by Phil Berg
The original big Japanese sedan is refined to the point of luxury.
Base Price $22,019
As Tested $28,934
The Maxima maintains two unique personalities: sporty and plush, depending upon which model you drive. The SE is the sporty sedan, while the base GXE and loaded GLE are softer-riding. The differences are not Jekyl and Hyde, but they are noticeable when you pick up the pace on a fun road.
We think the soul of this capable, good-handling mid-size sedan is best displayed by the SE, which we tested. The SE has a firmer suspension, and its larger tires stick to the road better. It is available with a refined manual transmission (as is the budget GXE model), a feature that's gradually disappearing from the mid-size sedan market.
The Maxima was previously restyled in 1995. The 2000 Maxima goes on sale this fall with rounder corners, but it will use the same V6 engine and platform as the current model. That may allow shoppers to bargain down the $28,934 price for an SE like our test car.
The Maxima's front wheels are driven by an all-aluminum 24-valve V6 engine rated at 190 horsepower. Nissan's V6 has been continuously refined for efficiency, and is strong and responsive. The Maxima SE model's easy-shifting manual transmission is standard, but since the majority of Maxima customers prefer the automatic, we selected it for our test car. The Honda Accord V6 offers a five-speed manual that's equally fun, but you can't get one with the Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, Oldsmobile Intrigue, Chevy Lumina, or Dodge Intrepid. That's a loss for serious drivers, who we would steer toward the Nissan store.
The four-speed automatic is a $1000 option, and anti-lock brakes, traction control, and side airbags also add to the car's price, which rises high enough with this equipment to move the sedan into Audi and Saab territory.
The Inside Story
When it was re-styled in 1988, the Maxima grew larger, and was a landmark Japanese car for interior space. That was because it was three inches wider than any other mid-size Japanese sedan. Up until that time, the only cars to come from Japan that were wider than 66.5 inches were bulged-fendered Acura sedans. A tax law limiting width, and hence determining assembly line size, kept Japanese mid-size cars narrower than U.S. counterparts. The law was annulled not long after 1988, but the limits were ingrained in Japanese design, and only recently have Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords escaped those constraints.
The driver's sense of touch is treated well in all of Nissan's cars, including the Maxima. The thinly padded and firm leather-covered steering wheel pleases your fingers. Tilt-steering is standard, but if you're a six-footer, you'll probably end up setting the wheel at its highest position at all times just to clear your legs. The feel of the door latches and the movement of the switchgear are as good as the best luxury car's. When the doors and trunklid close, and when you operate the steering-column-mounted stalks for the lights and wipers, the sounds that result are short and satisfying clicks. Nothing sounds weakly mounted.
What the Maxima doesn't have that a luxury machine does is interior style. The instrument panel is simple and clean and is devoid of wood (a $429 option), leather, or shiny bits of trim. Overall, the Maxima looks pretty plain inside, but in fairness there's comfort in the lack of things competing for your attention. Leather seating surfaces come with a $1349 package that includes power adjusters and automatic climate control. That boosts the price over $30,000.
Black dials on white gauge faces are unique on the SE model, though when you turn on the lights at night, the fuzzy illumination on the dials makes them appear out-of-focus. Conventional black background gauges are standard on the other models. The rear seats three adults in comfort for an hour-long drive, but three is a crowd on longer drives. For 1999, the rear center seat belt was changed from a lap belt to a three-point belt. A pass-through to the trunk is handy for skis, fly rods and other long objects, but the rear seats don't fold down.
On trips you can pack a lot of luggage into the Maxima - its trunk is slightly larger than the cargo hold of a Camry, Accord or Mazda 626.
Ride & Drive
The 3.0-liter V6 is responsive, and so smooth-running that you think it's a larger engine at times. It feels gutsy, sounds good, and never loses its thrust through its 6500-rpm rev range. In spite of its good manners, the Nissan is slower to accelerate than a V6 Camry or Accord, both of which offer slightly more power. If you accelerate while turning, you can feel the torque-steer effect, a tugging on the steering wheel that only Audi and VW have successfully exorcised from their front-drive mid-size sedans. Traction control limits wheelspin on our automatic-equipped test car; traction control is not available with the five-speed manual transmission.
The electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission shifts invisibly. But when you downshift from third to second gear, either by moving the lever or by flooring the throttle when you're in third gear, the engine howls for a second before you detect much forward motivation. While the Maxima is not a dragstrip champion, you never tire of using all of the engine's potential.
On challenging roads the Maxima SE is fun and extremely capable. It will give most luxury cars a dash for their cash in the mountains. Handling is quick, with fast, even turn-in and a lot of grip. Ultimately the Maxima plows in fast corners, but not until you're at the high end of its limits. If you want, however, you can get the car to drift in a neutral attitude by decelerating momentarily and shifting weight onto the front tires. Nothing bad or surprising happens, and the car just tucks in tighter. All of this sport sedan behavior translates to extra confidence when you're entering a 75 mph highway from a tight ramp.
We drove our test car on twisty Appalachian two-laners in the country, and had almost as much fun as we've had in sportier coupes on the same roads.
Bumpy roads don't upset the car. The rear suspension was redesigned in 1995 with a new rear beam axle in place of its former independent setup. This design takes up less space, which can be used for baggage and rear-seat passengers. Careful tuning allowed the Maxima to retain a good ride quality on rough roads.
All Maximas come standard with four-wheel disc brakes, which provide good braking performance. Anti-lock brakes come standard on the SE and we found the system works smoothly on slick and dusty road surfaces. The nose of the SE doesn't dive excessively during hard braking; its tauter suspension provides more precise handling control than the softer-sprung GXE and GLE models.
The Nissan Maxima is a capable and rewarding car you can enjoy over a long haul. It's quiet and relaxing to drive. It carries five people in comfort. It's comfortable on long trips. And it has a reputation for solid reliability.
Order the Maxima SE and you've got a real sports sedan.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.