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Car reviews - Nissan - Maxima - 250 ST-L sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Smooth performance, quality cabin fittings, spacious interior, easy to drive, great value for money, good economy, upmarket ambience
Room for improvement
No split fold rear seat, heavy-handed styling

16 Dec 2009

ARE you seeking a different lifestyle? Are you sick of the mundane? Does the thought of the everyday make you want to nibble your very own face off?

Then Nissan may have just the car for you.

Welcome to the new-shape Maxima – a somewhat unexpected alternative to the normal Holden Commodore, Ford Falcon, Toyota Camry, Toyota Aurion, and Honda Accord V6 that form the Holy err… Quinity of the Australian family sedan market.

In base-model 250 ST-L guise (how old-school Mercedes-sounding!), the big Nissan seemingly ticks every single box, but then throws in a big dollop of individualism, as well as a standard features list as long as your arm, to get your vote.

“Please explain!” we hear you say.

Well, last thing first: thanks to Australia’s free trade agreement with Thailand, there is less import duty so Nissan has managed to cost the J32 Maxima more effectively than its Japanese-built predecessor.

Thus, for $6000 less than an Omega 3.0L V6 and just $1500 more than the Holden Epica CDXi 2.5L I6, the $33,990 250 ST-L can include airbags all round, stability and traction controls, leather seats, Xenon headlights with auto-on/off function, climate control air-con, powered folding mirrors, 17-inch alloys with a full-sized alloy spare, fog lights, powered front seats, six-stacker audio, and push-button engine start.

And that’s just the start.

Basically, underneath a body that loses all of the old Maxima’s Northern Euro charm for a bulging baroque look complete with Picasso-esque detailing (how disproportionately long can tail-lights be!), lurks a new, stronger and far more rigid structure for a vastly improved driving and refinement experience.

Benchmarked against the fine-driving Aurion, the big front-drive Nissan – that is purportedly dynamically tuned to Australian conditions – is no longer a lumbering, lardy handler, thanks to a responsive (if rather remote) hydraulic rack and pinion steering arrangement that ensures corners are dealt with in a measured and progressive fashion.

Shared with the latest Murano mid-sized SUV, the architecture is made up of a new MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension system with specially designed shock absorbers to improve stability – or so says the press kit.

And guess what? We were not expecting the Maxima to be so flat and controlled through turns, making for a relaxed and easy car to manoeuvre as well as drive on long empty straights. This thing actually feels lighter than it looks as a result, even though weight is up between 46 and 83kg compared with the old version, depending on the model.

Better still, the brakes have no problems hauling the Nissan up, there are no ride quality issues and noise suppression is excellent (the upshot of improved insulation and better structural design).

However, some traditional Maxima owners might find the suspension set-up a tad firm (i.e. not roly poly enough for their liking). Still, we’d opt for control over bouncy cushiness any day, and we’re sure many of you would too.

Not that the typical owner is going to be expecting Nürburgring levels of dynamic finesse, but most of the competition – and especially the similarly priced Ford Mondeo and Mazda6 – are really rather good to drive, so Nissan obviously understands what Australians like. A Japanese-market pre-production example we drove in the middle of last year felt rubbish in comparison.

And what of the ‘250’ bit of the ST-L?

Well, again, the Japanese have come up with an elegant solution to the wonderfully powerful and super smooth VQ35 V6’s propensity for petrol – basically they’ve shrunken it.

Yes, you’ve heard right. With a 1002cc drop in capacity, the 2.5-litre VQ25 is very closely related to the famous 3.5L V6 that was always the best thing going for the old Maxima.

In the 250 ST-L it includes big shot words like “all-aluminium”, “double overhead cam”, “24-valve” and “Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System” on its resume.

Of more relevance is the 134kW of power and 228Nm of torque that is transmitted to the front wheels using standard 91 RON unleaded petrol, as well as the 9.5 litres per 100km average fuel consumption figure.

On paper, the Omega 3.0 V6 creams the Maxima’s numbers (190kW, 290Nm and 9.3L/100km), while the Camry 2.4-litre four-cylinder auto’s 117kW, 218Nm and 8.8L/100km results are also in the Nissan’s ballpark.

But neither engine is as fabulously sonorous or sweet as the VQ25, and in the real world our 10.2L/100km urban average makes for extremely competitive figures against its seemingly more frugal foes. We couldn’t get anywhere near that in our 2.3L Mondeo wagon we recently tested, for instance.

A favourable power-to-weight ratio (the Holden is heavier by approximately 140kg while the Toyota is only a little lighter) is one reason why the Nissan isn’t so thirsty the other is its (heavily revised) CVT Continuously Variable Transmission dubbed X-TRONIC, which Nissan says has improved shift response and quality.

Also featuring a six-speed Tiptronic-style sequential manual mode, this gearbox works seamlessly with the engine to extract performance as efficiently as a modern transmission can.

In the 250 ST-L then, that off-putting ‘slipping clutch’ lag and feel of old-style CVTs is pretty much obliterated for a progressive and constant feed of power to the front wheels, with no hesitation and without a feeling of over-revving.

Step-off acceleration is strong, with enough in reserve for speedy overtaking should the need arise. The 2.5-litre V6 sounds keen to eclipse the 6000rpm power peak, and sounds great doing it all day.

Yet the VQ25/CVT combo’s greatest strength is how effortless it makes the Maxima feel when cruising down the highway. Relaxation, thy name is X-TRONIC.

Only when fully laden and on a hilly climb does the lack of cubic inches become apparent, but the Maxima’s engine is way preferable to the naturally aspirated four-cylinder units offered in its rivals, and makes a smart alternative to the bigger six-cylinder powerplants out there.

A hushed cabin is another feather in the big Nissan’s cap.

We were always big fans of the old Maxima’s progressive interior design, with its Scandinavian wood influence, horizontal surfaces and clean symmetry.

This new Maxima’s dashboard, by comparison, is less of a designer statement and more of a classy, quality item. Heavy on functionality, it is divided into three areas (instrument binnacle, upper console for LED screen, heater/air-con controls, and vents, and lower console for audio controls).

The result is easy to navigate and operate, with particular attention paid to the large, legible LED screen markings, clear white dash dials and concise sound system operation. Only the horizontal climate control switches raise an eyebrow since they can be hard to determine while driving.

There are no qualms about the driving position, however, with a nice thin leather-trimmed rim housing the switchgear for the audio and cruise control functions. And this is in spite of no reach adjustment for the steering column.

Vision out is quite good (the C-pillar windows help) but the boot’s exact length remains a mystery to a reversing driver: the optional rear parking sensors is an essential Maxima inclusion.

Like the old car, the seats are generously upholstered front and rear, adding a sense of luxury to the interior’s feel and ambience.

But while the driver’s chair benefits from lumbar support, the front passenger seat was found to be flat after about an hour and a half’s journey.

Cabin width isn’t in the Commodore league either, but smaller folk should have no problem fitting three-abreast out back as long as the middle person doesn’t mind being perched up a bit, thanks to ample leg room for all and plenty of headroom too.

In lieu of a rear-centre occupant is a folding armrest that contains a pair of cupholders (to match the front console’s duo placed directly behind the gear lever), while each outboard rear passenger also gets a knee-level “face” vent, reading light, door armrest and overhead grab handle. Before we forget, the air-con is icy cold strong.

But apart from the seat-back map pockets there are no door bins or auxiliary storage areas, the rear windows don’t go down all the way, and a ski-port is the only boot access available, stymieing the Nissan’s practicality. The aforementioned stiffer body structure has obviously come at the cost of no split-fold rear seats.

This fact singularly puts the Maxima at a disadvantage against other sedans like the Falcon, Aurion and Camry, while the similarly configured Commodore at least also offers a Sportwagon variant for added versatility.

The boot itself is fairly long and wide, but not quite as low as we would have hoped due to a full-sized steel wheel residing underneath. Still, it is large enough for most household needs even without the split-fold rear seats for cabin load-through. Who actually uses ski-ports anyway?

Finally, our tight and squeak-free test car’s luggage floor featured what appeared to be an extra layer of sound proofing in the form of a fitted carpet over the regular cheapo boot lining, so insist on having that thrown in to enjoy a car as impressively quiet as our Maxima was.

Carpet or no carpet, the Maxima 250 ST-L makes a compelling value-for-money case for itself in the medium and large car segments that it ably straddles, especially if you value smoothness, refinement and driving relaxation above all else.

Apart from the disappointingly heavy-handed styling and lack of split-fold rear seats, the latest big Nissan sedan presents a huge step forward over its prettier but flawed ancestor.

Of course, a large five-seater six-cylinder sedan isn’t really a lifestyle alternative to Camry, Commodore and co., but newcomers to the Maxima should find the 250 ST-L a refreshing and likeable change nonetheless.

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