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January 31, 2012 > Auto Review: Nissan Maxima

Auto Review: Nissan Maxima

Four-door sports car

By Steve Schaefer

The Maxima, Nissan's flagship, dubbed the "four door sports car," has the style and muscle to justify that slogan. It also serves nicely as a commuter, family hauler and bass schlepper.

The Maxima has been around awhile, originating as the Datsun 810 before becoming the Maxima as Nissan shed the Datsun name in the early 1980s. It's been Nissan's big sedan ever since and is now in its seventh generation.

The 2012 models get a midlife tweak, with a new grille, taillights, and 18-inch and 19-inch aluminum-alloy wheels. Inside, they receive a new white gauge cluster illumination color, new Dark Piano-hairline trim, Atlantic Cherry wood tone trim and a new Cafe Latte interior color.

The car I drove was built in Nissan's 5.4-million square-foot plant in Smyrna, Tennessee which opened in June 1983. It has produced Altimas, Frontier pickups, Xterras and Pathfinder SUVs as well as Maximas and employs nearly 4,000 people.

The 2012 Maxima is offered in two well-equipped models, the 3.5 S and 3.5 SV. The S starts out pretty loaded already, but the SV steps above it with leather-appointed sport seats, Bose(r) premium audio system with nine speakers (including two subwoofers and a center channel speaker), XM(r) Satellite Radio, HomeLink(r) Universal Transceiver, fog lights and turn signal indicators on the outside mirrors.

This latest Maxima is a large vehicle, with a dramatically sweeping treatment of the sides and a surprising ridged edge to the rippled hood. You can see this from the driver's seat, and it makes you more aware of road presence of the car from the inside - a nice trick.

Interior fittings are much like Nissan's upscale Infiniti division, with a "floating" dash and well-equipped console. To control features of the center-mounted screen, there's a dial with buttons around it. Unlike German competitors who mount these controls along the lower console between the seats, Nissan's is positioned up high, on a small tabletop, so the interface is more like a keyboard. The large color screen and substantial buttons make operating it fairly straightforward.

While some new cars opt for lots of swirling lines and alternating convex and concave panels, Maxima's cabin sticks to a more muted, restful shape. It feels substantial, comfortable and luxurious without ostentation. For example, the seats are trimmed in simple sections, without elaborate panel designs. The metallic trim has a brushed nickel look rather than chrome.

There's plenty of power from the 3.5-liter V6 with its290 horsepower and 261 lb.-ft. of torque. Maxima engines have been industry award winners for years and this one continues the tradition. The kind of power once reserved for serious sports coupes now comes in a format that carries five.

The automatic uses a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), the kind that employs bands and pulleys instead of cogged gears to create an infinite range of ratios. Nissan is putting this type of "gearbox" into practically everything it builds now. I couldn't hear the transmission much, but on acceleration, sometimes engine rpms would climb higher than in a standard, geared automatic.

For all its size and features, the Maxima still delivered, on average, 20.4 mpg. EPA numbers say 19 City, 26 Highway (22 average), and the EPA Green Vehicle Guide awards Maxima "6" for Air Pollution and "5" for Greenhouse Gas.

Maxima's Sport Package, for $2,100, adds a long list of performance and appearance upgrades. It starts with tuning the suspension, always a welcome upgrade, and then shoes the car in special 19-inch wheels. The package also modifies the seats, covering them in upgraded leather and adding heat and automatic entry/exit (moves the seat back when you turn off the key). Rear seats are configured like buckets to help maintain the four-door-sports-car feeling for everyone. Heated mirrors are added as well as paddle shifters on the steering column and folding rear armrests.

The Sport Technology package provides navigation with XM traffic and weather updates. Funny, but the XM NavWeather feature kept warning me that it was freezing someplace within five miles of the car. I finally figured out that it must be five miles directly above in the atmosphere.

My car came to $40,055, including shipping and the Sport and Sport Technology packages. These significantly upgraded the car's looks and feel, but that price is really encroaching on luxury car territory. The S model without extra packages starts at $32,840.

As the industry moves toward higher efficiency and fuel economy standards, it still needs efficient five-passenger sedans. Maxima does a pretty good job of that. Future models may employ turbocharged four-cylinder engines or hybrid powertrains to meet these standards but for now, you get space, power and some fun too with this car.

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