By on February 15, 2022

The PU11 Nissan Maxima was among the Japanese sedans to experience a complete identity shift in the mid-Eighties. Nissan was rebranding itself from a discount Datsun identity and took Maxima upmarket. Packed with technology and on its way to the 4DSC identity that defined the model, the Maxima deserves a place at the table with the V20 Camry and CA Accord. Let’s get technical.

Maxima’s genesis was as a renaming of the rear-drive Datsun 810, shortly after it arrived in its second generation guise. Datsun took its JDM Datsun Bluebird 810 and edited it for North American usage. Bluebird was a long-running name at Datsun, and the 810 arrived for its first North American model year in 1977. In 1981 the 810’s second generation arrived and was again an edit of the Bluebird. This time the car underneath was the Datsun Bluebird 910. It was separated into two trims: The base Deluxe, and upmarket Maxima.

It was a time of naming turmoil at the Datsun-Nissan corporation, and the 810 was immediately rebranded as Maxima for the 1982 model year. Badging at the trunk lid read “Datsun by Nissan.” More renaming occurred for the ’84 model year, which was the last of the first-gen Maxima. This last-of wore full-size Datsun and Nissan badges together on the rear. It was time for a full conversion to Nissan and a new Maxima.

In the fall of 1984 for the 1985 model year, the new PU11 Maxima arrived. Again Maxima shared a platform with its Japanese Bluebird cousin (now called Bluebird Maxima), but there was a notable difference: Maxima was now front-drive. Nissan knew the way forward with a midsize sedan was front-drive, as consumers in North America shrugged off the shackles of a rear-drive past.

The overall proportions were decidedly front-drive, though not entirely removed from the prior generation. Front fenders grew shorter, the front overhang larger. Headlamps were newly flush and the all-important composite design, a much welcomed and aerodynamic replacement for the quad sealed beams of the year before. Like with other Japanese sedans around this time, the look was more cohesive and better put together than earlier Eighties predecessors.

Notably revised were the large black rubber bumpers, which got a plastic color-keyed covering in 1985. Gone were the vestiges of the five mile-per-hour impact bumpers, which still protruded either side of the front plate in 1984. The same three-box profile continued from the 810 generation, with color-matched door rub strips and color-keyed dogleg door handles. As before, the Maxima was offered in a sedan and wagon format, though the PU11 was the last time Maxima was offered as a wagon.

A nod toward the model’s future appeared with the PU11’s 1985 introduction when trims were reworked into GL and SE. SE was Maxima’s sports trim and picked up the black trim removed from the base model GL. SEs received spoilers as well as disc brakes at all wheels.

Though it was a compact like the Camry and Accord, the Maxima was a few inches larger than those two competitors in its mid-Eighties guise. In the change from rear- to front-drive, the Maxima gained an inch in wheelbase, up to 100.4″. But exterior length was much different. Previously the rear-drive sedan and wagon had exterior lengths of 171.3 and 173.2 inches, respectively. In 1984 that grew to 181.5 inches for the sedan, and 184.8 inches for the wagon. All PU11 Maximas were built at Nissan’s Oppama Plant in Yokosuka.

Aside from the larger size, powertrains changed entirely in the PU11 Maxima. In rear-drive guise, North American consumers were offered either 2.4- or 2.8-liter engines, inline-six in configuration and powered by gasoline or diesel. Both engines were from Nissan’s L series and originated in the late Sixties. In 1985 this changed to the new VG series engines which were V6 configuration. There were 2.0-liter and turbo options in Japan, but all North American Maximas were equipped with a 3.0-liter VG30E V6.

The VG30 was a sturdy, excellent engine that was shared with the likes of the 300ZX, Pathfinder, and the Mercury Villager. One-hundred and fifty-three horsepower were on offer in its initial Maxima usage, and 182 lb-ft of torque. Transmissions were a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. The five-speed was the transmission of choice on the SE, though a four-speed auto could be optioned. The VG30 was notable as the first V6 engine ever mass-produced in Japan.

Japanese Bluebird Maximas were a bit different than their North American cousins, as all used the smaller 2.0-liter V6 to avoid higher taxation. The sedan body style was available in its home market, but the wagon was not sold there. The most exclusive Bluebird Maxima was one off-limits to North America: A pillarless hardtop. That version was sold in Japan only at Bluebird Store locations.

Inside, the PU11 Maxima looked much more refined than its predecessor. Even in 1984, the Maxima’s interior was a loose conglomeration of hard plastics of different textures and a triumvirate of colors. There was much-unused center stack space covered in hard, texture-free plastic. In 1985 the look was more cohesive, as silver metallic trim covered the center stack, and buttons looked more alike to one another. There was even a new graphic equalizer. Tweedy blanket-like seating surfaces were replaced by button-tufted velour, which was also used on plush door panels.

The Maxima remained in its initial guise for only the first two model years, as in 1987 it received a makeover. Trim was revised generally, with more body-colored plastic and less black trim. Alloy wheels moved from a more complicated design with cut-outs and divots to a more Germanic-looking aerodynamic design. Updates carried to the inside as well, with revised interior materials. Nobody’s favorite – automatic shoulder belts – were added as standard equipment from midway through the ’87 model year. The GL trim became GXE.

Equipment was generally revised with the refresh, as Nissan took the Maxima upmarket to its Japanese sedan competition. The Maxima was not to be compared to Camry or Accord, but rather Toyota’s only luxury sedan offering at the time, the rear-drive Cressida.

Luxury features were found on both trims, as consumers slid their fingers over electric number pad entry buttons on driver and passenger doors. Power equipment was standard and included both front seats and the trunk release. Also new was that most Eighties of features, a voice alert system to inform when a door was ajar.

Maxima offered niceties not found in many other Japanese cars of the day, like optional leather seats, heated front chairs, and a full digital dash and trip computer (part of the pricy Electronics Package). Across all trims of sedan and wagon, alloy wheels were standard. No wheel covers to denote a penny-pinching buyer, as all Maximas were expensive.

Nissan added more technology in 1988 when an impressive new update was made to the Electronics Package. The trip computer was no more, and in its place was the Sonar Suspension System. A very advanced offering, SSS sent out sonar waves to scan the road surface ahead. An onboard computer read the wave feedback and adjusted the shocks to enhance ride control. The SSS was in addition to a separate option on SEs and a limited number of GXEs that featured three-setting adjustable shocks.

With its sporty nature, Nissan effectively positioned the Maxima as the driver’s choice compared to the softer and more sedate Cressida. The model’s aspirational pricing was evident as the PU11 developed and was revised in North America. In 1985 the GL asked $13,694 ($36,493 adj.) and was the same as the SE. The wagon existed only as a GL and was $14,594 ($38,891 adj.). By 1988 the base GXE commanded $17,774 ($43,190 adj.), while the SE was slightly more at $17,974 ($43,676 adj.) before options, and the GXE wagon was $18,974 ($46,106 adj.). The top ask was for the SE Special Edition, which added standard fog lamps, leather sport bucket seats, and additional exterior trim. SE Special was $19,274 ($46,835 adj.).

Nissan made a desirable sports sedan of the SE trim and successfully commanded much more for one in 1988 than it did in 1985. The PU11 Maxima was a short-lived generation, and 1988 was its last model year. Nissan was ready with their best Maxima ever for 1989: The J30. Sportier and better to drive than its competition, the 4DSC arrived in a big way. But that’s a story for another day.

[Images: Nissan]

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19 Comments on “Rare Rides Icons: The Second Generation Nissan Maxima, Approaching 4DSC...”

  • avatar

    I always thought this was a good-looking car, though I’m shocked to see that the U10 was 10in longer than the 910. I guess the long hood housing the L24 made the 910 look a lot longer than it was.

    Nissans of this period are VERY thin on the ground these days, with the exception of the occasional Sentra or 720/early Hardbody.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I think this is one of the best JDM designs to ever make it to the states. If they’d slap that body on g37/q60/370z chassis and drivetrain with a 6spd and sell it for those adjusted 2022 prices listed above , I’d buy one

  • avatar

    I did a short stint selling Nissans in ’88, and as nice as these were, I recall them as not being particularly good sellers. Same was true of the 300ZX. It could have been the area the dealership was in – south suburban St. Louis was a blue collar area.

    The “Hardbody” truck and Sentra flew off the lot, though.

  • avatar

    My high-school girlfriend’s father bought a 5-speed ’85 SE new and used it for a 200-mile round trip commute between Seattle and Bellingham, WA until 1994. With over 200,000 miles on it, he handed it down to my girlfriend and bought himself a new Volvo 850 Turbo. I got driven around plenty (among other things) in that car, and it was (much to my chagrin) so much cooler than my ’87 Taurus. The engine failed not long after she dropped me a couple of years later, no doubt* because the car was so disappointed in her for doing so.


  • avatar

    This isn’t really on-topic, but coincidentally earlier today I was thinking about Nissan and specifically the Maxima. What got me thinking about this was when I was driving behind a new Rogue.

    I was thinking that as dull as Toyota products are, there are a few bright lights in the lineup that interest people who like cars. The GR86 and the Supra for example. And definitely the GR Yaris if that ever came to North America. Yeah, I know it won’t. Lexus has some interesting options for people who like cars too.

    But Nissan? I can’t think of anything of interest there. Not in Nissan or Infiniti. I don’t know if the Z is available yet.

    But the Maxima was what stuck in my brain. I used to covet them. They were legitimate sport sedans. They looked good and had some decent performance chops too. But now, not so much.

    Remember when the new Altima came out in ’02 or ’03? Those got a lot of well-deserved attention. Now… meh…

    I think for me what seals Nissan as being beyond consideration is the use of a CVT is even something like the Maxima.

    BUT… I ended up here: Nissan knows their customers. Even more than Toyota, no one with the slightest interest in something more than a reliable, well-equipped, reasonably-priced appliance shops there. That isn’t a bad thing, but I won’t be darkening the door of the local Nissan dealership any time in the near future.

    I want something reliable, well-equipped and reasonably-priced too, but I also want something that holds my interest.

  • avatar

    A brand-new 1985 Maxima was parked in front of my house one evening in 1984 (my last year of high school; I liked cars). I borrowed the keys and did a walkaround/sit-in. It was impressive, especially the spaceship dashboard at night.

    The next week I discovered that it was priced 90% above my rough guesstimate. (There’s a reason we didn’t have nice things.)

    [If you didn’t like my story, at least it didn’t involve off-roading or motorcycles.]

  • avatar

    This was my favorite Maxima, specifically the ’85 to ’86 model (the 87 arrived midway through the usual 1986 model year, so the pre-facelift models were only sold for a year and a half). They had more attractive front and rear clips, and much nicer Brougham-grade velour button-tufted loose-cushion seats in the GL rather than the cheap cloth that replaced it in the GXE. The SE was stick-shift only if i recall correctly until the ’87 models. The true keyless entry (with pushbuttons on both front doors) was GL- or GXE-only too.

    Nissan may have been avoiding comparisons to the Camry or Accord, but we did shop the ’86 Maxima against the Mazda 626 GT which had a 2.0T four rather than the Maxima’s NA 3.0 V6. Advantage goes to Nissan there (at least before fuel economy was considered, but there was excessive NVH and turbo lag with Mazda’s four-banger), but the 626 GT sedan had more legroom front and rear, an easier to access trunk, more driver’s seat adjustments (but none of them powered, like the Maxima’s twin recliners). Only the Maxima GL had cornering lamps, in/out adjustable headrests, voltmeter and oil-pressure gauges, keyless entry (the Mazda didn’t even include remote openers). Both cars had an illuminated exterior keyhole. The 626 GT and all Maximas of this generation used bronze-tinted glass which was considered hip for a few years in the ’80s, like your Serengeti Drivers sunglasses. Both cars had trick stereos and cool gizmos. The Maxima had voice-box warnings; the 626 had an oscillating center vent. It’s hard to pick just one; we went with the Mazda. (the other car we put it up against was the ’85-87 Mitsubishi Galant, which couldn’t compare power-wise (an NA balance-shafted big four) but fully competed gadget-wise and was full of clever features. Shame about the leftover ’70s styling though.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Always liked this and the prior generation of Maximas this is when Nissan was at its peak. Nissan needs to either improve their CVTs and warranty them for a longer period or eliminate them altogether. This is a major reason for Nissan’s bad reputation and a major reason I would not buy any Nissan with a CVT. Toyota and Honda overall don’t have problems with their CVTs but Nissan is infamous for their Jatco CVTs.

  • avatar

    I love this boxy design, shame Nissan just really went in a junky direction ever since Renault came into the picture.

  • avatar

    Nissan – what happened to you? You used to make this and the jellybean Altima, which was a neat knock off of the J35. And a bunch of really fun, cool, affordable cars and trucks that looked great, drove great and were reliable. You were giving Honda and Toyota something to think about. 240sx, mid-90s Z, Pathfinder, Maxima. You were literally batting 1.000!

    We miss you.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Agree the lineup on that brochure is quite impressive and has some unique products. A friend ordered a fully equipped 300ZX Turbo. He was earning and spending big bucks at the time and that car for the time was very prestigious. Remember the Yuppie, (Michael) in Newhart was constantly mentioning his ‘Turbo Z’. My friend had trouble with ‘powerful’ cars and ended up totaling his within about 14 months of taking delivery.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    Unfortunately , Le Cost Cutter cost Nissan at least a decade short of sellable product. What used to be an edgier budget Honda, has lost all of their customers to the H/Kia.

    Nissan has some potential, in the flesh I actually like the new Pathfinder. The truck should sell well as it’s got a following,especially if they play up their heritage with the Hardbody re-do seen in concept.
    They need an XTerra,either a shortened Pathfinder to compete with the Passport or BOF to compete with the Bronco- but it needs to sell for less than either to work. I’m not sure when a new Murano will come out.
    I’ve been scanning the interwebs on a weekly basis to see when the Z will actually start to show up in dealers but there’s nothing concrete.

  • avatar

    Learned to drive in an 810 Maxima that my dad bought new. It was such a fantastic car.

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