Nissan Maxima is all-new for the 2009 model year, and this seventh-generation model marks the return of the four-door sports car.
The 2009 Maxima was deliberately built, tuned and aimed at drivers who prefer sporty handling and a firmer ride as opposed to the softer, more luxurious ride associated with many cars in this class.
The Maxima four-door sedan has been part of the Nissan lineup dating back to 1981. Maxima was kicked up a notch when the Altima took over the role as the mainstream sedan and it became the Nissan flagship. This new Maxima now competes directly against sporty upmarket sedans. Among them: Acura TL, Infiniti G35, Chrysler 300, Cadillac CTS, and Toyota Avalon, as well as deluxe versions of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The all-new 2009 Nissan Maxima shares its D-platform chassis and underpinnings with the other cars and SUVs mounted on the Nissan front-drive platform, including the Murano and Altima. The new Maxima is close in physical measurements to the Altima. This seventh-generation Maxima is deliberately shorter by a couple of inches in wheelbase and four inches shorter overall, but is slightly lower and wider than the outgoing (pre-2009) model. The track measurement, the width between the tires, is an inch and a half wider, so that the chassis is better able to handle the corners on its big, fat 18-inch tires.
Nissan has modified the platform and body of the Maxima extensively, with one additional stiffness package for the S and SV models, and additional rear reinforcements for the Sport and Premium package versions that uses a large steel panel behind the rear seat to connect the floor, walls and package shelf into a single, much stiffer unit that Nissan says is up to 17 percent stiffer than the base model. The 2009 base model is, in turn, 15 percent stiffer than the outgoing 2008 model. Sport versions add a tower brace across the front suspension towers for greater stiffness and steering precision.
The all-new 2009 Nissan Maxima is smaller on the outside than the 2004-08 models of the previous generation. The new Maxima is shorter in wheelbase and overall length and lower to the ground, with a wider track for better handling.
Very much on purpose, the Maxima doesn't look anything like the Altima anymore.
Every exterior body panel on the car is new, with much more adventurous and modern design and shaping. The big metal plate out front that held the logo is gone. The grille, headlamps and 12-LED taillamps are larger and more egregious and figure more into the whole exterior design, and the fenders and hood have been given edges and bulges for a much more sporty appearance. The wheel arches are much more pronounced, and the door skins are pulled in from the fenders and flattened out so that the whole body has what the designers call a Coke-bottle shape, with a short nose, a short deck, a long, sloping roof and a BMW-style C-pillar curvature.
In other words, the 2009 Maxima is completely and totally different looking than the sixth-generation car it replaces.
The interior features of the new Maxima are all about concentration of controls and information around the driver. The new interior includes a few items right out of the Nissan parts bin that don't need reinventing, like the radio and navigation control panel on top of the center stack, backed up by newly styled lower controls with large, very readable labels and markings, daytime-lighted instruments, a hefty three-spoke steering wheel with redundant controls for the audio system, and huge paddle shifters for the CVT transmission, with very long upper and lower arms that assure you will never be out of reach of a quick shift. The floor shifter has also been moved over as far to the left as possible, for those who want quick shifts using the stick instead of the paddles).
The driver's seat is multi-adjustable, especially in the Sport package version that we drove, and very huggy and comfortable.
In the rear compartment, the seat can be ordered either as a 60/40 fold-down for cargo hauling, or as a fixed seat with a cargo pass-through in the center for occasional hauling or ski trips.
The design, materials, and execution of the interior are first-rate throughout.
The Maxima that we drove was the SV with the Sport package. Like the S model, it comes with a very strong, very responsive 3.5-liter V6 engine uprated from the previous 255 horsepower to 290 horsepower, a 35-horsepower increase with a concomitant gain of nine foot-pounds of torque and a one-mile-per-gallon increase in fuel economy. It has both variable valve timing and a variable intake system, a system that opens wide at about 4500 rpm, wide enough that you can hear the engine sound change dramatically, adding to the driving enjoyment.
At 290 horsepower, the Maxima's V6 is right at the top of the class in terms of power development for its size, but it's not peaky or cranky because the valve and intake systems keep it optimized for whatever gear and rev range.
We found the engine smooth and quiet, right up to the 6200 rpm redline, and it delivered plenty of punch throughout the rev range. A very strong, very enjoyable engine to drive, and if you can keep your foot out of it, you can get better mileage than the 26 mpg label. If you keep your foot in it, expect 0-60 mph times of 5.8 seconds or less.
The only transmission available, much to the chagrin of some critics, is the CVT (continuously variable transmission), a much-improved Nissan innovation. The software offers much quicker and more positive shifting than previous CVTs from Nissan. Maxima's CVT offers a manual mode. We found the transmission a joy to use in either mode. It is perhaps the world's second-best CVT, after the Audi. Nissan says the new CVT software contains more than 700 shifting algorithms to cope with every driving situation in every gear from idle to full-throttle and says the transmission can shift 30 percent faster than a human driver can. In the Sport Drive mode, the shifts were lightning quick, and included a very sporty throttle blip on every downshift.
The chassis and suspension under the new Maxima have been upgraded quite a lot from the previous model, with several new technologies added. The front-drive Maxima has six engine mounts now instead of the usual four, and the engine is mounted lower in the chassis for a lower center of gravity and better handling. The suspension is all new, using premium aluminum components, new shock absorbers, front and rear stabilizer bars, and new, sportier geometry. The front-drive system incorporates a new wrinkle that virtually eliminates torque-steer on full, throttle. We found the Nissan Maxima SV Sport always felt agile, glued to the road, and ready to play, with no hint of harshness in the ride.
The speed-sensitive power rack-and-pinion steering system has been borrowed from the 350Z sports car, and it makes the driver feel like he is truly connected, truly part of the steering and driving process, never over-boosted or ropey. The front and rear ABS disc brakes have been upgraded, and the rear brakes are now ventilated, where they were solid on the previous model, for better fade-resistance and braking power under severe conditions.
The only time this Maxima gets sporty and rorty is when the engine intake system switches over into high-flow mode above 4500 rpm. The rest of the time, the car is very quiet inside, with very little intrusion from the outside world.
The all-new 2009 Nissan Maxima is one of the most fun to drive cars in the class. It's one of the best-engineered front-drive sporty sedans available, from the accurate, quick steering to the engine power to the remarkably good performance of the CVT. It isn't the roomiest car in the class, and it isn't the least expensive. Instead, it's designed as a premium car for drivers who want something sporty. And if 26 mpg isn't enough for you, you'll be able to get this sporty sedan in 2010 with a diesel engine.
Jim McCraw filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Cary, North Carolina.