• Practical and luxurious equipment
  • 290-horsepower V6
  • Crisp handling with the Sport package

Nissan has long advertised its largest sedan as "the 4-door sports car." Upon launching the current, seventh-generation Maxima, the company ran TV ads suggesting the new Maxima is essentially a stretched-out version of their popular Z sports car, with room for a growing family. To find out if the Maxima lives up to the 4-door sports car label that is literally stuck to its side glass, we tested a 2012 Maxima SV, hauling two three-year-olds to their grandmother's house and carving up some twisty roads on the return trip.

Originally, we planned to meet my in-laws halfway between our home and theirs in Florida. But a sick child meant that trip would be delayed. Instead, the children would spend a day with their grandparents who live across town. Parents have to be flexible.

Works as a Family Car

Family cars should be flexible, too, and the spacious, powerful and luxurious Maxima fits the bill. It puts these attributes ahead of the sportiness that's the focus of its advertising. This dad thinks that strategy is a good one. A family car will most often be a used to safely transport the crew, not turn quick lap times.

The Maxima's ample back seat easily swallowed up our two, large child safety seats. Despite the sedan's wide stance, the car seats did not leave enough space for a third rear-seat passenger. The LATCH anchors for the seats were a little tricky to find and use, positioned right behind the seatbelt's resting spot and requiring some maneuvering to attach or remove. Once in, though, the seats fit nicely, with space on the rear floor for the big bag of snacks, extra clothes and a book or two that accompanies every child, even after the diaper stage.

Lots of Comfort and Features

Up front, seat comfort is excellent. Our test car's large and supportive 4-way power driver's seat with lumbar support is comfortable on the long haul while providing sufficient bolstering for sportier driving. Taller drivers will like the manual thigh support extension. Positioning of the seat, power tilt-telescope steering wheel, and outside mirrors are all set to memory and activated by the test car's proximity key. It also allows push-button locking and unlocking, handy when wrangling kids and gear. The sporty start button meant I never had to find the key in my pocket, too.

Finding our destination was easy with the Maxima's navigation system, part of our test vehicle's $1,850 Sport Technology package. A 7-inch color touch screen displays a choice of 2D, 3D and split views for navigation as well as audio and phone menus. A redundant dial and buttons below the screen and controls on the steering wheel complement the touch screen interface, and voice recognition is included but proved cumbersome. The display sits at the top of the center stack, which also houses separate and easy-to-use automatic climate and audio controls. The 9-speaker Bose system sounds excellent at high and low volumes and provides a host of connectivity options, including Bluetooth audio that allowed me to stream music from my phone.

With the audio system off, I listened to the Maxima's 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 rev up on acceleration, a mild affair thanks to the sole transmission offered, a CVT. Unlike a manual or traditional automatic that have discrete gears, the CVT can instantaneously vary gearing for power and efficiency. The result is smooth and relatively quiet acceleration with even engine speed and no clunking gear changes. The CVT makes for a luxurious ride, but even with paddle shifters that simulate gear changes, it hardly feels sporty.

Sporty Side

Thankfully, a taut suspension and 19-inch wheels, both part of the $2,100 Sport package, lend the Maxima some handling prowess to make up for the sportiness lacking in the CVT. The stiffer setup was never harsh enough to compromise a luxurious ride. But along with a stiff chassis, it allowed crisp handling in the spirited driving I saved for my return trip.

I was impressed by the performance and versatility of the Maxima, a luxurious family sedan that's surprisingly agile considering its 3575-lb curb weight. I wouldn't call it a "sports car," even if the term is qualified with "4-door." The CVT alone precludes that moniker. Plus, the as-tested $40,055 Maxima is front-wheel drive while most sports cars use either rear- or all-wheel drive. Infiniti's rear-drive G37 is a sportier sister vehicle to the Maxima that can be equipped with a manual transmission. The G costs a few thousand dollars more, and it still isn't a sports car.

Real sports cars require you to sacrifice comfort and practicality in the name of speed and agility. The Maxima SV with the Sport package looks the part and handles nicely, but comfort and practicality remain intact. Maybe I'm getting old, but I rarely have the inclination to drive fast but I always want to be comfortable.

What it means to you: It's not a 4-door sports car, but the Maxima offers a compelling combination of practicality, luxury and performance.

author photo

Nick Palermo is an automotive writer and lifelong car nut. He follows new and late-model used vehicles for AutoTrader.com, writes about vintage cars for Hemmings Classic Wheels and blogs on all things automotive at LivingVroom. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and twins.

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