Road Test: 2009 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV
By Matt DeLorenzo of Road & Track
A true sports car is more than the sum of its parts. It's not just about having two seats or four, rear- or front-drive or even a requisite number of cylinders. Rather, it's about attitude, spirit and passion. No doubt if the essence of a sports car could be distilled into some secret potion, an "eau du esprit," auto manufacturers would sprinkle it liberally over all of their cars.
Promoted as "the return of the 4-door sports car" (a catchphrase coined in 1990 with the second-generation model), the new Maxima is Nissan's bid to inject some life into a segment that more often than not puts comfort ahead of thrills.
In seeking this magic sports-car elixir, Nissan seems to have most of the right ingredients in place. The Maxima is shorter and wider than the car it replaces. It now rides on a 109.3-in. wheelbase with an overall length of 190.6 in., a respective 1.9 and 3.9 in. tidier than the car it replaces. This modified D-platform is also 73.2 in. wide, an increase of 1.5 in. across the beam, which translates into a wider stance — the track is up 1.4 in. in the front and 1.2 in. in the rear.
The car's skin says this is a more athletic automobile. Unlike its slab-sided forebear, the Maxima has a body that ripples with muscular fender flares and sharp character lines — the not-so-subtle Coke-bottle effect recalls the gone but not forgotten Oldsmobile Aurora. The rear has a stepped trunk and smoother contours. You may think of it as a more fluid interpretation of the seemingly industry standard BMW-inspired Bangle butt.
The grille and headlamp treatment owes much of its inspiration to the mighty GT-R. While the connection to Nissan's new supercar is apparent, some staffers feel the grille itself, positioned low in the nose, looks droopy. The headlamps have a notched profile, a look that will be adapted to the upcoming 370Z sports car, furthering the Maxima's 4-door sports car theme.
The sporting influence also applies to the interior with what Nissan terms a "super cockpit" approach to the layout. The thick three-spoke steering wheel is straight from the 370Z. Even though the cabin is wider, the asymmetrically bolstered front buckets, which add extra padding to the outside of the seats, fit snug. That, combined with the driver orientation of the instruments and center stack, gives the cabin a closely coupled feel. The materials are of a high quality and the fit and finish are generally good, although I managed to skin a knee on one of two seams found on the underside of the steering column.
Beneath the hood, Nissan has pumped up the VQ-series 3.5-liter V-6 to give the Maxima the street cred it needs to tout itself as a sports car. The engine makes 290 bhp at 6400 rpm and 261 lb.-ft. of torque at 4400 rpm. The new engine now puts out 35 more horses than the previous model, while torque is up just 9 lb.-ft. So far so good. What the Maxima does with that power opens the debate on whether this is, in fact, a 4-door sports car.
The output is transferred from the transversely mounted engine to the front wheels via Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). Although billed as continuously variable, the Xtronic transmission functions over six stepped ratios which either change automatically depending on engine load or can be manually changed using either the center console shifter or column-mounted paddles.
While the CVT does little to diminish the car's initial acceleration kick (we were able to record 0-60-mph times of 6.1 seconds), the transmission feels elastic in the higher ranges, allowing the engine to exhibit a slight motorboating tendency where the revs don't quite match your expectations for vehicle speed. The Maxima feels better in the "Ds" (Drive sport) mode, where left alone the CVT will hang onto a particular ratio in the corner or downshift quicker when turning in. Still, I found the Maxima far more satisfying to drive when manually controlled. Even though it is fun to click the paddles, the Maxima recorded its quickest 0-60 run in automatic mode.
No matter how much "eau du esprit" Nissan has sprinkled on its CVT with its recalibration and new Ds mode, it's still a case of perfuming the pig. If this is to be a 4-door sports car, then give us a proper manual, please. However, there doesn't appear to be one in the Maxima's future.
This is sad because there is still much to recommend about the car, especially from overall vehicle dynamics. The Maxima comes in two trim levels, S and SV, and two option packages, Sport and Premium. The Sport package is more than satin-finish trim versus wood in the cockpit. The strut tower bar is standard fare, but the Sport package adds a bulkhead behind the back seat for improved rear rigidity. (Consequently, Sport models have a small pass-through for skis and such, while Premium package cars have a full 60/40 split fold-down rear seat.)
This extra reinforcement plus the 19-in. wheels shod with optional P245/40R-19W Bridgestone Potenzas make for an engaging drive. On the skidpad, the Maxima pulled 0.86g, while in our 700-ft. slalom it posted a speed of 65.4 mph.
The small-diameter steering wheel and the quick 15.2:1 ratio make for crisp turn-in abilities. Eschewing the current trend toward electric power assist, the Maxima has a twin-orifice hydraulic-based system that nicely loads up steering effort with vehicle speed and has a direct and communicative feel. Even with the modest understeer you expect from a front-drive setup, the Maxima goes where it's pointed and changes direction with aplomb. Body roll is well controlled and there's enough compliance to handle the bumps and jounces of uneven pavement with little sacrifice to your backside. The really tight body also pays dividends in suppressing road and wind noise.
Speed is scrubbed by 4-wheel disc brakes that provide good stopping power, hauling the 3610-lb. sedan down from 60 mph in 121 ft. and from 80 mph in 219 ft.
All told, with its smooth, powerful V-6 and well-sorted chassis, the Maxima has a lively, fun-to-drive attitude.
Nissan's flagship sedan has a base price of $29,290 for the cloth-interior S model and $31,990 for the leather-clad SV. The sport package adds another $2300. Given this pricing, the aggressive handling and muscular styling, the Maxima is a step above its natural rivals from Toyota (Avalon), Honda (Accord) and Hyundai (Azera). The expressive design and lively feel put it into the realm of near-luxury competitors such as the Acura TL. On that score, the Maxima delivers the goods. As for Nissan making good on the promise of the return of the 4-door sports car? Get back to us when you have an honest-to-goodness manual.