While Ford and GM consider building their mid- and full-size cars on a single platform, Toyota and Nissan are already doing it. The Avalon has been based on the Camry platform since its inception and now Nissan is giving us an Altima-based Maxima. The key to pulling this trick off successfully is differentiating the resultant cars visually and dynamically and, preferably, aiming them at different market segments. Did Nissan succeed at this mission, or did they just give us an Altimus Maximus?
Previously the Maxima was Nissan’s largest car. It still is, but it’s nowhere near full-sized. Its wheelbase is the same as the Altima’s; it’s less than an inch longer and actually has less front headroom (thanks to the standard sunroof), legroom and hip room. Its track is a bit wider but overall it casts pretty much the same shadow as its lesser brother.
Fortunately it owes more of its looks to the 370Z and the GT-R than the Altima. The taut lines are creased and folded to perfection and the view from the drivers seat over the sculpted hood and bulging front fenders is almost worth the price of admission alone. The optional spoiler perched on the edge of the rear deck looks a bit out of place but it’s the only thing I could find to bitch about in the looks department
The interior is a mixed bag. The first glance takes you to Infiniti (but not beyond). However, on closer inspection you wonder if a few e-mails got lost between the design and purchasing departments. The seats are upholstered in nice leather with classy contrasting stitching but the dashboard and doors are covered with a rubbery-feeling petrochemical derivative that looks like it should still be on the dinosaur. The electroluminescent instrument cluster could have come from an Lexus while the non-nav readout for the radio and AC controls consists of orange dot-matrix letters and toothpick numbers that brings to mind the Kia Amanti. And the “Metallic Link” (silver basketweave) plastic trim that replaces the “Piano Dot” (black dot matrix) plastic trim doesn’t add anything to the equation.
I found a few loose trim pieces inside and outside. Admittedly, they were small things but still totally inexcusable on a car that’s billed as the brand’s flagship sedan and can cost $40K when fully optioned.
Nissan’s ubiquitous 3.5L VQ V6 resides under the hood, pumping out 290 hp in this application (20 more than in the Altima, but requiring premium fuel to do it). As always, it’s smooth and pulls readily to the rev limiter. As good as it is, you can’t help but wonder what the Maxima would be like with the 328 hp 3.7 from the Infiniti G37. It’ll probably never happen, though because of that pecking order thing.
Why they chose to saddle the Maxima with a CVT escapes me. Nissan’s is arguably the best CVT in the industry and is great in their mass-market-mobiles. However, a car with sporting pretenses needs something with real gear ratios (and preferably a third pedal). While you can put the CVT in “manual” mode and shift it with the obligatory paddles, all that does is jump the CVT abruptly between pre-programmed settings. It doesn’t really do much to help the performance and you always feel like there’s something between you and the fun, kind of like hugging Scarlett Johansson while you’re both wearing rainsuits and hockey masks.
Fortunately the transmission doesn’t affect the handling, and oh, can this baby handle. The family connection to the 370Z is readily apparent, even if it is being pulled along by the front wheels instead of pushed by the rear. Nissan’s engineers worked some kind of magic with the front suspension that totally negates torque steer and makes you forget every bad thought you ever had about front-wheel-drive handling. Just point it and it goes, with no fuss, no muss and no plowing.
The down side is that when you’re not channeling Jack Baruth, the ride with the optional sport package ($2300) is a little on the harsh side. OK, it’s a lot on the harsh side, with plenty of road noise to boot. It was so bad I actually visited my local Nissan dealer to drive a Maxima without the sport package and 19-inch high performance summer tires to see if that was the problem. The ride is quieter and much more compliant without the hoonery gear. You give up a little crispness and road feel but it’s a lot more comfortable for daily use. Unless you feel you absolutely have to wring every last g out of every corner you come to, you’d be better off leaving the box next to the sport package unchecked. (And a big thanks to Jeff Lanier at Town Center Nissan for providing a comparison car.)
The Maxima is a great road car. But is it worth $10K or more than the similarly-sized Altima? If you’re just looking for a family car to schlep groceries and the kids, the Maxima isn’t for you. But if you want a reasonably-priced mid-sized sports sedan that handles like it’s on rails it’s worth a look. Just don’t take the name literally.
(Nissan provided the car, gas and insurance for this review.)