Nissan Maxima — A stylish and sporty flagship

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The 2009 Maxima may be the most stylish family sedan that Nissan designers have ever penned. Sitting on a front porch swing sipping a cold lemonade on a hot late spring weekend afternoon gave us the opportunity to study at great length the Maxima, parked in profile at the curb. As we enjoyed the cool sweet bitterness of homemade lemonade, we drank in the Maxima’s beauty.

The sedan flows artfully from front to back, curvaceous in a modernly mature way with muscular fender flares, sharp, flowing character lines, and with rear haunches that rise ever so slightly. The stylized headlights and the wrap-around taillights set off the look. The boat- tail rear, we decided, nicely fits the overall design. We studied — and studied — and decided the proportions of the nearly full-sized sedan — it measures 190 inches — were right close to perfect.

The interior is also stylishly done with the now familiar Nissan/ Infiniti look that is as functional as it is handsome.

And the Maxima did not let us down in its performance, ride, and handling characteristics measured during nearly 300 miles behind the wheel. The Maxima is a very nice rendition of a spacious entry-level luxury family sedan.

But wait — didn’t we hear Nissan officials proclaim that the new Maxima is the reincarnation of the “four-door sports sedan,” the label so famously applied to the second-generation Maxima in 1990. In fact, the vehicle’s window sticker calls it “The 4-Door Sports Car.” They have even gone so far as to trademark that signature description.

We must disagree, with this self-proclaimed categorization.

Frankly, we didn’t see much sports sedan in the Maxima even as we were won over by its “sporty” good looks and how well it works as an energetic, comfortable and fun-to-drive vehicle.

Certainly it handled our favorite twisty rural stretch of asphalt just fine. But when we think of sports sedans as we near the second decade of the 21st Century we think of rear-drive stalwarts such as the BMW 3- Series, the Cadillac CTS and the Maxima’s cousin, the Infiniti G37.

Maybe our standards are set too high, but fo
rget the sports part, even with the $2,300 Sport Package and its 19-inch wheels; never-the-less the Maxima still serves up a full helping of pleasure that we would pick over a large group of competitors.

If Nissan wanted the new Maxima to be a true sports sedan, it would have put it on a rear-drive platform and it would have ditched the continuously variable transmission found on most Nissan products and replaced it with the six-speed manual and six-speed automatic in the 370Z or the Infiniti G series.

But what Nissan has done with the Maxima — it rides on the same platform as the slightly smaller Altima and the crossover Murano — is just fine with us, and it should appeal to a broad range of people.

Nissan’s current CVT is as good as there is available in non-shifting transmissions. It works fine. And the front-driven wheels very capably handle the horsepower and torque of the 3.5-liter V-6 which dispenses 290 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque.

Torque steer, that bugaboo that accompanies torque-laden front-driven cars, is a minor problem. It’s fairly well controlled, but evide
nt under pedal-to-the-metal takeoffs with the wheels pulling to the right.

The workhorse 3.5-liter V-6 — variants of the award-winning engine are found in numerous Nissan vehicles — delivers stunning times of 6 seconds 0-to-60 and 14.5 seconds at 98 mph in the quarter mile. Interestingly, those times are nearly identical to those produced by the V-6 in the new Chevrolet Camaro sporty car, but they don’t match up with the three sports cars we noted above.

The downside is middle-of-the-road gas mileage measured at 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway with premium gas recommended. Nissan says, however, that it’s acceptable to use 87 octane, but a slight fall-off in performance may result.

As we noted the Maxima offers confident handling with accurate steering. And when a dose of performance is demanded, the Maxima does respond with gusto in all situations. As you extricate yourself from a touchy highway problem, you can’t help but think, way to go Maxima.

The sedan offers a pleasant environment for four people. We say four, because the middle rear seat is too uncomfortable to park someone for any distance. The driver’s seat is fairly wide and comfortable, very agreeable with the vertically challenged, and the driving position is good. We particularly enjoyed the hood bulge clearly visible out the front window. We enjoy seeing some portion of the hood out front, a sight missing from most vehicles these days.

The cabin materials are of high quality and the controls are intuitive.

The sedan comes with 14.2 cubic feet of trunk space, and importantly to us, will handle two sets of golf clubs.

Standard safety is what you would expect in a car in this price range. It includes antilock brakes, traction and stability control and a full range of airbags.

The Maxima comes in just two trim levels, S and SV. The S is decently equipped for a price of $30,820 including destination charge, but note that such popular options as leather, navigation and satellite radio are not available. The SV starts at $32,685 adding leather upholstery and a nine-speaker Bose audio system as standard equipment and it can be equipped with everything in the inventory including the Premium and Sport packages.

The $2,300 Sport package as noted earlier, brings a stiffer sport-tuned suspension and 19-inch wheels among other things. It also brings a stiffer ride without significantly upgrading the car’s handling traits.

We would save the cash and purchase the $3,450 Premium package, which brings a load of extras including dual-panel moonroof, Xenon headlights, heated front seats, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, climate controlled driver’s seat and premium leather seating. Navigation is another $1,850 and includes a 9.3 gigabyte hard drive for music storage.

Our SV test car with the Sport, Premium and navigation package came in at $40,800 including destination charges.

Although the Maxima does not carry a prestigious Infiniti badge, it’s a fine rendition of a comfortable sedan that is functional and sporty. But don’t let that zero to sixty time fool you, there is a difference between sporty and sports car.

Base price: $30,820; as driven, $38,500
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 290 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 261 pound-feet @ 4,100 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 190.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,610 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 20 gallons (premium recommended)
EPA rating: 26 mpg highway, 19 city
0-60: 6.0 seconds (Road & Track)
Also consider: Cadillac CTS, Buick Lucerne, Lincoln MKZ

The Good:
• Strong performance
• High-quality interior
• Eye-catching exterior styling

The Bad:
• Useless middle seating area in rear

The Ugly:
• CVT defeats "sports sedan" tag