Thumbs Up: Near luxury levels of content.
Thumbs Down: Luxury-sized sticker price when optioned out.
Buy This Car If: You want a slightly detuned, less responsive (and less expensive) front-drive Infiniti G37.
We have a confession to make: we were big fans of the third generation Maxima, built from 1988 through 1994. In our travels throughout the U.S., it was our standard rental car (whenever we could get our hands on one), and it rarely managed to disappoint. We always figured we’d own one someday, but by the time we’d gotten around to shopping for one, the third and fourth generations had come and gone.
If the fourth generation was anonymous in its styling, the fifth generation was even worse. We’d have called it bland, but there was far too much awkward styling (like the snout-shaped grille and the oddly-formed headlights) for that. In our eyes, anyway, the styling just didn’t work, and we spent our full-size sedan dollars elsewhere.
The sixth generation Maxima, sold from 2004-2008, was at least something of a step in the right direction. Yes, the lines were still a bit ambitious, and we never understood the purpose of the racing-stripe skylight, but at least the car wasn’t the last one to leave the automotive cocktail lounge, alone again at closing time.
Enter the seventh generation Maxima, launched in 2000 and now heading into its fourth year of production. To our eyes, anyway, it’s the best-looking Maxima since the third generation cars, and it’s also blessed with enough amenities to cross over into the near-luxury class. It’s still sporty, but we’re not sure Nissan’s claim of the “four door sports car” can really be applied to anything with a continuously variable transmission.
Up front, it’s hard to miss the same muscular fender lines that you’d find on an Infiniti M or G sedan, just one more indication that Nissan aims to take the Maxima a bit upscale. There’s a chrome grille, but it’s not overdone, and we’d call the front fascia styling conservative. Perhaps the boldest thing about the entire front end styling is way the headlight assembly integrates into the front fender.
In profile, you notice the subtle bulge of the front and rear fenders, as well as the minimized chrome trim used to define the daylight opening. It’s flared at the C-pillar as a design element, and it works well in conjunction with the chrome door handles. Elegant isn’t a word we’d use to describe many Maximas built after 1994, but it certainly fits for the latest generation.
From the rear, your eyes are drawn to the optional deck lid spoiler, used more as a styling element than to moderate rear lift at speed. It’s hard to miss the large dual exhausts, too, especially bedecked in their chrome trim. The other distinctive rear piece is the chrome strip atop the license plate well. It’s a bit on the large side for our tastes, but we’re sure that others will find it visually pleasing.
Inside, those familiar with Infiniti’s sedans will find a surprising amount of common ground. The controller from Infiniti’s infotainment system is repurposed in the Maxima, as are controls for HVAC and audio. The dash of the Maxima isn’t quite up to Infiniti standards, but it’s still attractive and well laid out. There’s even visually-pleasing simulated-wood trim, and few passengers will be able to tell Nissan’s “Atlantic Cherry wood-tone trim” (included in the Premium Package) from a genuine wood veneer.
Instruments provide another link to the Maxima’s sports car heritage. There are three large dials in a hooded binnacle, including a central speedometer flanked by a tachometer and a combination gauge that includes water temperature, fuel level, gear indicator and odometer displays. An LCD driver information panel is featured beneath the speedometer.
Front seats fall into the “very good” category, with the driver’s seat including a manual thigh support, power lumbar support and both heating and cooling (as part of the Premium Package). Oddly enough, the passenger seat is heated only, and we’re a bit puzzled as to why Nissan would choose to omit cooling for the front seat passenger. Few will notice and fewer will complain about it, but it strikes us as an odd place to save money.
Opting for the Premium Package also gets you rear outboard bucket seats, and second row occupants will enjoy plenty of head room and leg room. As on other Nissan models, they don’t fold to accommodate cargo, but do include a pass-through for oversized items such as skis. Rear seat passengers get neither heating nor cooling, but do enjoy their own HVAC ducts for year-round comfort.
Under the hood lurks Nissan’s venerable VQ35DE 3.5-liter V-6 engine, tuned to produce 290 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque. It comes mated only to Nissan’s continuously-variable transmission, but Nissan gives drivers paddle shifters and six simulated gear ratios to play with. Perhaps it’s the engine’s output, but the CVT was never as bothersome as it is in some cars, particularly those with underpowered four-cylinder engines. We’d still (greatly) prefer a modern eight-speed automatic transmission, but the CVT works well enough that few buyers will object.
As for performance, expect to see the run from 0-60 mph take around 6.3 seconds, while the EPA says the Maxima can deliver up to 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined. We’re inclined to believe that, as we saw an indicated 22.3 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving.
On the road, the Maxima serves up a comfortable ride even on rough surfaces. In corners, body roll is minimal as long as your expectations are reasonable. Nissan may call this the “four-door sports car,” but that doesn’t mean you can expect to run with a Nissan 350Z or 370Z when the road gets twisty. In fact, it’s probably best to think of the Maxima as a near-luxury sedan with a slight nod to the sporty side, as it’s got quite a bit of mass to contend with. That won’t detract from winding road fun (again, as long as your expectations are reasonable), but we don’t see the Maxima delivering much entertainment value on open-lapping track days.
That said, it’s steering is nicely weighted (if a bit numb), and its brakes are up for anything you’ll throw at it on the street. It’s a great alternative to boring full size sedans (which we won’t name here), and Nissan has no trouble moving them through dealerships. If you’re in the market for a family sedan, we say it’s worth shopping, but beware of piling on the packages to avoid sticker shock.
Nissan loaned us the 2012 Maxima SV for this review. Base price on the car was $35,210, including a destination charge of $760, and options included the $195 Floor and Trunk Mat package, the $3,300 Premium Package (dual-panel moonroof with sunshades; rear window power sunshade; HID headlights; premium leather seating surfaces; climate-controlled driver’s seat; heated front passenger seat; power tilt/telescoping heated steering wheel; paddle shifters; driver entry/exit system; driver side seat/mirror memory; auto dimming outside mirror; side mirror tilt down; rear bucket seats; rear seat pass-through; Atlantic Cherry wood-tone trim; seven-inch infotainment display with rearview monitor; USB input; single disc CD player), the $375 Rear Spoiler and the $1,850 Premium Technology Package (voice-guided navigation, XM NavTraffic; XM NavWeather; Bluetooth audio streaming) for a total sticker price of $40,930.
For comparison, a similarly equipped Toyota Avalon Limited would list for $39,219, while a comparable Hyundai Azera would sticker at $33,110.