduction while improving ride and handling. The SR grade, which is the sportiest variant, retunes the dampers, springs and anti-roll bar, adds a front chassis damper to reduce front structure vibrations, and uses Goodyear F1 Eagle Asymmetric tires with a unique tread compound and trim.

There’s also an Integrated Dynamics-control Module (IDM) on the SR that levels the chassis via brake inputs for increased ride comfort. Plus, switching to Sport mode alters the throttle response, CVT tuning, Active Sound Enhancement (it gets slightly louder) and IDM responsiveness.

All the technology in the world means nothing if it doesn’t work well together, and our limited driving time meant there was only time to sample the SV grade car. That said, this second-from-the-bottom trim level is impressive. The powertrain is responsive, and has none of the annoying habits and noises cars equipped with a CVT often exhibit. It gathers speed smoothly, but doesn’t dip so low in the rev range while cruising that any attempt at acceleration is met with a touch of lethargy and the “moaning” sound of an engine trying to rouse itself from slumber. The structural changes are readily apparent, and give the suspension a more solid base from which to work.

This means the suspension can spend more time smoothing out road irregularities, and less time dealing with any chassis flexibility. As a result, though the car is lighter, it feels stronger, more secure and planted. The control feel is improved, with the steering, throttle and brakes needing similar application pressures, which makes driving easier and less fatiguing, while also imparting a sense of cohesiveness to the experience.

Platinum interior keeps faceted trim, adds luxurious touches.Fit, finish and materials on the prototypes tested were above reproach, and the faceted “liquid chrome” interior trim fits in well with the diamond quilting on the seats. The look is not as jarring as the exterior on first glance, and is quite comfortable. Some of this is due to the fact that the Maxima has an acoustic windshield and front glass, which makes the front cabin much quieter.

The rest is down to the new generation Zero Gravity front seats that are fitted with a foam topper for greater initial softness, while preserving long-term comfort. These are fantastic seats, and made all the more so by a revision to the headrests that does not put them as close to the back of your head.

Little time was available to fawn over the pulsing (like a heartbeat) start/stop button on the console, the knurled rotary controller for the center stack touchscreen, or the genuine contrast stitching used throughout the interior. Nor did we check out the ability to “swipe” navigation instructions from the navigation screen to the smaller display between the speedometer and tachometer. On the other hand, the flat-bottom steering wheel is pleasingly thick and nicely styled, and the ventilated inner leather trim handsome.

It will take more time behind the wheel to determine just how good the 2016 Maxima really is, and what problems and foibles might arise in day-to-day use. However, the initial impressions are very positive. Though the styling may be challenging, it doesn’t look like anything else on the road. The structural and other engineering changes have seriously improved the car’s responsiveness, driving dynamics and comfort. And the harshness and noise associated with the previous V6/CVT combination seem to be banished.

However, the feedback through the steering and brakes are not up to the 4DSC label Nissan is so desperate to append to this car. Sports car? No. Sporty car? That seems closer to the truth.

— Christopher A. Sawyer (The Virtual Driver)