By Lary Coppola
I’ve had the opportunity to put the Nissan Maxima through its paces several different times since its major redesign in 2009. My initial impression was that an already good sports sedan had been much improved when I drove it for the first time at a press event in California. That impression has been reinforced every time I’ve driven it since. Built in Tennessee, the seventh generation Maxima is offered in two very well-equipped models — the 3.5S and 3.5SV.
The original front-wheel drive Maxima debuted in 1985, with what Nissan marketeers referred to at the time as a “sinister” look that prevailed until a 1989 model year redesign, when the term “4-Door Sports Car” was coined.
The Maxima is the fourth vehicle built on Nissan’s high-performance, front-wheel drive, “D-Platform.” It offers lower weight and increased roominess over a rear-wheel drive platform, and provides increased body and torsional rigidity, improving body stiffness, significantly reducing interior noise, and making torque steer a memory.
During the original technical presentation before driving the redesigned Maxima, Nissan engineers told us their “official” goal was to return the Maxima to its position as, “The best performing front engine, front-wheel drive car in the world,” by including class-leading acceleration, braking, handling, craftsmanship and cockpit design. They also told us their “unofficial” goal was to recreate that “sinister” look in a breakthrough vehicle with an attitude — akin to the impact the Hemi-powered Chrysler 300M had upon its debut — making it the “badass” of this market segment. It appears to me they succeeded on all counts.
Walkaround: The exterior design of the Maxima imparts that same feeling of “liquid motion” that embodies its upscale Infiniti line. The Maxima offers smooth, flowing lines, coupled with an aggressive-looking front grille, and a belligerent stance featuring wide front and rear tracks. The wraparound L-shaped headlights with “turbine” light surrounds and available High Intensity Discharge (HID) Xenon lamps, slightly flared fenders, and a “catamaran-style” hood, highlight the visual flow to a raised trunk lid flanked by 12-LED L-shaped “stepped” taillights. Dual chrome-tipped exhaust pipes, and standard 10-spoke, 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, complete the “badass” look.
While a moonroof comes standard, a cool Dual Panel Moonroof with a wide opening front panel, fixed translucent rear panel with front and rear power retractable sunshades that give the appearance of a full black glass roof, is optional.
A real spoiler, and 19-inch, 5-spoke alloy wheels are also available.
Interior: The Maxima’s interior design is what Nissan terms its “Super Cockpit” concept — imparting the feeling of driving a sports car.
Controls are close, and ergonomically-positioned, while the interior still offers both driver and passengers ample room and luxurious comfort. The optional “Driver’s Chair” sport seat is oversized, and features extended thigh support. The shift lever is offset closer to the driver, offering the choice of using it, or the optional steering wheel-mounted paddles for manual shifting. The instrumentation has what’s termed “Daylight Illumination” — eliminating the washout caused by bright sunlight and/or polarized sunglasses common to digital readouts.
There are two rear seat layouts — a 60/40 split fold-down configuration with trunk access, and a fixed rear-seat with a center armrest pass-through. There are also two available grades of leather offered, including a premium grade.
The Maxima features a wide range of available technology that’s both intuitive and user-friendly, including Bluetooth, a premium Bose audio system, iPod interface, a 9.3GB Music Box hard drive, Nissan’s Hard Drive Navigation system with Voice Recognition, and a rear view camera. Also available is Sirius/XM satellite radio and XM NavTraffic and NavWeather — which offers real-time traffic and weather information — but requires an active satellite subscription.
Under The Hood: The Maxima boasts Nissan’s award-winning 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve VQ-series V6 powerplant — universally acclaimed as the best and most versatile engine since the original small-block Chevy. It delivers a spirited 290 horsepower with 261 lb-ft of torque. A revised Xtronic CVT™ with manual mode, available paddle shifters, and a new “Ds mode” (drive sport) tuned specifically for this Maxima is the only transmission offered.
Behind The Wheel: Be it mundane freeway driving, or winding, twisting 2-lane mountain roads offering tight curves, switchbacks and lots of acceleration and deceleration, the more challenging the terrain, the more the Maxima can showcase its superb handling capabilities. Acceleration is quick and decisive, and the speed-sensitive, rack-and-pinion Twin Orifice Power Steering (TOPS), delivers exactly the right amount of assist. Challenging topography is also where the CVT’s manual mode can be utilized to its fullest, as well as the standard four-wheel ABS disc brakes, which feature Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (BA).
The enhanced CVT works extremely well with the powerful V6, and while purists may disagree on principle, in manual mode, it actually outperforms any stick shift I’ve ever driven.
In short, the Maxima is a blast to drive on challenging terrain, and even though it’s a big car, it’s light on its feet — like a sports car in many respects.
Whines: The glovebox is one of the largest and deepest I’ve ever seen in any vehicle, but if someone is in the passenger seat, their knees get in the way of complete access.
Bottom Line: This is the first Maxima not benchmarked against a Toyota Avalon or Camry, but against itself. Nissan is billing it as the “Return of the four-door sports car.” After driving it, I understand why — it’s totally awesome in every respect. Nissan has been on a major product roll for most of the past decade. However, the 2010 Maxima is not just another home run, but a grand slam.