We recently drove two midsized sedans from Nissan — the Altima and its slightly more upscale sibling, the Maxima. While we were familiar with both cars, our time with them only reinforced why they are so popular.
Appearance: The Maxima sits atop Nissan's vehicle lineup. You might think it's larger than the Altima, but the cars are built on the same platform. The Maxima is more feature-laden and marketed as the "four-door sports car," which may explain why its recent refresh gave it a more muscular look, with a contoured hood and squared-off snout. The front is accented by the spearhead-shaped headlights a la Nissan's 370Z and slight fender swells. In the rear, the wraparound taillights are sharply angled. The net effect is an "Infiniti light."
Performance: Despite Nissan's marketing, it's not a true sports sedan. The Maxima has the same 3.5-liter, 6-cylinder mill as the Altima we drove, only it's tuned to produce 20 more horsepower, which puts it at 290. Like the Altima, that power is mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which makes for smooth and strong acceleration. The speed-sensitive steering responds well; Peter had to react quickly when he was cut off by a delivery truck. Lyra liked how the sport-tuned suspension kept the car planted on the tight I-275 ramp onto Dale Mabry. As with the Altima, there was little torque steer.
Interior: Nissan loads up on the amenities: dual-zone AC, heated seats and steering wheel, rear-view camera, navigation, power rear sun shade. The navigation screen has an overhang to prevent glare, its buttons and dial are set at user-friendly angles. We both liked the sports-car-like feel of the cockpit, including the large paddle shifters.
Appearance: The Altima got minor tweaks to its 2007 redesign including a "power bulge" in the hood, T-shaped grille and elongated triangular headlights. It's built on same platform as the Maxima, although its stance is not as wide. Unlike the Maxima, it's not an aggressive look.
Performance: Peter has owned a couple of Nissans and has always been impressed with their engines. In the Altima, that holds true: The 3.5-liter V-6 puts out 270 horsepower and its spirited acceleration coupled with responsive handling make it fun to drive. Nissan seems to have gotten a better handle on the torque steer to which Peter's older Altima is prone. Even though its appearance may be somewhat out of Central Casting for a family sedan, its performance is not. The CVT transmission gives the car smooth and strong pickup.
Interiors: The Altima's interior, while not luxurious, is no longer a spartan expanse of plastic. The dash has large and clear gauges, and the console is simple and functional. Lyra liked the triple AC vents in the center of the dash that give the Altima a cockpit feel. Bonus for families: There are nine cup holders. Other details we liked: the sunglasses holder, push-button ignition, wide-open glove box and a nook in the center console. Overall, Lyra thought it felt roomier and more open than the Maxima, with lots of trunk space. The Altima was the top midsized sedan in the 2009 J.D. Power survey.
The bottom line: The Altima felt more family-friendly, the Maxima more sporty and plush. Both are fun to drive with respectable mpg. The Altima's entry sticker of $19,900 is attractive, but for both, options can quickly raise the price.