Buyers can choose between the more responsive SE and the softer SL. Either way, cruising on the highway is effortless with Nissan's 265-horsepower V6.
Both models are stuffed with luxury features. The refined cabin is innovative and comfortable with supportive, luxurious seats. The interesting Skyview roof, a standard 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, another feature seen primarily on futuristic concept cars. Together, the bucket seats and Skyview roof make back-seat riders feel more like first-class passengers and less like coach-class cattle. Granted, the Maxima is not as family-friendly as the Altima, particularly with the optional four-bucket-seat interior, but that's not a problem for people who don't have children.
Safety features include a sophisticated traction control system that comes standard. The navigation system interface has been improved for 2006, and Bluetooth and satellite radio are now available.
Nissan 3.5 SE ($27,750); 3.5 SL ($30,000)
This is especially true at the front end, where a rounded-rectangle texture fills in the twin nostrils in Nissan's signature grille, split by a dark chrome medallion at the center, with aerodynamically integrated headlight clusters wrapping over the top and around at the sides.
Big, round fender openings accented by flattened wheel lips pay homage to enormous alloy wheels: 18-inch, six-spoke units on the SE; 17-inch, seven-spoke on the SL. The relatively open wheel design shows off the black-painted brake calipers nicely.
The Maxima's rear roof slopes into the trunk lid flanked by buttress-like sail panels. Large triangular taillight clusters, like the headlights, wrap around to the sides of the car.
Maxima's bold design innovations include the Skyview roof, a glass panel running lengthwise over the front and rear seats.
The seats in the SL look nice and feel supportive and luxurious at the same time: You dream of all-day interstate cruises across the West in seats like these. The seats in the SL are firm yet pillowy, wide without a lot of side bolstering.
The Maxima's steering wheel is familiar Nissan issue, functional but not beautiful. It tilts and telescopes, and for 2006 the redundant controls on the wheel are illuminated. In front of the driver are three small gauges set in their own pod, like those on a motorcycle.
We like many of the details of the Maxima's interior, specifically the light colors and the proximity of the switches and controls to the driver. However, the labels for the climate and audio systems are too small to be easily read, and the audio and trip computer seem to have more buttons than they should need. The display is hard to read in bright sunlight with polarized sunglasses.
We didn't care, either, for the large, flat splash of trim on the center stack, neither the titanium-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.
When seated in the back of a four-seat Maxima with the Elite Package, you get the feeling you're in the passenger seat of a two-seat sports car. With the narrow Skyview window above your head, you don't feel like you've been relegated to the kid seats while the adults up front enjoy all the luxuries. The Skyview window does not open, but Nissan says it found a lot of people rarely open their sunroofs. We're among them. For those who prefer it, a conventional sunroof over the front seats is available.
Nissan offers a choice of XM or Sirius satellite radio, both factory-installed for 2006. Satellite radio can be great companion on long trips, delivering CD-quality sound nearly everywhere. Not having to change stations on a cross-country trip has distinct advantages. Being news hounds, we enjoy being able to keep up on current events with the 24-hour TV news stations, such as CNN or Fox News. Finding stations is easy with RDS (radio data system), which clearly identifies programming on the radio's display.
Three cargo nets are provided in the trunk and work better than most for holding down a load of groceries.
Cruising on the highway is effortless in the Maxima. The 3.5-liter V6 develops 265 horsepower and pulls strongly in passing situations. The V6 has such a broad power band that the Maxima is happy being either a high-revving hard-charger or 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. It's a great engine, and is considered one of the best V6s available from anyone.
Both the six-speed manual and the five-speed automatic transmissions are well-matched to the smoothly revving engine. We prefer the automatic. The shifter on the six-speed manual feels tall. Ours seemed balky initially and the first-to-second shift required good timing, but once we got used to it the gates were easy to select. Clutch pedal travel was notably long as well, so you'll be working that left leg in heavy traffic. For these reasons and others, most people choose the automatic. And we think they're right.
We drove the Maxima down some winding canyon roads and found it handles very well with high grip limits. The Maxima does feel noticeably bigger and more ponderous than the lighter Altima, however. The Maxima and Altima share basic structures, but the Maxima weighs more. The steering is accurate, though it seems light and slow. Body roll is minimal, meaning it doesn't lean much in corners. But turn-in is slow, so when you come into a high-speed turn and turn the steering wheel the car is relatively slow to respond. Charge into a corner past the grip of the tires and the car understeers initially. Coming out of the corners, the Maxima doesn't spin the wheels, which is a good thing, but there is some torque steer, a slight tugging sensation at the steering wheel.
Overall, the Maxima feels like a sporty sedan that's enjoyable to drive.
The Nissan Maxima is individualistic and indulgently luxurious, with innovative styling and interior features. Its engine is powerful and its ride is smooth and quiet.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Phil Berg filed this report from Detroit, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.