Pros: Well built; agile handling; sharp steering; powerful engine; near-luxury cabin; abundance of features

Cons: Pricey options; not quite a status symbol; no manual transmission

Based on the way it looks, feels and drives, the Nissan Maxima should be considered a luxury-performance sedan. The only thing keeping it from this designation is the fact that it has "Nissan" in its name.

By all other standards and definitions, the Maxima is an upscale four-door with premium-level performance. A simple change of badging, and it could easily be served up as an Infiniti.

Nissan's flagship has two distinct personalities. On one hand, it is a compliant and comfortable family sedan that offers a near-luxury cabin for five. On the other, it has an ambitious mid-size sports-car personality capable of competing with performance four-doors from BMW, Audi and Volvo. And it achieves both of these things without breaking the bank.

The Maxima offers a handful of minor updates for 2012. The exterior gets a mild revision to its front and rear fascias, as well as some new wheel design choices. The trim and lighting are refreshed. Completely new for this year is a Limited Edition package that achieves a more menacing look with smoked-out headlight lenses and darkened metallic trim and tires.

The Maxima's blend of build quality, visual appeal, interior refinement and driving prowess make it one of the most balanced sedan offerings for its price. The Maxima is not a status symbol, but in these times of economic difficulty, that's probably a good thing.

Comfort & Utility

The Maxima's premium-level cabin has a decidedly sporting character, advanced electronics and excellent craftsmanship. If you didn't know better, you would think you were sitting in an Infiniti. The gauges and controls are sophisticated with performance-oriented flair. The focal point of the driver's cockpit is a tactile, thick-grip steering wheel.

The Maxima's front seats are well contoured and nicely bolstered. They're also adequately padded to make for a more comfortable interstate ride. The rear seat is available as either a three-passenger bench or a pair of bucket style seats with a folding armrest and trunk pass through.

The trunk is a usable 14.2 cubic feet, which is not the largest in the segment, but not the smallest, either. This cargo space is expanded and made more flexible thanks to the base model's 60/40 split folding rear seat. The uplevel SV, to preserve maximum chassis stiffness, has a handy pass-through instead of a folding second row so that longer items - like skis - can be accommodated.

The Maxima is available in two trim levels: S and SV. Standard convenience features for the base S model include dual-zone climate control, push-button start, cruise control, power adjustable front seats and a 60/40 split folding rear seat. The SV adds power-adjustable lumbar support, leather upholstery and a nine-speaker premium stereo system. Notable options and luxury amenities from a variety of optional packages include a dual-panel sunroof, heated and cooled front seats, power tilting and telescoping steering wheel, heated steering wheel, and a power rear shade. 

Technology

The Maxima offers a wide array of advanced electronics, mostly as part of options packages. These include a seven-inch touchscreen electronics interface, a USB port, a digital music storage component, a backup camera and voice-command navigation with real-time traffic. The only tech-centric feature that comes standard on both the S and SV models is Bluetooth connectivity.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive 2012 Nissan Maxima is powered by a very potent 3.5-liter V6 that makes 290 horsepower and 261 lb-ft of torque. This engine is managed by a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). One of the biggest criticisms of the Maxima is that it has no manual transmission choice, taking it off the test-drive lists of many drivers looking for a sport sedan. Despite that fact, the Maxima's engine and transmission combination is very responsive, with strong power throughout the rev band. Acceleration is as good as, if not better than, other sport sedans in its price range.

EPA-estimated fuel economy for the Nissan Maxima is 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway. The city figure is considered low relative to its entry-level luxury competitors.

Safety

Standard safety features for the Maxima include ABS, stability control, traction control, six airbags and active front head restraints. For 2012, the Maxima earned the highest front and side crash test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Driving Impressions

Aside from lacking a manual transmission, the Nissan Maxima is as robust and exhilarating as any well-regarded sport sedan. That shortfall is compensated for by a manual mode that utilizes steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters to simulate the experience of a six-speed manual gearbox.

The Maxima is strong off the line and very confident in mid-sprint. It is effortless at highway passing and does so with an aggressive snarl. The Maxima corners with the agility and nimbleness of a smaller sports car. The tires have plenty of grip, and the car remains virtually flat through even the sharpest turn-ins. To further help its cause, steering is both quick and precise.

The Maxima's ride is very compliant. Regardless of its sporting personality, it delivers a feel that is comfortable for the daily commute as well as long-distance highway cruising, making it a fine choice as a family sedan.

Other Cars to Consider

BMW 3 Series - The BMW is more expensive than the Maxima but offers a notably higher level of driving dynamics. It is also much more of a status symbol than the Nissan. However, the Maxima's ride quality is more conducive for carting around the family.

Chrysler 300 - The 300 is more elegant, while the Maxima leans more in the direction of sport. The Maxima's smaller overall package helps make it a better handler.

Hyundai Genesis - Both are legitimate sport sedans, but the Genesis offers more luxury and refinement than the Maxima. The Genesis has quickly made a reputation for itself as a premium-level car. For that reason, it is more of a status symbol.

Volkswagen CC - Many will argue that the Volkswagen is better built due to its German engineering roots, but the Maxima is right on par in quality. The two cars are comparable in performance.

Volvo S60 - The Volvo's upscale Swedish design makes it a bit of a unique proposition compared with the more conventional-looking Maxima. Volvo's emphasis on safety is unmatched. But in ride, handling, performance and interior comfort, the Maxima competes strongly.

AutoTrader Recommends

Our recommendation for the Maxima is the uplevel SV. It adds leather upholstery, more comfortable and supportive seats and an upgraded premium stereo system, all of which will make your daily drive or weekend road trip more enjoyable and comfortable. We suggest adding the Technology package for sought-after electronics such as voice-command navigation, a digital music storage component and Bluetooth audio streaming. Sure, you can live without this stuff, but it's better not to.

author photo

Shamit Choksey has a love for automobiles that worked into an early career writing and developing cop shows for network television. Later, diving even further into the world of wheels, he became a writer/producer for the Emmy-nominated PBS/Discovery Channel series "MotorWeek." These days, Shamit lives in Southern California, serving as a media consultant and journalist within the automotive industry. Incidentally, his wife and two sons are not impressed by any of this.

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