Car reviews - Nissan - Maxima - Ti-L sedan
Euro-look exterior styling, classy and functional interior, interior space and comfort, engine performance and fuel economy, ride quality, equipment level, sense of ocassion, safety features
Room for improvement
Soft suspension, dull handling, intrusive understeer, no five-speed auto, no manual-shift function, lack of differentiation with lesser variants
10 Sep 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
NISSAN'S Maxima has been around for a long time but, while there has always been some sign of potential as an entry-level prestige car, it has never quite found the right combination of ingredients.
The first, late-1980s model was a neat-looking car with novel touch-pad door locks, a smooth V6 and atrocious suspension.
The second iteration, which came here in 1995, improved on the dynamics but was overall a relatively bland car - although by then it had acquired an engine that would begin to earn it some positive attention.
In fact, this 3.0-litre V6 - named VQ in Nissan parlance - was judged so good that it was named on the 10 Best Engines list by Ward's Communications in the USA. The VQ engine range continues to make the list today - something it has done every year since it was introduced.
The smooth, powerful V6 continued into the A33 series Maxima in 1999, along with signs the company was beginning to realise what a potentially good thing it had on its hands.
The A33 tended towards bold and brassy styling and offered more of everything, including interior space, although it did gain a little weight that took a slight edge of the V6's responsiveness.
Now, the aspirant Nissan has taken a really bold step with a radically new, completely re-thought Maxima that clearly targets the Eurocar market. The dashing new Maxima arrived here in late 2003 and is anything but evolutionary.
The lines could have come direct from a European stylist and, although it doesn't look it, the car is shorter and narrower than the previous model. It's also slightly lighter, but stands a bit taller and, importantly, has a longer wheelbase albeit by not that much (25mm).
The outcome is a more tightly packaged Maxima, with less external overhang and an additional 15mm of vertical and horizontal interior space.
The styling is very out there for a Maxima, with an arched roofline and a fastback rear that suggests five-door hatch rather than sedan. But a sedan it is, with a decent 476-litre boot despite the 40mm shorter body.
There are various hints of other cars in the Maxima some signs of Holden Vectra creep through, while the profile view reveals an almost 7 Series BMW meeting of the bootlid and the curved body sides.
But it is a generally clean-looking design that has no problem attracting attention.
The interior, though, is arguably is greatest strength.
The style is clean and minimalist, one of the most appealing designs of current times - particularly when light trim colours are chosen (Nissan offers Carbon Black or Chamois Beige Tricot fabric in ST-L or, in Ti and Ti-L, Sandstone or Charcoal leather).
Nissan describes the seats as sofa-like and they certainly appear to be inspired more by home furnishings than traditional automotive cues. They eschew the popular sport bucket-seat style but actually prove quite supportive.
The instrument panel is a clean, sweeping panorama of grey shades and fake wood with large, half-circle dials for tachometer and speedometer and a simple, easily understood centre console containing controls for sound system and interior climate.
The shift lever lacks sequential changing but operates in a gated, Benz-type slot that helps allow easier identification of exactly what position has been selected.
The Ti-L version tested here is the top-shelf Maxima, although there are not a lot of external or internal identifiers setting it apart from the less-luxe Ti.
The 17-inch, eight-spoke alloy wheels are the same (the spare is full-size alloy too), as are the garnishings around the windows and under the doors.
In fact, visually, about the only thing separating Ti versions from the base ST-L model are the badges.
The ST-L is well equipped for its $40,000 opening price and the Ti even moreso with a power sunroof, climate-control air-conditioning, six-speaker sound system with six-disc in-dash CD stacker, and leather trim with power adjustment for both front seats (eight-way for the driver, four-way for the front passenger).
What the Ti-L does get though is a roof-mounted DVD/VCD/CD/MP3 player, complete with infrared headphones, as well as rear parking sensors and "active" headrests.
In terms of safety the Maxima is thoroughly competitive in its category with dual front and side airbags and, in Ti and Ti-L, full-length curtain airbags. These are optional in the ST-L.
Electronic safety aids are in abundance too, with dynamic stability control standard on all models, as well as ABS with brake assist and EBD. A funny anomaly though is that the active front head restraints are only fitted to the Ti-L and are not even optional elsewhere.
Continuing its theme of being a Nissan for the luxury, rather than sport-minded, the Maxima greets passengers with a sense of warmth and style that is very refreshing. The seats feel large and supportive - although we've not yet taken a Maxima on a long trip to experience them after a few hours.
There's almost a sense of occasion here, which is something you'd never have said of the previous Maxima.
The on-road experience is consistent with these themes. The ride is quite soft and absorbent as well as relatively silent. Nissan doesn't quote a drag coefficient, but the Maxima doesn't suffer from any intrusive wind noise.
But it's not really a car for drivers. The 215/55R17 93V tyres (not particularly low-profile) give a clue to where Nissan is headed with this Maxima.
The Ti-L will steer quite accurately provided it's not pushed hard, but will tend to run wide in typical front-drive fashion quite early if the driver decides to get adventurous.
The best way to approach the Maxima is to plot each corner early, then feed it gently through, relying on the outstanding engine to regain speed.
Yes, the 3.5-litre V6 remains a wonderful punctuation mark to an impressive prestige-class car.
It's the same basic engine as used in the new 350Z (turned east-west and powering the front wheels), a continuation of the VQ line and every bit as impressive as earlier versions.
Naturally it's detuned compared to the 350Z, but still produces an uplifting 170kW, along with 333Nm of torque - both comfortably above the previous 157kW/291Nm 3.0-litre version.
These power increases combine with the new car's lighter weight to produce a responsive, easy, on-road manner, yet fuel economy remains excellent with a quoted average of 11.2 litres per 100km.
The recommendation of premium unleaded fuel is consistent with most of its competition and the 70-litre fuel tank promises decent cruising potential.
The Maxima engine (alloy construction, multi-cams, multi-vales and variable valve timing) doesn't tread any new path compared with its most high-tech competition, but it impresses with the smooth delivery of power and the ready availability of torque even at low rpm.
Its closest competitor is the impressive 3.0-litre V6 used in the latest Honda Accord.
The auto transmission only offers four speeds in a world where at least five is fast becoming the minimum and, as we mentioned earlier it lacks sequential control. But it suits the gentlemanly character of the Maxima.
What we'd like to see is a less gentlemanly version of this potential-laden car. We already know it's possible to squeeze more power out of the engine, while a little chassis engineering could create a tighter, more rewarding drive.
The Maxima will be around for some time, so who knows what the future might bring?
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