A benchmark sports sedan celebrates 20 years.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price (MSRP) $21,249
As Tested (MSRP) $26,668

With a free-revving V6 engine, the Nissan Maxima has always been the mid-size sedan of choice for those who place driving enjoyment high on their priority list.

The Maxima's credentials are impressive. All models come standard with a 222-horsepower V6 engine that is one of the best, if not the best, available today. A rigid chassis fitted with a sports suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, high-performance tires, and a five-speed manual gearbox give the Maxima a sporty demeanor, while sporty styling makes it look ready for action. The Maxima is practical as well, with roomier front seats and a bigger trunk than the Accord or the Camry.

Nissan is celebrating a birthday for the Maxima this year by offering an SE 20th Anniversary Edition with performance and visual upgrades. The Maxima was totally redesigned and re-engineered for the 2000 model year, so it gets few updates for 2001.

Nissan may never sell as many Maximas as Honda sells Accords or Toyota sells Camrys, but Nissan does sell more Maximas than the V6 versions of the Accord and Camry.

Model Lineup

Four models are available: an unadorned GXE ($21,249), a sporty SE ($23,849), a luxurious GLE ($26,449), and the new SE 20th Anniversary Edition ($27,149). A four-speed automatic is a $1700 option on the base GXE, a $500 addition to the SE models, and standard on the GLE.

The GXE, GLE and SE come with the same 222-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 engine. Nissan officials say their twin-cam V6 is the best available and they may be right. By comparison, the Camry V6 offers 194 horsepower, the Accord V6 makes 200 and the Lexus ES 300 V6 delivers 210. The entire model lineup also shares a sporty suspension and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. Front airbags are standard, side airbags are optional. Traction control is an option.

The GXE comes with an attractive price and a high level of standard equipment. The SE comes with a sporty cloth interior and titanium-faced gauges. It is distinguished by a rear spoiler, black trim around the grille and black trim around the taillights; the latter is most noticeable on lighter colored cars. (The spoiler and SE trim are not available for other models.) The SE is fitted with a unique set of sporty five-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels with 17-inchers available as an option. The automatic-equipped GLE comes with an attractive leather interior, an option on the SE.

The SE 20th Anniversary Edition benefits from a 5 horsepower increase, to 227, courtesy of a revised exhaust system with less back pressure. It also gets a limited-slip differential, 17-inch alloy wheels, plus visual cues such as a different engine cover, side sills and a rear under-spoiler, bronze-colored headlamps, drilled metal petals and metal-look interior trim.

Walkaround

Nissan didn't design this car for the lowest common denominator. Its projected volume of 100,000 is fewer than a third of annual Accord, Camry or Ford Taurus sales. While Camrys are usually purchased with the family in mind, Maximas are often bought for the driver. And while most Accords are sold with four-cylinder engines, all Maximas are fitted with the 222-horsepower V6. Nissan claims Maximas outsell V6-powered Camrys and Accords.

Maxima's styling is more assertive than many mid-size cars. You'll notice the current model the first time you see it. It's particularly striking from the rear. A dramatic cut-off shape and bold taillight treatment highlight a crisp design.

The front end says Maxima in a bold new way with a rounder grille that's separated from the headlights. It looks sportier, more modern, more upscale than the previous generation car. Front and rear glass offer a steeper rake, with a higher, more aerodynamic trunk lid. The windshield curves around dramatically. Accentuated fender flares and wheel arches draw attention to the performance wheels and tires. Distinctive side marker lights and round fog light ports add sports appeal.

Longer and wider than before, the Maxima rides on a longer wheelbase. The Infiniti I30 uses the same platform. These cars are mechanically similar, but with completely different exteriors and interiors. The Maxima benefits from its upmarket association. Its chassis is 30 percent more rigid than before; B- and C-roof pillars were reinforced and pipe-style side-door beams heighten crash protection. Increased rigidity helps reduce noise, vibration and harshness. Sound deadening material has also been added. Bottom line: These are quiet, smooth-riding cars.

Interior Features

The Maxima offers more headroom and more legroom than before -- and more than any other mid-size car, including the Accord, Camry and Taurus. My 6-foot 4-inch riding companion barely brushed his hair on the headliner -- and our car was equipped with a sunroof.

The rear seats are comfortable, but the Maxima doesn't offer as much space back there as many of the other cars in its class.

The trunk is bigger than before and, though the Maxima doesn't lead the class in cargo capacity, it boasts more trunk space than the Accord and Camry. The rear seats split and fold down to make room for longer items.

Nissan's California designers shaped the dash into a stylish wave that gives it an airy feel. The steering wheel and other controls were repositioned to improve comfort and the seats were designed to provide more support and dampen road vibration. A roomy center console accommodates 16 CDs or a cellular telephone. Steering-wheel-mounted stereo controls are now optional on the GXE and standard on the other models.

The leather GLE and cloth SE interiors are attractive and inviting. The GLE is the most luxurious with wood-tone trim and an automatic temperature control that's a big step up from the manual system. There's readout for ambient temperature. Power seats and an integrated HomeLink transceiver are included. (Most of these are available as options on the SE.) Optional heated seats are a luxury on cold mornings. Nissan worked with Bose to develop an optional stereo designed for supreme sound for both front and rear-seat passengers.

We weren't impressed with the GXE interior, however. It doesn't offer the cheerful ambiance of the SE and GLE. The GXE trim looks cheap and will likely look worse in five years. We recommend spending the extra $2,600 for an SE. To be fair, the GXE does come with a high level of standard equipment and the seats are supportive and comfortable.

Driving Impressions

This car is smooth and quiet. You can hear the tires over the engine -- and the tires don't make much noise. The V6 provides plenty of power. It's an exciting engine that revs freely to its redline. Yet it's flexible around town, providing strong, smooth torque throughout the rev range.

On a narrow road winding through the Coast Ranges south of Monterey, California, we found the four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and changes gears quickly to suit driving conditions.

It is on these types of roads that the Maxima really comes into its own. The steering is precise with sharp on-center feel; the steering on last year's model lacked feel and precision on the highway. The rear suspension has been re-engineered for improved ride and handling. Bumps are damped well, yet the ride isn't mushy. There's little body roll, or lean, in corners; the Maxima now matches the discontinued 300ZX sports car in this regard. The SE and GLE turn in more sharply than the GXE, which comes with 15-inch tires.

We turned some hot laps in the Maxima at Laguna Seca, a twisting road racing circuit in the hills above Monterey. There, we found the SE was very easy to drive quickly and smoothly. This car is rock steady at high speeds and it's easy to make smooth transitions from gas to brakes. We chose a five-speed for this work and found the pedals are positioned well for heel-and-toe downshifting. The manual gearbox shifts smoothly and adds to the fun. Acceleration performance and fuel economy are better with the manual.

The four-wheel disc brakes and high-performance 16-inch tires did a commendable job of slowing this car down. We were activating the ABS as we braked hard for a set of chicanes erected to slow us down from 90 mph to a walking pace. The Maxima was stable during threshold braking.

On a second-gear autocross circuit, we found the Maxima tended toward understeer when driven beyond the limit of the tires -- the usual tendency for a front-wheel-drive sedan. We were unable to get the rear tires to break traction in a corner. This makes for predictable handling at the limit.

Final Word

Nissan's current Maxima is a fresh design with plenty to offer. This is a great car for enthusiasts who need a few concessions toward practicality and budget. It's a lot of fun to drive, yet offers roomy, comfortable accommodations for four and a big trunk. This is a car for people who want performance and functionality with reasonable monthly payments.

The $3300 price premium for the SE 20th Anniversary Edition over the regular SE is steep tariff for just 5 extra horsepower, the limited-slip differential and some cosmetic enhancements. The total performance gain isn't all that significant. It's worth it if aggressive styling suits you, but one of the chief benefits of a sport sedan is the ability to go fast without attracting too much attention.

Regardless of the option package, this fifth-generation Maxima is more powerful, more agile and more practical that its forbearer. It should be on every mid-size shopping list.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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