Overview

During its 14-year production life, the Nissan Maxima has survived four evolutions. The last version, which went out of production at the end of the 1994 model year, is perhaps the most familiar. Its distinctive appearance and sporty character - emphasized by an advertising campaign that stressed performance - made it reasonably popular with the general public while attracting the attention of car enthusiasts.

No more. Nissan touts the 1995 Maxima as a leader in traditional sedan virtues, such as value, content and style, but downplays the performance image. Driving pleasure has not been ignored, but the focus has shifted in hopes of bringing in mainstream buyers.

According to Nissan, early sales returns indicate that this approach is paying off. By that all-important standard, the new Maxima represents a major improvement over past versions and a solid threat to perennial chart-toppers such as the Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

By almost any other standard, the newest Maxima is indeed a better car.

It offers fresh styling, a roomier interior, improved fuel economy, better straight-line performance and a more comfortable ride than any previous Maxima.

But the shift in emphasis from sporty to, well, less sporty may drive owners of older Maximas elsewhere when replacement time rolls around. And it may throw some customers to such niche performance sedans as the impressive Volkswagen Passat GLX. Those are risks Nissan seems willing to take. So far, the company's strategy seems to be the right one.

Walkaround

Anyone who owns - or is reasonably familiar with - the '94 Maxima will recognize the '95 immediately. The main design theme has been carried over, though all exterior panels are new. To a large extent, the new design has been influenced heavily by the shape and proportioning of the smaller Nissan Altima.

Despite the intentional continuity of appearance, something has been lost in the translation. The old sharp-edged design had a delicate, light-on-its-wheels quality that the new Maxima doesn't share, and details such as the rounded lips over the wheel openings look decidedly archaic in 1995. The new front end has generated some controversy, too, with its mismatched upper and lower air intakes. Whether this is an improvement is a decision best left to each driver.

Major changes aren't only confined to the skin. Underneath, there's a new rear suspension, redesigned to increase body stiffness. The engine, though identical to its forebear in basic architecture, has been extensively upgraded.

Overall length remains pretty much unchanged, but an extra inch has been added to the wheelbase, effectively enlarging interior space by the same amount. Weight has been reduced by a significant 100 pounds.

Interior Features

A primary goal of the Maxima design team was a more spacious interior. Here, we can report total success. There is definitely more passenger room available in the new car, especially for those riding in the rear seat. Though slightly less commodious than the class leaders - again the Passat comes to mind - the Maxima still provides a comfortable environment for its occupants.

Visually, the cabin has been effectively modernized. The dashboard and door panels present an attractive flowing appearance, instruments are large and legible, and most controls are arrayed in a logical manner.

However, there are a couple of minor deficiencies. The front seats, although nicely shaped, are a little short on thigh support for taller people. Some controls, notably the climate-control push buttons, are not as user-friendly as the latest rotary-knob adjusters found in some competing makes.

Most Maxima options, as well as the features that differentiate GXE, SE and GLE Maximas from one another, are applied to the interior. Appearance can be adjusted to taste by specifying leather instead of the standard - and attractive - cloth seats. A power-adjustable driver's seat is available (standard on GLE), and wintertime comfort can be enhanced by ordering the Cold Weather package that includes heated seats and outside mirrors, as well as a warning light for low windshield-wiper fluid.

Every Maxima has enough standard equipment to make additions almost unnecessary. Air conditioning, power door locks/windows/outside mirrors, a sound system with AM/FM/cassette and a host of smaller - albeit no less appreciated - amenities are routinely supplied.

Other potential additions - automatic climate control, re-mote keyless entry and a CD player, for example - are standard on the GLE, a model that is further distanced from less- expensive versions by its simulated wood trim.

The SE is closest to previous Maximas in its character. It can be distinguished from other models by its white-face-with-black-numeral instruments (the others have conventional black face/white number dials) and trunk-mounted spoiler. The SE shares attractive alloy wheels with the GLE (though it has wider, lower-profile tires), and rides on its own sport-tuned suspension.

Driving Impressions

Newfound civility has not robbed the Maxima of its punch. This is still a quick automobile, one that can scoot away from traffic without showing any signs of strain. A smooth, responsive engine has been a prime Maxima feature since the model first appeared, and still is.

The easy-shifting 5-speed manual transmission, standard on the GXE and SE, is an excellent partner for the engine. So is the electronically controlled 4-speed automatic, which actually improved on the manual Maxima's gas mileage during the EPA city cycle test. Either engine/transmission combination is more than acceptable, regardless of intended use.

Around town and on the freeway, the redesigned suspension provides the kind of comfort most buyers want, and equals the best in its class in terms of silence and smoothness. From the driver's point of view, the Maxima is maneuverable and has light variable-assist power steering that takes the effort out of parking and lane changing.

But aggressive drivers, those who have come to expect their Maximas to dart through twists and turns with the sportiest of rivals, may find the latest version to be a letdown. There's no incompetence here, just a reluctance to play. The steering is not quite sharp enough, and the suspension's not quite taut enough, for extra-hard use.

That said, it must be emphasized that only a few pilots will want to take their Maximas to such extremes, and they are likely to do so based on past Maxima performance. Few of the big Nissan's rivals can match its roadholding as is, and only a couple can best it in this highly subjective area.

Summary

By all measurable criteria, the latest Maxima stands head and shoulders above its ancestors. It offers more power, more space for people and luggage, and more comfort - but uses less fuel. Call it a clear-cut win for Nissan's designers and engineers.

Being a Nissan, the Maxima also inherits the company's reputation for quality. In visible ways, our test SE was up to standards: Smooth paint, careful assembly and first-class materials were the rule inside and out. A mix of past and present experience suggests that the Maxima will do nothing to tarnish Nissan's halo.

And the Maxima stacks up very well against other midsize sedans. It's more responsive and faster than most, and is competitive in finish, price and packaging. It may no longer be top the dog among sport sedans, but it is still a solid, attractive member of the pack.

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$20,389
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