Within the demure new skin, the tiger still burns bright. by Kevin Ransom
If you're a carmaker, and you redesign one of your stalwart models, and it wins awards, what do you do for an encore? Answer: add a larger cupholder, two new exterior colors and a power seat on the passenger's side.
That's about all Nissan has done to the 1996 Maxima after its redesigned '95 edition nabbed several honors and asserted itself as a tiger in the mid-sized sedan class.
The '95 redesign was prompted by a desire to broaden the Maxima's appeal beyond the sportscar enthusiast segment.
Nissan definitely succeeded on that front by modifying the body design in a way that downplayed the sportier looks of the previous Maxima. While the more rounded body design drew some yawns from the more sportily inclined, the new Maxima scored big among family-sedan buyers.
But if the appearance of the fourth-generation Maxima doesn't make the heart of performance enthusiasts go pitter-patter, all is forgiven once they get behind the wheel. Nissan chose a wise strategy. If the redesigned Maxima may look more conservative than its antecedents, it actually packs more power.
Therein lies the genius of the redesigned Maxima: road-burning acceleration in a quieter, roomier and smoother-riding four-door sedan.
The Maxima comes in three models: the entry-line GXE, the sport-equipped SE and the luxury-line GLE. Our test model SE was "granite pearl" in color -- that's a deep gray to you and me -- and sported a base sticker price of $22,679.
Standard equipment on the GXE includes air conditioning; cruise control; stereo cassette player; tilt steering wheel and power seats, windows, door locks and mirrors.
Our SE test model included such standard equipment features as sport-tuned suspension; liquid-controlled front suspension (on models with automatic transmission); alloy wheels; rear-deck spoiler; front fog lamps; sport velour seat cloth; leather-wrapped steering wheel and black-on-white analog gauges.
The upline GLE offers such additional standard amenities as woodgrain trim; automatic transmission; eight-way power driver's seat and four-way passenger seat; automatic climate control; keyless remote entry system and Bose CD audio system.
Our SE came with nearly $4000 worth of options. They included: antilock brakes ($999); power sunroof ($899); Bose audio system with CD player and six speakers ($799); the security and convenience package -- which includes power driver's seat, keyless remote, intermittent wipers and illuminated vanity mirrors ($699) --and a cold-weather package that includes a heavy-duty battery, heated front seats and heated outside mirrors ($199). That brought the total suggested retail price up to $26,274, and Nissan's standard destination charge adds another $405.
Again, the latest Maxima's styling is a little more subdued than the previous generation, marketed as "the four-door sports car." But the Maxima is designed with a different buyer in mind -- the one who is currently in a Ford Taurus or Honda Accord and might be looking for a change.
Although this is still a lean, purposeful shape, the Maxima's back end appears to have been chopped off a tad early, the shapes of the grille and the lower air intake below appear visually incongruent with one another. The mirror housings, recessed door handles and slender side moldings are stylishly body-colored.
If you happen to be following along behind a Maxima, you won't have any trouble discerning what model it is: the word "Maxima" is emblazoned in bigger-than-average chrome letters across the trunk. The taillights are square and generously proportioned for easy visibility.
The Inside Story
When it made the commitment to giving the Maxima a "big tent" appeal -- that is, to include more conservative and less sport-minded buyers -- it expanded the interior space to accommodate kids, dogs and Rollerblades. That's especially true in the rear seat, where previous editions were a bit cramped.
The front compartment provides plenty of head and legroom, even for taller drivers. The front bucket seats, which are swathed in smart-looking gray-velour coverings, are comfy and supportive. The interior of our test car was done in a monochromatic three-shades-of-gray decor that's quite handsome. In addition to two small cupholders for styrofoam cups of java, a new, larger holder has been added for ceramic mugs and such -- and it's notched to accommodate the cuphandle.
In the SE -- but not in the GXE and GLE -- the gauges are niftily designed so that, during the day, the dials are marked by black-outlined gray digits on a white background. But at night, they miraculously mutate into a white-on-black design for greater visibility.
The switches and dials are cleverly located to allow the driver to spot everything without having to lean forward and peer under or over the steering wheel.
Though the cruise control on-off switch is still on the instrument panel, the system can be operated via the buttons on the lower-right quadrant of the steering wheel -- instead of diddling with stalk-mounted switches.
The Maxima claims to seat five. But, as with most vehicles that make such a claim, the fifth person had better be short, featherlight and skinny-hipped -- because she or he is going to be sitting over a hump in the floor, with a fold-down armrest for back support.
Ride & Drive
Lurking beneath the Maxima's demure body design is the soul of a predator. When Nissan designers redesigned the Maxima, they built the engine -- a 190-hp 3.0-liter dual-overhead-cam 24-valve V-6 -- from lighter aluminum alloy, allowing the the Maxima to shed 100 pounds, down to 3010 pounds. They also tweaked the engine's electronic controls. The result? A heart-stopping time of 6.7 seconds in the 0-to-60 sprint for the Maxima SE. That's quicker than any other Japanese sedan sold on these shores -- including the ones with eight-cylinder engines. It's also faster than the Taurus SHO.
But buyers of four-door sedans are more interested in the car's performance in freeway passing situations or emergency maneuvers than stoplight acceleration. And the Maxima SE is similarly brisk in freeway traffic, pulling smartly ahead of the crowd when it needs to.
The SE is equipped with Nissan's patented Multi-Link Beam suspension. By minimizing camber change, this new system provides precise handling and stability during cornering. Though its maximum performance limits aren't quite as high as the previous system, it's more compact, improving interior space, and cheaper to manufacture.
The reduction in camber change also means that softer bushings and shocks can be used -- thereby reducing suspension friction. That translates into a smoother, softer ride.
Some sport-driving enthusiasts have indeed found the overall ride and handling to be too soft -- at least in comparison to the previous edition of the Maxima. However, that's not as much a problem with the sport-tuned SE. In any case, the average driver will likely welcome the trade-off of road feel for softer ride.
The five-speed manual transmission responded obediently, meshing nicely with the potent V-6 engine. Steering was sure and responsive for the most part, although in really hard corners the Maxima's rear end seemed to lag behind the front end, a more or less universal front-drive trait known as understeer. But another trait that commonly goes with front-drive understeer is absolute predictability -- ease off the throttle and the nose of the car tucks back in line.
When the cruise control was engaged at 65 mph, the Maxima purred along at a quiet 3300 rpm. Nissan designers have also reduced noise and vibration levels at higher speeds, another plus in the mainstream mid-size market.
Initially, the power-assisted anti-lock brakes seemed a bit grabby. But, halfway through our test drive, rain began to fall. And on a wet surface, the brakes rose to the occasion, providing straight, assured stops every time.
It's a crowded car market out there. During the gestation of the new Maxima, Nissan knew there was more gold to be had in the mid-size sedan market -- in spite of the world-beating sales numbers posted by the Taurus and Accord in the last few years.
By repositioning the Maxima, Nissan has clearly made inroads into that market, offering Accord and Taurus buyers a speedier, more nimble alternative in the process. Although the sportscar imagery has been discarded, this is still a four-door family sedan that will leave most of its rivals in the dust.
What a concept.
Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084
© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.