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2009 Nissan Maxima test drive

You've got to know when to fold 'em

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating

By

2009 Nissan Maxima front view

2009 Nissan Maxima

Photo © Aaron Gold

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Back in the 1990s, Nissan advertised the Maxima as the Four Door Sports Car, a viable title in the days when front-wheel-drive performance was in vogue. All went well until 2002, when Nissan introduced a new super-sized Altima that offered buyers Maxima performance and Maxima room in a cheaper car. Predictably, Maxima sales dried up.

For 2009, Nissan has redesigned the Maxima with the intent of restoring its former glory. Is the Four Door Sports Car ready to make a triumphant return? Read on. Price range $29,950 - $38,320, EPA economy estimates 19 MPG city, 26 MPG highway.

First Glance: Nowhere to run

Larger photos: Front - rear

Today's review opens with a round of Let's Pretend Aaron is an Auto Executive. If I were making the decisions at Nissan, I'd either made the Maxima rear-wheel-drive or drop it from the lineup entirely. (Actually, if I were a Nissan executive, I'd take advantage of Nissan's partnership with French automaker Renault and assign myself to a market research project -- one that involved talking to bikini-clad Eurobabes on a beach in the south of France. I expect that my tenure with Nissan would be short, but memorable.)

But rear-wheel-drive has become a mainstay of Infiniti, Nissan's luxury brand, so Nissan has apparently ruled it out for the Maxima. So why not just do what they've been doing for years, and build a really nice front-wheel-drive car? Well, the problem is that Nissan already has a really nice front-wheel-drive car, the top-of-the-line Altima 3.5 SL. Hence my Plan B -- know when to fold 'em, and give the Maxima the axe-ima. (Sorry.)

But Nissan hasn't axed the Maxima (nor have they sent me to the south of France, although I'm sure that after reading this review they'll probably want to send me to the South Pole). Instead, they've tried to visually differentiate the Maxima from other Nissans, chiefly the Altima. The new Maxima is slightly smaller and trimmer than the old version, with styling that features a big grille, bulging fenders and curiously-shaped headlights (which, viewed from the side, resemble the Lexus "L" logo). It's an odd shape, good looking from some angles, awkward from others, and I have yet to get used to it.

In the Driver's Seat: A discount Infiniti?

2009 Nissan Maxima dashboard

Maxima's dashboard shows a strong Infiniti influence. This is an SV model without navigation

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photo

The view from the inside is much better. The Maxima's cabin shows a definite Infiniti influence; in terms of seats, space and control layout, it reminded me a lot of the Infiniti M45. The driving position favors tall people, with a high dashboard and bulged hood that make visibility tricky for us short guys. I rode with a 6'3" journalist who felt perfectly comfortable behind the Maxima's wheel, but at 5'6" I felt like a kid wearing his father's shoes. All the places that my hands and arms touched -- armrests, center console lid, steering wheel, shifter -- were lined with leather, which I liked, but I thought the plastic which made up the rest of the dash was a little cheap.

Nissan is offering the Maxima in S and SV models. The S is the loss-leader Maxima, $29,950 with cloth seats, single-pane sunroof, keyless push-button ignition, and dual-zone climate control. Skip it, because for $2,700 more you get the SV with leather upholstery, Bose stereo, and access to a host of options including navigation, XM satellite radio, and heated seats and steering wheel. The SV can be had with either Sport ($2,300) or Premium ($3,450) packages. Both get upgraded interior trim and nicer leather; Sport models get unique wheels and a stiffer suspension, while Premium cars get a big dual-pane sunroof, heated and cooled driver's seat, and rear-seat air conditioning. On the safety front, it's all good news: All Maximas come with six airbags, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control (called Vehicle Stability Control, or VSC, in Nissanspeak).

On the Road: Power for a changing world

Back in the 90s, the Maxima's 190 horsepower engine made it a real muscle car. Today, even the Altima is available with a 270 hp V6 (not that anyone wants one at $4/gallon). Indeed, the Maxima gets the same 3.5 liter engine as the Altima, albeit with 20 more horsepower. Torque steer -- the tendency of a powerful front-drive car to pull to one side under hard acceleration, and a chronic problem with older Nissans -- has been all but exorcised from the new Maxima.

The Maxima comes exclusively with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). I love CVTs. They deliver better power and fuel economy than a regular automatic, though the sound takes some getting used to; rather than shifting gears, CVTs let the engine speed rise and fall as needed. For those who can't get used to the soundtrack, the Maxima's CVT has a Sport mode that imitates a conventional automatic, complete with simulated gear changes. Maximas with the Sport package even get shift paddles on the steering wheel. Still, as with any CVT, best results come by letting the transmission do its continuously-variable thing -- and as a result, the Maxima is the only car I know of that's slower in Sport or manual modes than it is in plain ol' Drive.

I drove Maximas with and without the sport-tuned suspension, and wasn't thrilled with either; the Sport is too firm on bumpy roads, while the regular suspension is too floaty on the interstate. But when I attacked the About.com Cars Top Secret Curvy Test Road in a non-Sport car, I was amazed -- despite the soft ride it handled as well as any front-driver I can recall.

Journey's End: Nice, but who needs it?

2009 Nissan Maxima rear view

2009 Nissan Maxima

Photo © Aaron Gold

Let me begin my ending by saying that Nissan's done a great job on the 2009 Maxima. It's quick, roomy, comfortable, safe, and attractively priced for all you get, plus it's fun to drive and easy to live with. My complaints -- slightly-awkward styling and not-quite-right ride -- are only minor problems. The Maxima reminds me of a discounted Infiniti M35 -- similar room, power and style, sans rear-wheel-drive. Overall, it's a very good car.

Would I buy one? Of course not. Why would I? The V6-powered Altima serves up comparable performance and room for $5,000 less ($3,000 if you want leather), while the Infiniti G37 offers better amenities and rear- or all-wheel-drive for just $3,000 more. One could argue that the Maxima bridges the gap between the Altima and the G37 -- but those two cars are apples and oranges. And who wants an orpple? (Or an apprange?)

The Maxima faces few direct competitors. The similarly-priced Toyota Avalon and Lexus ES350 (and the cheaper Hyundai Azera) offer nicer interiors, though none are particularly thrilling to drive. (The new Mazda6, however, is.) Hyundai's new rear-drive Genesis is a promising alternative, offering Infiniti-like amenities for a price only slightly higher than the Maxima's.

Not that any of this matters, because Nissan has introduced the Maxima at a time when buyers want smaller, more economical cars. There are still plenty of Maxima loyalists out there, and they're going to love the 2009 Nissan Maxima. The rest of us, however, will probably just ignore it. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros, cons, who should buy it, details and specs

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