By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Competition is good — but not always necessarily for the seller.
When Nissan introduced the Maxima way back in 1981, the idea of a “four door sports car” — as the car would soon be styled in TV and print ads — was a new idea. Or at least, not a common one. The Maxima was a Japanese take on the BMW Concept — and by the mid-1980s, when the V-6/5-speed stick version appeared (same basic powertrain as the 300ZX of the time) it was one of the hottest things with four doors on four wheels around, for the money and otherwise.
The Maxima prospered.
So much so that today almost all sedans are at least “sporty” — and many are very Maxima-like indeed. That includes Nissan’s own Altima, which can be equipped with the same 3.5 liter V-6 that powers the Maxima, along with a six-speed manual transmission — which is no longer available in the Maxima at all.
That’s because the Maxima has moved uptown and is now a luxury-sport sedan, emphasis on luxury as much as sport. It can be equipped with heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, high-end leather trim with contrast-color stitching, two-piece sunroof, music storage hard drive, DVD player — the works.
The downside is that the Maxima’s price point is now awfully close to what you’d pay for a status-branded sedan such as a BMW 3-series or Acura TL.
And probably may buyers who pony up that kind of loot want the status that comes with the luxury label — as much as the features and equipment.
WHAT IT IS
The Maxima is a medium-large, front-wheel-drive performance sedan with numerous luxury car amenities.
Base price is $30,810 for the S, $33,530 for a top-of-the-line SV.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011
Bucking the clear-lensed trend, Nissan is offering a smoked headlight/”dark chrome” trim dress-up package for the new model year — which also includes contrast-color gray stitching for the interior.
Z-car sourced 290 hp V-6 is a potent performer; stronger than the base (and even optional) engines in several higher-priced entry-luxury sedans.
Standard CVT automatic is snappy and smooth.
Yin-Yang balance of ride quality and handling.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Lower-cost Altima with same V-6 is quicker and costs less.
Manual transmission not available.
Almost-luxury price without the luxury brand status.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Maxima comes standard with a 290 hp 3.5 liter V-6. This is the same basic engine used in previous versions of Nissan’s 350Z sports car (now the 370Z) and even though it’s an older (smaller displacement) version, its 290 hp outmuscles several luxury-branded sedans’ engines, including the BMW $33,650 BMW 328i’s 3.0 liter, 230 hp six and the $35,305 Acura TL’s 3.5 liter, 280 hp V-6.
The Maxima’s V-6 is teamed up with a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic; it’s the only available transmission choice.
0-60 takes about 6.2 seconds.
Gas mileage is pegged by the EPA at 19 city, 26 highway.
Premium fuel is recommended — but not required.
ON THE ROAD
The week I had the Maxima, it snowed about 5-6 inches and temperatures plummeted to thermostat-popping subzero figures. I had to make the trek into town — about 35 miles away, on iffy country roads likely to be slicked up with ice and drifted snow from the constant 40 mph gusts. I looked at the Maxima, then at my 4WD truck.
I decided to try the Maxima.
And once again, it reaffirmed my opinion — based on years of experience living in a cold-climate rural area — that in all but the hairiest situations, a FWD car with the right tires (and the right driver) can get you there and back as capably as a 4WD truck or AWD-equipped car. People get into trouble in snow mostly because they’re driving too fast, or not smoothly enough — being careful and gentle with all inputs (throttle, brake and steering). Not because their vehicle didn’t have AWD or 4WD. If you doubt it, think about all the 4WD SUVs you’ve seen in the ditch during a blizzard.
4WD and AWD can definitely help — but they’re no substitute for good driving skills.
So, my quibble with the Maxima wasn’t with the FWD layout — it was with the CVT-only transmission situation.
The Maxima was among the first sport sedans to be offered with a manual gearbox. Along with the powerful V-6, that third pedal helped make the Maxima’s bones as one of the — maybe the — greatest four-door sports car on the road. The powerful V-6 is still there — and there’s nothing wrong with the CVT, which could be one of the best such transmission on the market right now. It’s turbine smooth, nearly silent and even has a simulated manual mode you can control with F1-style paddle shifters on the steering wheel. But it’s not a manual — and not nearly as fun. It’s also not optimized for all-out performance. CVTs are becoming commonplace because they offer an efficiency advantage over conventional (hydraulic) automatic transmissions. But the same engine with a six-speed manual — as in the Altima — will be quicker.
In fact, the Altima V-6 is now what the Maxima used to be: a heavy-hitting sport sedan that can match the moves of many two-door sports cars — with a price tag that’s still in the family-sedan ballpark.
AT THE CURB
There are some interesting styling details but you have to get behind the wheel to really notice them. From that vantage point, you’ll get the Batmobile Effect of the Maxim’s undulating front fenders and scalloped hood treatment. It’s much more dramatic from behind the wheel than standing outside the car. The whole car is subtle. It doesn’t radiate “I’m fast!” even though it is — and can show its tail lights to several cars that have a “fast” reputation — for example, the BMW 3. The Maxima’s the automotive equivalent of concealed carry. You know you’re packing, but everyone around you doesn’t.
That can be its own kind of fun.
On the inside, the Maxima’s got some Stuff, too — including optionally available bucket-style rear seats, a legacy of its days as Nissan’s maximum-effort sport sedan. If you choose these, passenger capacity drops to four from five and instead of being able to fold the rear seats down to maximize cargo-carrying capacity, you get an appx. 8×6 pass-through door to the trunk area. But this opening will still let you carry home six 2×4 studs with the trunk closed — I know, because I did it.
The Maxima’s 14.2 cubic foot trunk is also larger than the Acura TL’s 13.1 cubic foot trunk and the BMW 3’s 12 cubic foot trunk.
I liked the console with the twin 12V power points, but the rotary knob control for the driver’s seat heater/cooler was mounted too far forward, literally partially underneath the lower portion of the center stack — which made it a little hard to reach and awkward to manipulate.
Other than that, no complaints — and much to praise.
The Maxima is available with many Infiniti-esque luxury amenities, including a 9.3 GIG music hard drive with streaming Bluetooth, iPod hook-up, LCD screen with CD and DVD playback, power rear sunshade, multi-section sunroof, heated and cooled seats, heated steering wheel and super nice leather (my test car had coffee-colored hides that were as soft and nice as you’d get in many $40k and up cars).
Even at $35k fully optioned out, the Maxima’s a great deal — and a great car. The only downside is that it’s still a Nissan and thus not in the same Members Only club as BMWs and Acuras — even though it’s quicker, just as nice to drive and can be very comparably equipped.
So the Maxima’s caught between two worlds: It’s $30k base price puts it in the entry luxury ballpark and its features and equipment justify its presence there. But its Nissan duds may be reason enough for the doorman to bar its entry into the club.
THE BOTTOM LINE
How much does status matter to you?