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A Look Back at the Nissan Maxima

At the 2015 New York Auto Show, the 300-horsepower 2016 Nissan Maxima took center stage as the company unveiled the eighth generation of its iconic sport sedan. While many Americans are familiar with the Maxima name, it wasn’t always so. The Maxima first appeared as a trim level on the second-generation Datsun 810, which debuted in 1981. By 1982, the 810 name was dropped completely and the Maxima was born. More angular than the first 810, the 1981 Maxima wed performance and luxury into a single platform. A 2.4-liter 125-hp engine borrowed from the 240Z served as the powerplant, but in 1982 Datsun also offered a short-lived 2.8-liter diesel option as well as a wagon. Some of the Maxima’s more notable highlights included recorded voice warnings such as “your door is ajar” and “please turn out the lights.”

Early Tech Leader

The second-generation Maxima arrived in 1985, and with it came a complete about-face. Power was now routed through the car’s front wheels, and although the wheelbase shrank, overall interior room was up. A 5-speed manual was available, though most cars were ordered with a 4-speed automatic. One of the industry’s first adaptive suspension systems, which used sonar to adjust the shocks to differing road conditions, was offered on the 1988 Maxima. 1988 was also the final year for the Maxima wagon.


The 1989-1994 Maxima marked the most significant move in the car’s history, establishing the Maxima as a true performance sedan. Many still consider this one of the most attractive of the Maxima designs, and the car sold briskly throughout its entire model run. Power came from a 3.0-liter V6 good for 160 hp, which, with the addition of dual overhead camshafts in 1991, increased to 190 hp. Nissan dubbed the 1989 Maxima “the 4-door sports car” and even put a little 4DSC sticker in the window. In truth, the Maxima wasn’t as fast or adept at handling as some European cars, but it was bigger in all dimensions, which seemed to go over well with its American audience. It also didn’t cost as much as a Mercedes or BMW, and its repair and reliability records were superior to almost all rivals, save for the Toyota Cressida.

The year 1995 ushered in the fourth-generation Maxima. Although its design was not as dramatic as the previous model, the new Maxima was larger, more powerful and more comfortable. Cost-cutting forced the previous car’s independent rear suspension to be replaced with a torsion bar solid axle, but sales remained strong, and Motor Trend even named the Maxima its Import Car of the Year. The Maxima received some minor styling updates midway through its run, as well as the introduction of such Maxima mainstays as the Bose audio system.

2000 to 2008

The fifth-generation Maxima continued to grow larger and simultaneously less sporty. Covering the 2000-2003 time span, the Maxima saw notable improvements under the hood, where its 3.0-liter V6 now pumped out an impressive 222 hp. Regrettably, styling was rather bland, both inside and out. On the plus side, the Maxima was roomier, quieter and more comfortable than ever before, and it still offered a more sporting driving experience than a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. In 2002, a 255-hp 3.5-liter V6 was introduced as the standard engine.

The sixth-generation 2004-2008 Maxima may go down as the most controversial design in the car’s history. While power, performance and overall interior accommodations were improved, the Maxima’s rounded shape and unusual longitudinal fixed sunroof (some people compared it to a slot on a piggy bank) were definitely polarizing. A new multi-link rear suspension adapted from the Japanese Skyline sports car was added, greatly increasing the Maxima’s cornering and maneuverability. While a manual transmission helped retain the Maxima’s 4DSC image, the move in 2007 to a continuously variable automatic transmission somewhat dampened enthusiasts’ love for the car.

The 2009-2015 car saw the return of a more aggressive appearance, with a shorter wheelbase, a more powerful engine and a more enthusiast-oriented interior. Still powered by its front wheels, however, the Maxima struggled to gain traction while competing in a class where rear-wheel drive had once again become the preferred layout for serious drivers. Its luxurious interior, however, did seem to win it a number of fans. Horsepower rose to 290, and a long list of luxury features put the Maxima within spitting distance of its Infiniti luxury siblings.

For 2016, the Nissan Maxima has a plusher interior, more compelling tech features and dramatic new looks that set it apart from every other sedan on the road.

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Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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