On the Road Review: Nissan Maxima SL Sedan

In 1970, Nissan — then known in this market as Datsun — gave us the 240Z, the first real Japanese sports car for the masses. It was powered by a straight-six engine, had rear wheel drive, and that sports car upset all of the preconceived notions about what an Asian car company could do. That first Z was a runner, it sold well and the genie was out of the bottle — Datsun/Nissan had cemented its position in America.

By 1981, the same thinking that went into the Z gave us the first Maxima sedan — a rear-drive four-door powered by a straight-six engine. It too was an oddity among the compact cars being built by the three Asian brands. Nissan’s marketers soon affixed the title of ‘four-door sports car’ to the Maxima, a label still being used today.

Yet, along the way, the Maxima shifted platforms, moving onto a front drive chassis while growing in size to rubbing elbows in the larger midsize and full-size sedan class, with cars called Toyota Avalon, Hyundai Azera, as well as the swelling dimensions of the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. At 193 inches long and riding on a 109-inch wheelbase, Mr. Max is no longer the small sedan it once was.

While the Maxima grows dimensionally — name me some cars that haven’t shifted upward in size and weight — it still carries a big-stick engine, it is still packed with lots of features, and the latest edition carries a bit more sporting pretentions visually with larger wheels, sleeker styling as well as some subtle aerodynamic improvements. Make no mistake, the new 2016 Maxima has sharper visuals and makes a grander street statement than the previous model.

Under the hood, there is a familiar 3.5-liter V-6 that has been re-tuned for smoothness and increased responsiveness. No turbo added here, although Nissan has a new 3.0-liter twin-turbo coming for several models, this old-school engine makes a robust 300 hp and loves doing it. Running through a CVT transmission — Nissan’s favorite mode of transmission lately — the Maxima returns great fuel economy (30 mpg for a very hurried 500-mile day in the saddle) while providing the kind of acceleration that brings a smile to the face of serious driving enthusiasts.

Remember how hot-rodders from the 1960s and early 1970s reveled in their sporty car’s power and straight-line acceleration? Of course, that is about all any of them could perform — they lacked strong brakes, handling attributes, safety gear, and on and on. This Maxima, with its V-6, is quicker than many of those V-8 muscle cars, while doubling their fuel economy, out-turning, out-stopping and out-steering those large cars with a grace that was unknown then.

The caveat, there always is, has to be that the Nissan is asking the Maxima’s front wheels to do it all; turn, stop, and put this power to the ground. With 61 percent of the car’s weight over the front wheels, the chassis has too much weight bias up front. Handling and ride dynamics have been sorted out to please most, however, on anything less than perfectly smooth tarmac, Mr. Max still displays a healthy amount of torque steer when you unleash those 300 horses. Add in a weighted steering wheel, meant to compensate but really lacks enough feel to be really accurate, and a driver can be forgiven if they wished for a change back to rear-wheel drive, or even better, a rear-biased AWD setup that is much preferred by other four-door sports car makers with Bavarian names.

These thoughts appeared because Mr. Max appeared directly after the Lexus GS sports sedan, a rear-drive model citizen of similar size. Mr. Max stomped the Lexus’s turbo-four in driving fun, economy and overall drivability (and price), but the Lexus’s chassis out-sported the Maxima.

So the Max is quicker than the GS’s turbo-four (Lexus has two other larger-engined models) but does it do anything else well against the more expensive Lexus? While tastes vary, one could easily be seduced by the Maxima’s interior presentation — especially as the price is factored into your purchasing decision.

In second level (of four) SL trim, Mr. Max checks many boxes. Dual panel sunroof, dual-zone climate system, large center info screen, large central screen for navigation (standard, and very crisp display), upgraded Bose audio system, heated power seats, heated steering wheel, plus the now expected push-button ignition (with remote starting), rear camera and a plethora of electronic safety and driving aids. The driver’s seat has a manual thigh extender panel, very welcome and very much like a BMW, and the seat was all-day comfortable, but you felt like you sit on it rather than in it like the more supportive Lexus GS seats.

The Maxima’s CVT has a sport mode; click the lever closer to your right knee, and ‘shift’ points rise and the car jumps with eagerness as you toe the throttle. In reality, Nissan has done the most work with CVT transmissions (it owns a majority interest in the supplier) and the Maxima’s CVT has the best feel and performance of a CVT yet sampled when you hold it up against a traditional multi-speed automatic. The proof is in the pudding; Nissan’s with CVT transmissions (Maxima’s EPA — 22/30/25-mpg) are getting better fuel economy than rivals without them.

Our Maxima SL also featured one of the best dynamic cruise control systems yet sampled. This technology is maturing rapidly; automakers are employing sensors for safety detection for braking, blind-spot, etc. and the programmers are swiftly mastering the fine art of recognizing forward position drivers so that the cruise control can better manage speeds on a busy highway. The Maxima was superb at responding to other traffic, traveling at a different speed, and not slowing or accelerating at an exaggerated pace, in effect operating the pedals like you would if you were in control. The Nissan was more relaxing to leave the cruise engaged in heavy traffic — not something all systems will allow unless you want to move backward through dense traffic. With the CVT holding ‘high gear’ and the V-6’s abundant torque, the Maxima was a smooth cruiser.

Very nice interior, much-improved exterior styling, responsible fuel economy, swift gusto from the engine room — the Maxima seems like a nice alternative to the recent Lexus — especially since it is $22,000 less with a tested price of $37,000. The Lexus carried more features, maybe some more panache, but it doesn’t yet have the four-door sports car moniker embedded in its DNA, even if the Nissans might be less assertive today.

Nissan has sold over 3 million Maxima sedans and the car is now built in Smyrna, Tenn., at one of the largest assembly plants in America. Despite its impressive appearance, it would be nice to see this Altima-based chassis at least offer an AWD option. AWD would make the Maxima more virtuous in the Snow Belt, improve its overall handling and traction and make buyers tempted by Cadillac CTS4 sedans, even Fusion sedans, take another look at this nicely rounded package.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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