CARY, North Carolina - Ever since 1981, Maxima has served as Nissan's "flagship" model. As far back as 1989, Nissan began to refer to the Maxima as its "four-door sports car," promoting the sedan's handling qualities.
Nissan admits that the "sports car" element faded away somewhat during the last iteration of the Maxima, dating from 2005. As Mark Perry of Nissan's product planning group puts it, Maxima "lost a step" in the last generation. Now, newly redesigned for its seventh generation, the company is again touting the latest version for its sports car-like talents.
Adding power as part of a redesign is almost a certainty these days, and Nissan is no exception with its top sedan. In its latest form, the 3.5-liter V-6 engine has gained 35 horsepower, now rated 290 hp at 6400 rpm. Torque output has grown by 9 pound-feet, to 261 (at 4400 rpm). For highway driving, the fuel economy estimate has increased by 1 mpg, now rated at 19-mpg city/26-mpg highway. Premium-grade gasoline is required.
Nissan's Xtronic three-mode continuously variable transmission is the only one offered. In this installation, the CVT has gained a new Ds mode that alters the shift pattern of the virtual "gears." (No actual gears are present inside a CVT.) More than 700 separate "shift" algorithms are available, despite the lack of real gears. It's all done electronically, providing what Perry calls the "right gear, right time, all the time." In Ds mode, the system can "blip" the throttle a bit while the car is making its way through a curve. Paddle shifters are included with the available Sport package.
Though automakers invariably insist that the newest styling makes their model more distinctive than the competition, that's not always quite true. Sometimes, the modifications don't make all that much difference in overall appeal. In the case of the 2009 Maxima, however, Nissan has developed a sedan that actually does look markedly different from its predecessor, and from the full pack of rival full-size sedans. Nissan calls the design theme "Liquid Motion," and it's not entirely a mere promotional phrase.
Separating Maxima from the less-costly but similar-size Altima was one of the development goals. In recent years, the two cars may have looked somewhat different, but dimensions weren't far apart and powertrains were similar, too. Actually, the 2009 Maxima is built on the same "D" platform used for the Altima and the Murano crossover wagon. BMW's 5-Series sedan served as one of the benchmarks for Maxima development, Perry said.
This time around, the Maxima's wheelbase has lost 1.9 inches, and overall length has shrunk comparably. On the other hand, the 2009 Maxima is 1.4 inches wider than its predecessor. Wraparound L-shaped headlamps flank a catamaran-styled hood and a low, wide grille. Deeply sculpted coupe-style rear fenders are installed, ahead of a high trunk lid. A Dual Panel moonroof is available, but a single-panel unit is standard. Also optional is a rear spoiler. Standard wheels are 18-inch size, but 19-inchers may be installed.
Quietness is ordinarily a virtue in family-carrying sedans, but the sporty nature of the Maxima demands a bit of sound. "For enthusiast drivers," Perry explained,"you want to give some feedback." Engineers actually had to add a "sound generator" to produce noticeable tones while accelerating. Those specially-created sounds actually emanate from the engine's intake manifold, not the exhaust system.
Nissan borrowed a smaller-diameter steering wheel from the 350Z sport car, to tuck into the Maxima. An air-conditioned driver's seat is optional. So is Nissan's Hard Drive navigation system, with voice recognition, XM NavTraffic, and real-time traffic information.
On the extra-smooth roads of North Carolina, at least, the Maxima yields a lovely ride, coupled with a high-level sense of security. Still, there's an occasional touch of uncertainty in terms of road grip. That slight gap in confidence is filled nicely by the available Sport suspension, which tightens handling just enough to make a discernible difference. Many drivers will be wholly satisfied with the regular setup, but others will appreciate that extra touch of tenacity, which stiffens the ride only slightly - though the difference is detectable. Regardless of suspension, when the Maxima hits a bump, reactions are near-instant and appropriate, with no extra jouncing at all.
Almost invariably, the Maxima feels capable ot being pushed a little (or a lot) harder than you've tried. Through winding two-lane roads, the Maxima delivered good grip and careful control. It really does approach sports-car level - but, as expected, falls a bit short of that status. For a four-door sedan, however, steering/handling is largely satisfying.
Acceleration from a standstill qualifies as stirring, and occupants feel the virtual "gear" changes lightly. Response at passing speeds is no less energetic, with less evidence of those "gears." Throughout, Nissan's CVT performs with impressive smoothness.
When equipped with paddle shifters, manual "gear" changes may be engaged by simply pulling on one of the paddles.
Though partly simulated, the engine snarl that occurs during acceleration is tolerable, yet troubling. Despite protestations that enthusiasts crave such sounds, it just seems a little out of character for a company's flagship. The tonal quality derived from the engine's "sound generator" won't appeal to everyone.
Nissan claims that torque steer (the tendency to pull to one side while accelerating relatively hard) is almost nonexistent. In ordinary driving, it's not discernible at all.
Seats deliver outstanding comfort and support: snug but pleasing, with helpful side bolstering. Ample side glass promises very good views all around. The driver sees a hump on the hood, near the windshield, but the front end is difficult to spot without stretching forward.
Superior gauges are large and illuminated, centered on a huge, easily-read speedometer and a large tachometer alongside. Both instruments are fully calibrated. A large hood sits above the gauges, and everything is easy to see - including the odometer/trip readings.
Front head and leg room are good. So is elbow space. Full-length seat bottoms in the SV sedan include thigh extenders, which are most welcome on longer drives. Though deep, the glovebox isn't as wide as its door.
Summing up, the 2009 Maxima is a civilized and satisfying road car. Then again, so is the Altima, which costs less. Even the aesthetically challenged, though, may be attracted to the Maxima's new, distinctive contours.
Sales began at the end of June. Prices start at $29,985 (including destination charge) for the basic Maxima S sedan. Moving up to an SV adds $2,700 to the cost.
Base-model update: Quiet running is the rule with Nissan's Maxima S sedan. Even though the "sound generator" (described above) is built-in, its effect is markedly less noticeable in the basic sedan, unless it's pushed really hard. Most drivers should be fully satisfied with the S model, which performs energetically, helped by Nissan's ever-so-smooth CVT. Handling isn't quite as taut as it would be with a Sport package installed on the SV edition, but the S model behaves impressively on the highway and around town, providing a satisfying ride and only slight loss of confident control.
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