The First Seven Generations of Maxima, Ranked

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

A couple of months ago, our own Mark Stevenson drove the eighth-generation Maxima. He was neither particularly enthusiastic nor needlessly cruel when discussing Nissan’s big sedan. I have yet to drive the Max myself so I have, as of yet, no opinion. However, I have driven all of the previous cars at one point or another between 1988 and 2013. I also have something to say about the Maxima’s true relevance to Nissan, and I’ll be saying that in my next “No Fixed Abode” column. As a warmup for that, then, I thought I’d reacquaint you, and myself, with the history of the Maxima. And since this is the Internet, we might as well rank them, right?

Seventh (And Last) Place: Gen 7 (2008-2014)

It was the last of Maximas, it was the worst of Maximas. When I drove one up the California coast in 2013, I thought it was born to be a rental car. Like its sixth-gen predecessor, this was essentially an Altima Plus. The VQ35 remained a stout engine but it no longer raises eyebrows in a world where even the outgoing Impala could be had with a 306-horsepower V6. Neither sporty nor special, the Gen 7 car wasn’t even a good alternative to an Avalon or Azera.

Sixth Place: Gen 6 (2003-2008)

This was, no doubt, the ugliest Maxima. Its signature feature, the ridiculous “Skyview” wrong-way sunroof that was different just for the sake of being useless, more or less defined Maxima’s awkward place in the Nissan lineup. Victimized by a common Nissan sedan styling theme that worked okay on the Altima but looked bland on the Sentra and bloated when up-sized to fit a 193.5-inch car, the first Maxima to be built and exclusively sold in North America was a tepid affair indeed. So why’s it ahead of its successor on this list? Simple: for the first half of the model run, it was possible to get a six-speed manual and some reasonably sporty suspension settings. If you did that, and if you dumped the SkyView in favor of an actual sunroof, then you had a decent car. But the name “Maxima” once meant something more than decent, so this model will remain unloved by history.

Fifth Place: Gen 4 (1994-1999)

So. You’re Nissan in the early Nineties. You’ve made one of the best sports sedans in history, with the 1989 Maxima. You’re riding a wave of success measured in Additional Dealer Profit and your new 1990 300ZX is the most celebrated Japanese car in a decade. What do you do for an encore?

If you came up with the answer, “Focus on a three-sedan lineup, cut costs, remove excitement, and chase Toyota,” then congratulations! You probably actually worked for Nissan in 1992 or thereabouts. The Maxima that you wanted, the twist-axle ’94, was a cheaper, low-content version of the spectacular ’89. Its mission was to give the Infiniti G20 plenty of breathing space, and it almost succeeded at that mission.

Unfortunately, Nissan made the Seventies-GM mistake of thinking that they had no competition. They were wrong. The Camry of the era was sleeker, sportier, and sometimes faster than this Maxima, and it offered far better build quality at a lower price. The resulting sales decline would ensure that the Maxima would never again truly matter to American enthusiasts. Don’t get me wrong: a stick-shift ’95 SE is still a decent car. It’s just worse than a stick-shift ’89 SE.

Fourth Place: Gen 1 (1981-1983)

Let me describe the Datsun 810 to you, just in case you’re too young to have seen one on the move: 2.4-liter straight-six. Independent rear suspension. Manual transmission. Rear-wheel drive. So far, we’re talking a Jag S-Type, circa 1965. Reliable. Spacious. Fuel-efficient, by the standards of the day. Are you interested? Of course you’re interested. That was the 810, a bigger, more luxurious take on the Datsun 510 that had become the standard-bearer for SCCA sedan racing.

The Maxima was the same car with more luxury, more features, and even voice warning through phonograph or solid-state units. Would you’ve rather had a Celebrity Eurosport? Of course not. Again, the contemporary Cressida was probably a better car, but the Datsun had plenty to recommend it. Most importantly, it was part of the Japanese push upmarket that just five short years later would result in the Infiniti Q45. If you want to know what the pace of automotive change was in those days, just consider that: five years from 120-horsepower, bread-box Maxima to the mighty Q.

Third Place: Gen 2 (1984-1988)

This was one of the cars in which I learned to drive — my father had a five-speed ’87 in black — so I’m sentimental about this generation. But you don’t need rose-tinted glasses to respect the first Nissan to carry the Maxima name exclusively. It could run with a 300ZX all day long, thanks to sharing the non-turbo Z’s 160-horsepower engine and a similar curb weight. It was available as a stick-shift or an automatic, had all the luxury features you could want in the mid-Eighties, and if you were an early-adopter techie there was even a variant with two-tone paint and a “sonar suspension”. It cost much less than a BMW 528e but could easily hang with it on a twisty road.

It wasn’t perfect. At the time, Nissan didn’t really understand damping or even suspension geometry. The Toyota Cressida against which it competed was one of the Eternal Toyotas, while the Maxima was simply average-Japanese-Eighties build quality. They liked to rust. But the biggest problem people have with these 1984-1988 cars is that they were basically Led Zeppelin III: brilliant in their own right but overshadowed for all eternity by what came next.

Second Place: Gen 5 (1999-2003)

For the most part, this was just a facelifted fourth-gen car, continuing the Maxima’s decline into irrelevance while the competition steamed past it at full speed.

Except.

The last two years of the model featured the 255-horsepower Nissan VQ35DE and a six-speed transmission bolted to a limited-slip differential. Blam. The nice people at Car and Driver got one through the quarter-mile at 14.7 @ 97. That was exactly what a 2002 Mustang GT stick-shift could do. Now we’re talking.

The fish-mounted aesthetic wasn’t great, the interior was cheap-ish, and if you just got an automatic GXE there was really nothing to recommend a Maxima over a V6 Camry. But choose the right options, and you got a street mercenary, a mid-price sedan ready to take some scalps. And the enthusiasts of the era knew what you had. Respect was given. Had the Maxima story ended in 2003, we’d remember the car fondly. It didn’t.

First Place: Gen 3 (1989)

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Mopar4wd Mopar4wd on Sep 20, 2015

    I feel the Gen 4 should be higher but I'm a little biased as I drove one quite a bit my Brother and Later my father owned. Fun to drive comfortable really quick and reliable as all get out. Gen 4's are like cockroaches here in CT and NY. They are getting rusty now but there are thousands of them most with well over 200k being daily driven. I also think gen 6 and gen 7 should be swapped gen 6 really is worse then 7 in every way I can think of.

  • Rick Roberts Rick Roberts on Aug 05, 2023

    Adding a little more Gen 4 bias, I’d like to point out that over all others, the Gen 4 Maxima won Car & Driver’s Mag “Import Car OTY” award. You can argue that the VQ engine is one of the last, truly bulletproof engines Nissan made. It was also featured in the Fast and Furious.

  • Kcflyer hang in there Lexus. Keep making the IS with the V8 and sooner or later I will buy a new one :)
  • 1995 SC I'll take Mystichrome. And a different car
  • Wolfwagen I wish I could afford one of these except that stupid short master. Has no one learned from the Hummer H2 SUT?
  • 1995 SC Any Tom Petty album
  • Wolfwagen Another Democratic green energy boondoggle. Have they even paid for the clean up at Solyndra yet? I wish some investigative journalist would follow the damm money to see how much is going into the pockets of the DNC and Politicians and donors
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