The Nissan Maxima, which was all-new for the 2009 model year, is one of a growing group of sedans that are becoming known as four-door sports cars. These are sports sedans, but with edgier styling and first-rate performance and handling, and the Maxima is one of the best.
The Maxima was engineered, built, tuned and aimed at drivers who prefer sporty handling and a firmer ride as opposed to the softer, more luxurious rides associated with many cars in this class.
The Maxima competes with the Acura TL, Infiniti G, Cadillac CTS, Toyota Avalon, as well as deluxe versions of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The Nissan Maxima features a notably wide track, which helps the chassis handle the corners on its big tires. The Maxima shares its chassis and underpinnings with the other cars and SUVs mounted on the Nissan front-drive platform, including the Murano and Altima; the Maxima is close in physical measurements to the Altima. For the Maxima, the platform is measurably stiffer. Sport and Premium package versions use a large steel panel behind the rear seat to connect the floor, walls and package shelf into a single unit that, according to Nissan, is up to 17 percent stiffer than the base model, all aimed at sharper handling. Sport versions add a brace across the front suspension towers for greater stiffness and steering precision.
Changes for the 2010 model year are minor. There are new finishes for the 18-inch and 19-inch wheels, a Bluetooth hands-free phone system is standard, XM Satellite Radio is standard on the SV trim level, the previous iPod connectivity is changed to USB connectivity, and there are two new exterior colors. In addition, there is a new optional Monitor Package, which includes a seven-inch color monitor, RearView monitor, auxiliary audio-video input jack, iPod net and 2GB Music Server. The Technology Package gains DVD playback capability, streaming audio via Bluetooth, and XM NavWeather.
The Maxima has a distinctive look that places it within Nissan styling themes but at the same time gives it an appearance that is all its own.
Every exterior body panel on the car shows adventurous and modern design and shaping. The grille, headlamps and 12-LED taillamps are large and fit well into the whole exterior design, and the fenders and hood have edges and bulges for a very sporty appearance. The wheel arches are 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.
The Maxima is a great looking, assertive sedan with high style and fine detailing, and it doesn't look like anything else in the Nissan lineup.
Inside the Maxima, the design, materials, and execution of the interior are first-rate throughout.
The interior features of the Maxima are all about concentration of controls and information around the driver. The interior includes a few items right out of the Nissan parts bin, like the radio and navigation control panel on top of the center stack, backed up by 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 is located over to the left, 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 Nissan Maxima comes with a very strong, very responsive 3.5-liter V6 engine. 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. 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.
Maxima is EPA-rated at 19 mpg City, 26 mpg Highway. The engine is rated at 290 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 261 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. The continuously variable transmission, or CVT, includes a manual mode so different drive ratios can be selected.
We found the engine smooth and quiet, right up to the 6200 rpm redline, and it delivered plenty of punch throughout the rev range. This makes the car enjoyable to drive, and if you can keep your foot out of it, you can get better mileage than the 26 mpg EPA-Highway 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. Maxima's CVT offers a manual mode, and we found it a joy to use in either mode. According to Nissan, the Xtronic CVT software contains more than 700 shifting algorithms to cope with every driving situation in every gear from idle to full-throttle, and the transmission can shift 30 percent faster than a human. In the Sport Drive mode, the shifts were lightning quick, and included a very sporty throttle blip on every downshift.
The front-drive Maxima has six engine mounts, and the engine is mounted quite low in the chassis for a lower center of gravity and better handling. The suspension uses aluminum components, and a geometry chosen for handling capabilities. The front-drive system has virtually no torque-steer, even 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 is shared with the 350Z sports car, and it makes the driver feel truly connected, truly part of the steering and driving process, and it's never over-boosted. The ABS brakes have vented rotors both front and rear, for superior fade-resistance and added 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 Nissan Maxima is one of the most fun-to-drive cars in the class, and one of the best-engineered front-drive sporty sedans available, from its 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.
Jim McCraw filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Cary, North Carolina.