With an impressive 290 horsepower, the 2009 Nissan Maxima is said to bring new credibility to the "4-Door Sports Car" slogan that it wore in the late ‘80s. But with a curb weight of nearly 3,600 pounds, a front-wheel drive layout and no manual transmission offering, it may be more accurate to recognize the Maxima as a modern version of what it was then — a great mid-level sedan that’s packed full of upscale goodies.
As always, the Maxima only available with four doors and a V6. The simplicity stops there, though. The Maxima comes with a typical array of standard features, but the list gets long when various packages are tacked on.
Right off the bat, you’ll need to choose between the Maxima 3.5S and 3.5SV. The S is the base model, but you get Nissan’s Intelligent Key with push-button ignition and dual-zone climate control. And that’s about it. Opt for the 3.5SV and you’ll get leather seats, a Bose stereo, an excellent driver’s thigh support, and a few other treats. Most importantly, upgrading to the SV opens you up to the three packages offered on the Maxima.
The sport package is highlighted by 19-inch wheels and a stiffer suspension, plus heated seats and steering wheel. The premium package focuses on a dual-panel moonroof with sunshades and a power rear window sunshade. The tech package, which can only be added after opting for the sport and/or premium package, includes a navigation system with voice recognition, XM NavTraffic (when you buy the contract), and a back-up camera.
Under the Hood
It’s hard to find a Nissan that doesn’t offer some variant of the company’s successful VQ-series V6 under the hood, and that’s fine with us. This refreshed 3.5-liter version sees a 35-horsepower bump from the 2008 model, to 290 hp at 6400 rpm. Torque moves from 252 lb-ft to 261 lb-ft at 4400 rpm, and as an added bonus, the car is actually more efficient on the highway, at 26 mpg (city driving nets 19 mpg).
The V6’s smooth, linear powerband makes it one of the silkiest in its class. But as satisfying as the VQ V6 is, it’s a wonder Nissan chose to mate only a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to its side. The gearbox is smooth and predictable, but it hardly helps actualize the car’s sporting intentions.
A major focus during the design phase of the new Maxima was the "Super Cockpit Interior," which Nissan says (you guessed it) feels like a cockpit while still being spacious. While it’s definitely roomy, it’s tough to see the "cockpit" part. But if you can once again leave the sporting mission statement aside, you’ll find that the excellent front seats are built for the long haul (particularly when equipped with the optional thigh extension), and the 9.3 GB Music Box means your favorite tunes are always on tap.
Almost every one of the many technical gizmos found on the Maxima can be accessed on the steering wheel — though we found some bits to be counterintuitive. A "eucalyptus wood tone trim" is optional on the SV premium package, but we’d skip it. And if we’re really nit-picky, we’d say that the seat heat controls and the power rear shade toggle are somewhat awkwardly mounted in the crevice between the dashboard and the center console.
On the Road
Because of its sporting pretensions, we opted to drive a Maxima 3.5SV equipped with the sport and tech packages. A few corners in, it’s obvious that this is not sports car steering. It’s perfectly precise, and it isn’t easily upset by undulations in the road, but offers up enough assist to power a school bus. This is fine when you’re competing with Toyota's Avalon, but not when you’re trying to shake Acura's TL.
Nissan says the Maxima’s CVT knows when you’re cornering, thus eliminating the need for a manual transmission. That’s a bold statement, but with over 700 shift-logic algorithms, it’s pretty darn hard to argue in practice. The Maxima really does seem to be in the right gear all the time.
On the other hand, if you’re really flogging it on twisty mountain roads, the suspension has a tough time keeping up. The Maxima is better suited for highway cruising, which it does exceptionally well. There’s always plenty of passing power, and the interior is reasonably quiet. The five-seat arrangement makes sense whether or not you opt for the sport package, which adds twin bucket seats in the rear, but only slightly compromises the middle seat.
Right for You?
Ignore Nissan’s lofty sports car mission statement for the Maxima and you realize that it actually fits into its segment quite well. It’s a sportier car than Honda's Accord V6 or the Toyota Avalon, and provides more gadgetry than your neighbor’s Nissan Altima. For this, you’ll pay anywhere from $29,000 to just over $40,000, and they’re available now.
James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.