Ask Jack: Got That Maxima On Lock?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

This week’s episode of Ask Jack is all about the magic boxes that separate today’s cars from their predecessors — and the unintended consequences of when it all goes wrong.

Reader Eiriksmal writes:

I hope I’ve startled you with this bold introduction. There’s a question I have that only you can answer … probably. It takes a sophisticated man with all sorts of worldly experience that I lack.

You see, I drive a car without antilock brakes, traction control, or stability control. I’m a whipper snapper who’s only been driving 14 years, so I never knew an era without ABS, at the very least. My beloved sixth-generation Maxima, what with the six-speed manual, has a malfunctioning ABS module, so the ABS and TC (no yaw sensor was installed on the 6MT cars — ESC was autotragic only) are kaput. I’ve driven it sans braking assistance for 2.5 years, but today was my first heart-clenching episode caused by a lack of experience with driving an ABS-less car.

I noticed when bedding in some new brakes recently that the back end tries to come around the front in a panic stop after the wheels lock. Sometimes it just squirms a little, other times it would step the back end out a solid 6-8 inches. This confuses me. When I’m pointing in a straight line, holding the steering wheel tight, and jamming the pedal to the floor, why does the lighter back end try to rotate around the heavy nose?

Today, a jerk in an Escape lumbered out in front of me …

This sounds like trouble.

Eiriksmal goes on to tell a fairly harrowing tale of trying to keep a partially sideways car in a lane while surrounded by traffic. It’s the kind of thing that goes well beyond “funny story to tell” and well into the territory of “… and that is how I ended up in this wheelchair.” So I figured it would be a good idea to come up with a potential solution right away — and as fate would have it, I’d just experienced a similar situation at Road Atlanta.

During the Friday qualifying for our AER race, we started experiencing a cornucopia of ABS issues. Early activation, uneven activation, and a pedal that went between “high-hard” and “on the floor.” With very little time to troubleshoot, we ended up disconnecting ABS via the fuse.

This fixed all of the above problems, but it led to another one. In most close-to-modern cars, the balance of pressure between front and rear brakes is set by a proportioning valve. In a race car, it’s typically adjustable to suit conditions. In a street car, like my mother’s 1977 Cutlass or my 1990 Fox, it’s a fixed valve that represents a best-guess approximation for all possible situations.

In many modern cars, however, proportioning is done via the ABS block. And why not? The ABS block is busy doling out all sorts of brake-pressure changes, as often as ten times a second. Why shouldn’t it go ahead and set the proportioning in non-ABS situations? Why not simplify by having one device do all the jobs?

This works very well — in fact, it’s the best way to do things. Until, of course, you turn off the ABS. At which point you get a default setting. And that default setting is going to be an afterthought on pretty much every street car money can buy, because the manufacturer does NOT want you running without ABS and they are under no obligation to make your life easier if you turn it off.

In the case of our Miata, the default is pretty-semi-kinda-good. But it was biased a bit to the rear, which meant that the rear wheels would lock under hard braking and make things very interesting. It also caused a bit of rear-steer which I didn’t mind but which was unappreciated by some of our drivers. Keep in mind, however, this is a nearly new car with fresh equipment from ABS block to the brake disc. What are the chances the brake system on that old Maxima is all in tip-top shape right down to the rubber lines?

You know the answer to that. And that is why Eiriksmal‘s car is skidding under braking — because he’s got some weak-ass default proportion and one of the rear brakes is gripping slightly harder than the other. After all, uneven rear braking is how stability control operates. It can be equally unhelpful if it’s happening by accident. And that’s what I think is happening here. The question is whether it’s worth putting a thousand bucks, or more, into a sixth-generation Maxima.

My advice: Fix the car and enjoy it. For Nissan fans, there will never be another sedan with that kind of brute charm available. Certainly not brand-new. Fix the brakes, put some cash into it, enjoy your time. If not, as Perry Farrell once said:

The world is loaded,

It’s lit to pop and nobody is gonna stop…

Gimme that!

Gimme that – your automobile,

Turn off that smokestack

And that goddamn radio

Hum… along with me…

Hum along with the t.v.

No one’s



Jack Baruth
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  • Northeaster Northeaster on Mar 28, 2017

    It could be a lot worse. When I was 14 just after getting a learner's permit, my dad thought it would be a really good idea to teach me about what could happen during panic braking. He did this just after sunset in an early 60's Olds 98 (with 4 wheel drums) he was about to retire. On his instruction, I entered a slightly tight uphill turn to the right, modestly fast, and was told to push on the brake pedal hard. Really hard. In retrospect, probably not a terribly smart idea as a car with what should have been beyond-terminal-understeer ended up rotating the rear out about 135 degrees clockwise and ended up pointed partly downhill, ass end of the car in the wrong lane and with an unintended stall to boot. I was lucky enough not to have been T-boned by someone coming around the blind curve in the dark, but the rapidly ensuing stream of obscenities from him about getting the car started and in the proper lane still introduced me to the idea that bad things can happen if you don't do threshold braking.

  • Cognoscenti Cognoscenti on Mar 29, 2017

    Nice Jane's Addiction reference! Damn, I can't believe that was way back in 1986...

  • JK I grew up with Dodge trucks in the US, and now live in Turin, Italy, the home of Fiat. I don't think Italians view this as an Italian company either. There are constant news articles and protests about how stalantis is moving operations out of Italy. Jeep is strangely popular here though. I think last time I looked at stelantis's numbers, Jeep was the only thing saving them from big big problems.
  • Bd2 Oh yeah, funny how Trumpers (much less the Orange Con, himself) are perfectly willing to throw away the Constitution...
  • Bd2 Geeze, Anal sure likes to spread his drivelA huge problem was Fisher and his wife - who overspent when they were flush with cash and repeatedly did things ad hoc and didn't listen to their employees (who had more experience when it came to auto manufacturing, engineering, etc).
  • Tassos My Colleague Mike B bought one of these (the 300 SEL, same champagne color) new around June 1990. I thought he paid $50k originally but recently he told me it was $62k. At that time my Accord 1990 Coupe LX cost new, all included, $15k. So today the same car means $150k for the S class and $35k-40k for the Accord. So those %0 or 62k , these were NOT worthless, Idiot Joe Biden devalued dollars, so he paid AN ARM AND A LEG. And he babied the car, he really loved it, despite its very weak I6 engine with a mere 177 HP and 188 LBFT, and kept it forever. By the time he asked me to drive it (to take him to the dealer because his worthless POS Buick Rainier "SUV" needed expensive repairs (yes, it was a cheap Buick but he had to shell out thousands), the car needed a lot of suspension work, it drove like an awful clunker. He ended up donating it after 30 years or so. THIS POS is no different, and much older. Its CHEAPSKATE owner should ALSO donate it to charity instead of trying to make a few measly bucks off its CARCASS. Pathetic!
  • RHD The re-paint looks like it was done with a four-inch paintbrush. As far as VWs go, it's a rebadged Seat... which is still kind of a VW, made in Mexico from a Complete Knock-Down kit. 28 years in Mexico being driven like a flogged mule while wearing that ridiculous rear spoiler is a tough life, but it has actually survived... It's unique (to us), weird, funky (very funky), and certainly not worth over five grand plus the headaches of trying to get it across the border and registered at the local DMV.