The all-new 2004 Nissan Maxima is quick and stylish. With the Altima assuming the role of a bigger, more powerful car, the Maxima has moved up market to a pricier position. The latest Maxima is intended to dazzle its driver with refinement and available equipment, and it will likely sell to a fraction of the number of buyers who like the popular Altima.
So the Maxima makes no apologies for what it can't do: It's really no place for children, it looks weird from some angles, and it's not any quicker than the Altima.
That's just fine by us. We like the Maxima's unique, highly styled personality and we like its focus on performance. The sporty Maxima SE rides smoothly and quietly, while the more luxurious Maxima SL rides more softly. Cruising on the highway is effortless and Nissan's 265-horsepower V6 delivers responsive performance for quick passes. Maxima's interior is innovative and comfortable with seats that are supportive and luxurious. The interesting Skyview roof, a glass panel running lengthwise over the front and rear seats, is the sort of feature associated with futuristic concept cars. Also interesting are the available rear bucket seats. Together, these features make back-seat riders feel like full-fledged adult passengers.
3.5 SE ($26,950); 3.5 SL ($28,900)
As you approach the new Nissan Maxima, it's easy to see the resemblance of the rear C-pillar to that of the hip and trendy-looking Volkswagen Passat. Get closer to the Maxima and things look very different, however.
The rear roof slopes into the trunklid with buttresses, and two large triangular taillight clusters wrap around to the sides of the car. The headlights do the same trick in front. It's a look that took some time to grow on us.
Maxima's bold design innovations include the new Skyview roof, a glass panel running lengthwise over the front and rear seats.
The Nissan Maxima comes with an interior that's innovative and comfortable. The seats are both supportive and luxurious: You dream of all-day interstate cruises across the Wild West in seats like this. In front of the driver are three gauges set in their own pod, which instantly endears the instrument panel to motorcycle fans.
We like the details of the interior of the new Maxima, specifically the light colors and the proximity of the switches and controls to the driver. We did notice that operating the climate and stereo switches required more concentration than they should, but not because the switches are too small, rather we think the lettering on each switch is too tiny for our aging eyes. Owners will likely not find it a problem as they learn which switch operates each function.
We didn't care for the large section of trim on the center instrument panel, neither the aluminum-colored plastic in the SE nor the faux wood on the SL. It seems like wasted space. Also, there's a lot of dashboard area that stretches way out to the leading edge of the windshield, similar to the cab-forward look of Chrysler's 300M sedan.
Seated in the back of a four-seater Maxima with the Elite Package, you get the feeling you're in the passenger seat of a sports car. With the narrow fixed roof window above your head, you don't feel like you've been relegated to the kid seats while the folks in the front seats enjoy more of the drive. Nissan says it found a lot of people rarely open their sunroofs. A conventional sunroof over the front seats is also available. Nissan expects a quarter of Maxima buyers to opt for the conventional sunroof.
The Nissan Maxima SE rides smoothly and quietly, even on the rare sections of bad pavement we could find in Southern California. You really need to have a sensitive backside to prefer the slightly softer ride of the SL. Both models handled bumps with more refinement than the previous-generation Maxima, which had a cost-saving beam axle between the rear wheels. The new independent multi-link setup (similar to Altima's) is worth the investment.
Cruising on the highway is effortless, and our six-speed SE revved at just 3000 rpm at 80 mph in sixth gear. Dropping down to fifth gear raises engine speed to 3800 rpm, at which point the 3.5-liter pulls strongly enough to pass traffic comfortably, without the need to downshift to lower gears.
The Altima's V6 makes just 245 hp compared to the Maxima's 265 hp, due to intake and exhaust tuning. That tuning is noticeable in the Maxima's hard-to-ignore exhaust roar. But Maxima outweighs the two-inch shorter Altima by about 200 pounds, so performance between the two sedans is a draw.
Both the six-speed and the five-speed automatic are well-matched to the smoothly revving 3.5-liter V6. The engine has such a broad power band that the car is happy being both a high-revving hard-charger and a boulevard loafer. You can keep the engine at high revs to extract the most acceleration on challenging roads, or you can lug it along at a cruising pace without concern.
Compared to a sports car like Nissan's 350Z, the Maxima's six-speed shifter has a lot of extra movement, although once you get used to it the gates are easy to select. Clutch pedal travel is also notably long. That means manual shift devotees will be doing a lot of aerobics while they drive. Nissan expects fewer than 10 percent of all Maximas will be sold with the manual gearbox.
We drove the Maxima quickly on twisty canyon roads around Mount Palomar in Southern California. Its limits are very high, but it feels noticeably bigger and more ponderous than the smaller, lighter Altima. The steering is accurate, and the body roll is minimal, but the Maxima feels more prone to understeer initially.
Part of our drive included three passengers and a trunk stuffed to the gills with luggage, something you can't do with a sports car, though even so, the Maxima felt heavier and less precise than BMW 5 Series or Mercedes E-Class sedan. Both of those cars, as well as Infiniti's G35, are rear-wheel drive, while the Maxima is ultimately limited by its front-drive layout.
Accelerating out of corners, we never felt either front wheel spin, due to our test car's optional limited-slip front differential, and we didn't have the optional stability control inhibiting engine torque. But unlike the rear-drive cars mentioned above, grip at the front is the first thing you feel diminishing as you approach the car's handling limits. Of course, that's comparing the Maxima to expensive German rear-wheel-drive cars. Like the Maxima, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord use front-wheel drive.
With last year's introduction of a much larger Altima, the Nissan Maxima has become more indulgent, more luxurious. It offers innovative styling and interior features. Its engine is powerful and the ride is smooth and quiet.