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Car reviews - Nissan - Maxima - ST-L sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Outstanding interior presentation, excellent standard equipment level, quality drivetrain
Room for improvement
Compromised chassis, some exterior styling

30 Jan 2004

IT’S not often that the interior of car is where we start a road test, but that’s the case with the new, fourth generation of Nissan’s flagship sedan, the Maxima.

Oh there’s plenty more to talk about, but it’s all the sort of stuff you expect from Maxima – V6 power, luxury appointments and a typically good Nissan value story.

But open the driver's door and cop that sweeping faux wood dashboard and you are at first a bit taken aback, and then as you adjust, impressed. This is a Maxima?

The design is a slap in the face for the increasing complexity and overwhelming busy-ness of the modern motor vehicle’s cockpit.

The dash stretches from door to door, interrupted only by the instrument pod and the vertical centre console, which itself is a neat and easy piece of minimalist work.

The look flows down into the horizontal centre console, which is a pleasing bare, square and smooth bit of work. One person sat in the car and immediately commented on its "serene" feel. I’m not arguing.

It doesn’t end at the dashboard either, with large armchair-like front seats trimmed in a single pattern cloth in the base model ST-L we drove (leather is standard in the two higher grades), rather than cut into inner and outer sections with different patterns here and there. Pretty unique, and effective.

It’s a small triumph but a triumph all the same, something about a Maxima that’s entrancing rather than yawn-inducing. Something that really makes you remember the car fondly. And that's a change.

It’s not all peaches and cream of course. The quality of the instrumentation is a downer because the numerals are too small and what’s with the 1960s computer basic green numerals in the trip computer mounted high in the dashboard? It’s too basic to be industrial-cool and just too darn difficult to read.

Then there’s the lack of telescopic adjustment on the otherwise large and comfy steering wheel – which includes cruise controls but no audio controls – and in the rear the mysterious absence of a split-fold function, a feature the previous generation boasted.

Like that old car though, there’s heaps of space in the rear for passengers and in this case a huge 476-litre boot. Storage space in-cabin includes a sizeable glovebox (although upper models fill much of it with a CD stacker), flip-out door pockets, a useful dual compartment under the driver’s armrest and more than enough cupholders.

Nissan has levered a little bit more space for occupants despite this car being 40mm shorter overall than its predecessor, but that’s because the wheelbase actually increases in size by 25mm.

Which brings us nearly to the exterior styling. Now the fact we started with the interior does not mean the sheetmetal is daggy. No that was the old car, which wasn’t so much ugly as simply not styled at all - more a conglomeration of bits and pieces hammered together into an inoffensive shape.

It was one of the last cars from the old engineering-dominated Nissan before Renault bought in, Carlos Ghosn arrived and some style and urgency was injected into the place.

Our Maxima comes from Japan and is till a pretty conservative piece of gear.

But the arched roofline, hooked C-pillar and technical rear-end certainly are points that make an impression. As do the big headlights, chrome-barred grille and droopy front hangover – although these latter items are less positive to these eyes.

Nevertheless, more character and bravura than ever before.

Now to the most familiar part, the driving. If you’ve experienced Maxima before then you know where this is going: excellent drivetrain, comfy ride and iffy dynamics.

The highlight is the new VQ35DE 3.5-litre V6 that is a detuned version of the engine which goes into the 350Z sports car and replaces the excellent VQ30DE 3.0-litre in the old Maxima.

Plenty of torque, plenty of power and smooth well past 6000rpm. The only downers are it gets a bit noisy in the upper reaches and requires PULP fuel to be at its best – the latter issue being the same as the old car.

The engine mates with a four-speed auto transmission with a staggered gate, rather than the more common five-speed with semi-manual mode expected in the prestige class these days.

A carry-over item with exactly the same internal gearing (as well as final drive for that matter) as the old car, you won’t find it too much of a hinderance if our experience is any guide, one gear melding pretty well with another.

If you are pushing along hard enough to get the ’box confused then you’ll probably have other things on your mind by then, like the under-sprung chassis’ tendency to wallow, roll and understeer as it approaches the limit. It’s far happier a few notches off maximum.

At 100km/h on the freeway the Maxima is lolling along at around 2000rpm, the cruise control is holding you pretty well at your nominated speeds and only tyre noise becomes anywhere near intrusive. This car deserves the prestige motoring tag.

But even then you can detect less than dramatic road blemishes seeping through. The set-up of the front MacPherson strut and rear multi-link beam axle combination seems to be undecided in just what it should be doing. It’s definitely the car’s most unconvincing aspect.

Back to the drawing board on this one, Nissan - as well as for the feel-less steering that still manages to torque steer under acceleration. And what’s the go with the VDC (stability control system) that intrudes too late and harshly for our liking? Switch it off and it reawakens when it decides you’re beyond the point of no return – even if you’re not. The brakes are good on tar and dirt though, with good ABS settings.

Of course there’s no shortage of other safety and comfort gear - this is a Nissan after all.

The ST-L tested here is the base model, but still comes with the aforementioned VDC, as well active front head restraints, front seatbelt limiters with dual pre-tensioners and five lap-sash seatbelts, plus front and side airbags (you have to go up a grade for standard curtain airbags).

Then there’s the shiny, nice bits, like 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, cruise control and an eight-way power seat as the highlights amongst a list that includes all the usual suspects like remote central locking and power windows. The backward step is the reduction from a six-disc CD player to single-disc unit.

Yet considering the ST-L was introduced at the same sub-$40,000 price (just) as the old S, it’s hard to quibble with that retrograde step. For the most part the new Maxima package is just too positive for that to really count.

Now we just need to doctor that suspension, get some lower profile tyres and sexier alloys. But don't touch the inside!

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