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Makeover revives Nissan's Maxima

Nissan

Nissan

Does the Nissan Maxima still have a constituency? • In the early 1990s, this was the cool Nissan to have — a tightly drafted, reasonably racy Japanese sedan noted for its affordable fun and can't-kill-it durability. Tuners and slammers loved it. Nissan called it their 4DSC, which stood for "four-door sports car" (though I always thought that was eight-door hyperbole).

In recent years, if the Maxima were a political party, it could have held its rallies in a porta-potty. The once-sporty midsizer had been rendered all but irrelevant by the slightly smaller, swifter and cheaper Nissan Altima, which uses the same 3.5-liter V-6. Yet the bigger problem for Nissan's top-shelf sedan, it seems to me, was its loss of identity. The numb-handed corporate styling, the perfunctory interiors, the middling performance.

For 2009, the Maxima has gotten a makeover. The big changes include a 290-horsepower version of Nissan/Infiniti's VQ-series V-6 (a 35-horsepower bump over the 2008 model), which gushes power through a continuously variable transmission and out the front wheels in a deluge of exuberant torque steer.

This is a car that is trying really hard to be liked. Eager, aggressive, hypercompetent, the new Maxima doesn't so much sit on the fence as carom through it.

The CVT transmission has been re-educated for sporty driving — it will now hold high revs under hard acceleration — and the 19-inch sport tires (part of the optional performance package) sink their fangs into the asphalt from takeoff. It's a buzzy cavort to 60 mph (under 7 seconds), and I estimate the quarter-mile time is probably in the mid-14-second range.

To further establish the Maxima as a bona-fide sports sedan, Nissan has shortened the wheelbase and widened the track to make it marginally more nimble and flatter in cornering. There are, apparently, lighter aluminum suspension pieces underneath, buttoned to a stiffer chassis, and the engine lump is situated lower.

The CVT is also equipped with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, which causes the transmission to mimic the fixed gear ratios of a standard 6-speed.

The results of all the sportifying are mixed. Indeed, you could call it Mixima. The car has serious and significant road-holding ability in corners, big lateral grip.

However, first you have to get it in the corners, and that means using the steering wheel, which is full of twitches and uncertainty. The steering ratio is quick — when you turn the wheel a little, the car turns a lot — but the low-friction steering doesn't feel connected and secure, nor does it want to center itself. At moderate highway speeds, the Maxima requires a lot of tiller tending.

Out in the esses, the Maxima has a toothy bite in the corners. But as speeds increase, the turn-in washes away and you're left with a fairly conventional front-drive sedan operating at above-par speeds. Body roll is damped but far from banished. Off-the-corner push (understeer) is simply part of the bargain. Making a high-horsepower, front-drive, nose-heavy car corner well is no easy task.

So why isn't this a rear-drive car? Which is to say, why isn't this an Infiniti?

The Maxima's new styling — with its distinct bevel edge from headlight to taillight, swelling to encompass muscular fender flares — is reminiscent of Nissan's luxury division. The deep reserves of cush, the quiet ride and sound insulation, are worthy of the Infiniti.

The interior, from the luxe leather to the scads of high-grade electronics, including rear-view camera, Bluetooth and navigation, are right out of Infiniti's campaign headquarters. The price — upward of $37,000 in full boat trim — is certainly in the Infiniti ZIP code.

Personally, I think the Maxima is a victim of over-busy, overlapping product planning. Why would you vote for the Maxima when you can pull the lever for a similarly priced Infiniti G35, which puts its 300-plus horsepower to the rear wheels?

Now that's a party.

2009 Nissan Maxima

Base price: $29,700

Price as tested: $37,235

Powertrain: 3.5-liter DOHC, 24-valve V-6 with variable valve timing; continuously variable transmission with sport manual-shift mode; front-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 290 at 6,400 rpm

Torque: 261 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm

Curb weight: 3,579 pounds

0-60: Less than 7 seconds

Wheelbase: 109.3 inches

Overall length: 190.6 inches

EPA fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Wins the horsepower race, loses the Electoral College

Makeover revives Nissan's Maxima 12/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 5, 2008 5:31pm]

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