Road Test: 2009 Nissan Maxima SV
By Patrick Bedard of Car and Driver
The Maxima belongs to a threatened species, the front-drive sporting sedan. No one is talking extinction here, but rear drive allows a balance of handling and a purity of steering that's just not possible in a front-driver with upwards of 270 horsepower. So, over the last, say, dozen years, the popularity of rear-drivers from Benz, BMW, Cadillac (CTS), Infiniti, and Lexus — not to mention Mustangs, and 300s, Magnums, and Challengers from Chrysler — have bled away the excitement from the front-drive class.
Now comes an all-new Maxima with a distinctive, hourglass shape and plenty of motor muscle, but it's still a front-driver. Where shall we park it in the new-car pantheon?
Over by the Acura TL, for sure, along with the VW Passat, perhaps. The Maxima's opening price within a shallow breath of $30,000 puts it lower than most of the famous-maker European imports, and its lack of a manual gearbox damps its appeal to the red-hot-corpuscle crowd. Actual sporting flavor comes down to a single option, which we'll cover below in more detail. Without that, the Maxima is merely the top-line four-door available in Nissan stores.
This new car, chopped nearly four inches in length compared with the previous model, has been moved to Nissan's all-purpose D platform, also used for the Altima and Murano. The Maxima is notably wider than the Altima, 2.5 inches overall on a track that's up by 1.5 inches in front and 1.6 in back, but other dimensions are within an inch on both. Inside spaces, except for more shoulder width on the Maxima, are similar within an inch, too, and the Maxima's total interior volume is five percent smaller than the Altima's.
Nissan found a new look for this car, with a simplified grille shape compared with its other models. The way the fenders flare wide around the wheels reminds of Seventies-era IMSA racers. In the wind tunnel, air flowing over the new surfaces shows its disapproval, with a drag coefficient of 0.33.
There are zero powertrain options. Nissan's lusty 3.5-liter V-6 is standard, backed by a CVT. Output is 290 horsepower, up 35 from that of the 2008 Maxima, with a 6600-rpm redline. If you get some enjoyment from the idea of a transmission that's never caught with the wrong ratio, you'll delight in the CVT. On most calls for acceleration, the revs smoothly zoom up in proportion to thrust; there's never a harsh downshift. Nissan's way with a CVT tops all other makers, we think.
New for 2009 is the "drive sport" shifter calibration, which opens a complex discussion of the options menu. In the base Maxima, indicated by an "S" in the literature, or the step-up SV model — neither is badged on the car — you move the console shifter to the left into the manual mode, which engages software that maintains engine revs during cornering and holds a racy ratio on exit. If you order the SV with either the Premium or the Sport package — these designations are not physically indicated on the car, either — you get large shifter paddles above and below the horizontal steering-wheel spokes to do the same thing without moving your hands from the wheel.
This is a peppy performer, sprinting to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, continuing on to finish the quarter in 14.5 seconds at 98 mph.
The standard tire for both S and SV is a 245/45R-18. The Goodyear Eagle RS-A all-weathers on the test car gripped sufficiently to achieve 0.85 g on the skidpad and stop from 70 mph in 175 feet. These are generally quiet tires with good masking of small-bump harshness and very little tread noise. In other words, they're not overtly sporty and won't annoy an owner who just wanted a nice car with a touch of upmarket panache.
The Maxima line starts with the S, at $29,950, which should account for about 10 percent of sales. You get cloth seats but leather on the wheel and shifter, blue-dots-on-black trim panels on the dash and console, smart-key entry, a sunroof, dual-zone climate control, and all of the safety equipment, including front and side airbags for front occupants and side curtains in front and back. Stability control, traction control, and tire-pressure monitoring are standard, as they are with most cars these days.
You build your special-purpose Maxima by adding either the Premium package or the Sport package to the SV. Together, these "packaged" SVs will run 35 to 40 percent of sales. Sport versions have upsized tires, 245/40VR-19 all-weathers, with the option of summer tires in the same size. To take the additional forces imposed by the high-grip rubber, the front structure of Sport versions gets additional bracing, the suspension components are beefed up, and the springs and shocks are recalibrated. A full bulkhead behind the rear seat — with a pass-through at the armrest — stiffens the rear structure.
The version in our photos is an SV with the Premium package, which also gets the rear bulkhead, plus higher-grade leather on the seats and steering wheel, eucalyptus-inspired trim in place of the blue dots, a two-panel sunroof, a power shade for the rear window, seat-position memory, Bluetooth phone connection, and heated seats and outside mirrors.
Our Maxima impressions are formed by this Premium SV and from lengthy driving in a cooking SV, which has a 60/40 split rear seat that folds to open a large passage to the trunk. The body did not seem notably flexy, and we think the Home Depot crowd may prefer to avoid the packages in order to preserve hauling flexibility.
The SV and Premium SV are both relaxed tourers. The driver's bucket is wide and comfortable for the long haul. Special mention goes to knee space; this is one of only a few cars in which an average-size male's right knee doesn't bump against something. One notch extended on the thigh support was agreeable, too.
Twenty years ago, the Maxima created a fashion with white dial faces set into a black instrument cluster, a sporty gesture that was picked up by Dodge and a few others. But this new Maxima is too reserved for that. Instead, it has large-diameter black-face dials outlined with thin chrome bezels, and thin-stroke numbers in white, very much in the Infiniti style. The only extravagant gesture in the all-black interior is pale-raspberry stitching around the seats, so subtle you won't notice if you're wearing sunglasses.
Although the Maxima has belts for five occupants, be warned that the center position in back has limited headroom, even with the standard sunroof. Deeply carved reliefs in the backs of the front buckets open generous knee spaces for two passengers. The cushion is somewhat low but nicely resilient, even plush.
Based on the two Maxima test cars we've driven, which had the prompt reflexes we expect of modern sedans but were not recognizably sporty, we think Nissan is dealing with the threatened status of the front-drive sporting car by, mostly, abandoning the class. And why not? The Infiniti line is perfectly positioned to take over that side of the business, at least at the higher price points. But let's not write off the old Maxima spirit before we try the Sport package. Most of our staffers complained of torque steer in the test cars, a sort of queasy feeling in the steering if the car is not pointed straight ahead during brisk acceleration. With the body reinforcements that come with the 19-inch wheels, Nissan is going back to the fundamentals of vehicle dynamics. That's the right approach.
For now, don't be misled by the Altima relationship. This new model is so much more refined in its ride and noise qualities. You'd never know the two were kinfolk.