An athlete in a three-piece suit.

by Matthew Phillips

The Nissan Maxima is one of those cars that doesn't quite fit into any single set of competitive parameters. Is it a sport sedan or a luxury car? Is it a family hauler or an executive express?

The answer, of course, is all of the above. The Maxima is versatile, with enough variety in the various equipment levels and model distinction to be what you want it to be.

The Maxima is the largest four-door sedan wearing a Nissan emblem in the U.S., about the same size as the new Toyota Camry and somewhat more expensive. On the other hand, it's considerably less expensive than a BMW 328i, and in sporty SE trim makes an attractive alternative.

Beyond that, when it comes to performance, room, ride, build quality and value for the buck, there are few -- if any -- vehicles that have Maxima's combination of virtues.

Walkaround

Facelifted for 1997 -- new grille, headlights, taillights, bumpers and trunk lid -- the current Maxima made its debut in 1995 and is the fourth generation in this line. It comes to market in three different models -- the base GXE, the sporty SE and the GLE atop the heap.

The GXE stickers at $21,910 with destination charges, and comes out of the box well equipped with a smooth 190-horsepower V-6, power windows, mirrors and antenna, plus air conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering and an AM/FM/cassette sound system. In addition, the Maxima has a large trunk with rear seat pass-through, plus a rear defroster, intermittent wipers and center console. The car rides on 15-inch all-season tires with steel wheels and surprisingly good-looking plastic wheel covers.

Those looking for more on their GXE can upgrade a la carte with a two-way power moonroof, anti-lock brakes or an automatic transmission. In addition, you can also opt for the GXE security and convenience package or the cold weather package. Both packages require the buyer to purchase an automatic transmission and the cold weather package also requires ABS.

The SE is the sportiest incarnation of the Maxima and carries a base sticker price of $23,769, including destination charges. Equipment encompasses everything mentioned with the interior of the GXE while adding sportier bucket seats, leather-wrapped shift lever and steering wheel and handsome black-on-white gauges.

On the outside, the SE features a firmer sports suspension, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels with performance tires, fog lamps, a spoiler, black window trim and body-colored grille bar. This is the one to pick if you want sport sedan performance.

Like the GXE, the SE can be upgraded with similar stand-alone options and/or packages to bring its luxury equipment level on par with the GLE.

Our tester was the GLE model, the top of the Maxima line. It stickers for $26,899, including destination charge. If that sounds like a lot for a Nissan consider that it comes with an impressive list of features that put it firmly within luxury car territory. And BMW 328i pricing starts at $33,470.

Standard equipment on the GLE includes everything contained on the GXE plus gathered leather seats, an amazing 200-watt Bose stereo, power front seats, automatic transmission, electronic climate control, wood-tone trim, remote keyless entry and security system, Integrated Homelink Transmitter, 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, variable intermittent wipers and illuminated vanity mirrors.

Options for the GLE include ABS, a two-way power moonroof, rear spoiler and a cold weather package, which includes heated seats and mirrors, heavy duty battery and a low washer fluid sensor.

Every Maxima includes standard safety features like dual airbags, crumple zones, seatbelt pretensioners and side door beams to protect its occupants. ABS is a $499 option across the Maxima line.

All Maximas share the same smooth and conservative bodywork. The bumpers and sideview mirrors are body-colored, with subtle chrome accents on the door handles and around the side windows for the GXE and the GLE, while the SE gets body-colored front grille bar and black window treatment.

The Inside Story

All Maximas have a wonderfully executed interior, which has an open and airy cabin with good all-around visibility. There is room for five, plentiful up front, adequate in back.

The gathered leather seats in our GLE added a touch of elegance and wonderful fragrance to the interior. They are comfortable and supportive, but are obviously designed for cruising comfort. Attractive wood-tone interior trim compliments the leather-clad seating. All in all, the cabin feels warm and luxurious with good operational layout.

Switches and controls are logically placed within easy reach of the driver with clear layout for easy operation. The GLE's automatic climate control is placed high up at the center of dash between the driver and passenger and takes only seconds to master thanks to its clear icons and digital readout.

It performs as intended, unlike some automatic systems, which have minds of their own.

Directly below the HVAC controls, dominating the middle of the dash, is a 200-watt Bose stereo which includes an integrated AM/FM/CD/cassette sound system with six speakers. This stereo is one of the best you will find in any car at any price and will put some home systems to shame. Our only quibble here is that the more frequently used audio controls would be better placed above the climate controls.

Controls such as the power windows and the door and window locks, are conveniently placed on the driver's door armrest. The power window switches have a lift-for-up feature that makes them easy to find and use at night.

Also of note -- and new to the Maxima GLE for 1997 -- is Nissan's Integrated Homelink Transmitter. This feature allows the driver to operate up to three different radio-controlled devices -- garage doors, house lights, TV sets -- from the sunvisor-mounted controls.

Ride & Drive

Powering all Maximas is Nissan's wonderful 3.0-liter aluminum V-6, which generates a healthy 190 hp and gives the Maxima a power-to-weight ratio that's within ounces of the Mustang GT. Not many family sedans can boast that. In fact, not many vehicles in this class even offer five-speed manual anymore.

Although a manual transmission will always produce better performance, the electronically-controlled four-speed automatic produces surprisingly brisk acceleration, and we were impressed with its flexibility and smooth operation.

The Maximas ride on front struts and Nissan's clever Multi-Link Beam suspension at the rear. This not-quite-independent setup may give up a tiny bit of performance in absolute handling, but it more than makes up for it in packagability, a trait that pays off in increased trunk and rear seat space.

In the GLE, the suspension setup is biased slightly more towards comfort than handling, yet still manages an overall feeling of athleticism. The Maxima GLE is fun to drive and handles uneven pavement with aplomb, but it won't put as big a grin on your face as the SE which has bigger tires, tighter springs, shocks and front struts. On the other hand, the SE's ride quality is distinctly stiffer.

Like most front-drive cars, the Maxima is subject to understeer -- the tendency for the front end to travel straight ahead -- when it's pushed hard into a corner. But this trait will only be apparent at high speeds, and it's easily corrected by simply slowing down. No drama, and no surprises.

Final Word

The Maxima GLE represents an excellent choice for those seeking a luxury sedan with a dash of brio. It delivers impressive performance, an athletic and smooth ride, a very long list of luxury amenities and excellent quality. The pricing tends toward premium compared to the mid-size mainstream. But with its sporty character and excellent performance, the Maxima stands above the mainstream.

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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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