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, Administrator Emeritus
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Despite a radical redesign, Nissan's near-luxury model just doesn't cut it.
April 23, 2003: 10:22 AM EDT
By Lawrence Ulrich, Money Magazine
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Sorry, Nissan. I just don't get it.

The automaker has patiently explained why the Maxima continues to make sense in a crowded midsize sedan lineup that already features the solid Nissan Altima and brilliant Infiniti G35.

But testing the redesigned Maxima in California and New York only convinced me that the Altima and Infiniti are both far better cars for the money.

There's no disputing that Nissan is currently one hot automaker, with a torrent of well-received models including the Altima, 350Z, Murano, Infiniti G35 and FX45.

Now comes an all-new Maxima that, on paper, has everything it takes. But paper and pavement are two different things. And despite a roomy interior and lusty 265-horsepower V-6, this sedan is hampered by a lofty price and shortage of refinement. And perhaps not surprisingly for a model that's trying to straddle the fence between the affordable Altima and luxury G35, it ends up with the same indistinct, please-everyone personality as the previous Maxima.

This sixth generation of Nissan's flagship sedan starts with the same front-drive platform that underpins the Altima and the crossover Murano. And while styling is subjective, that's where my problems begin.

My hunch is that designers, charged with making the Maxima "different" from its sleek Altima sibling, had a hard time deciding what to change, or why. The Maxima looks tentative, a hodgepodge of elements that don't always mesh. From the side, the resemblance to the Saturn Ion is unavoidable -- and believe me, I tried to avoid it. The overdone front grille looks like the breastplate on a Las Vegas gladiator.

The optional Skyview roof, of which Nissan has been proud, is useless. It's like a sunroof, except it doesn't open. It's supposed to offer a panoramic view, but its two panels look about as wide as a mail slot. (A conventional sunroof is optional).

The inside is somewhat better. A pleasantly curvy instrument panel is dominated by Nissan's familiar trio of deep binnacles that house the gauges. It's a monochrome, space-shuttle look that's either cooly minimalist or cold and trendy, depending on your preferences.

A 7-inch central display screen offers either audio, climate and trip computer information, or the optional DVD navigation system.

Leather-clad seats, front and rear, are excellent, and the spacious rear quarters actually managed to swallow three adults for a short trip with no complaints. The Maxima is about two inches longer than the Altima and roughly an inch wider. Still, a two-inch rear hiproom advantage is the only area in which the Maxima posts any useful edge.

That raises the question of the Elite package, which trades the rear bench seat for a pair of heated buckets bisected by a center console, reducing accommodations to four passengers. Another gimmick masquerading as an idea.

The engine, of course, is Nissan's wonderful workhorse, the 3.5-liter V-6 that here pumps out 265 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. It remains a smooth, tremendous powerplant, able to launch the Maxima from 0-60 mph in the low 6-second range. Once on its way, the Maxima can show its taillights to a whole catalog of sedans.

Putting all that power to the ground proved another matter, especially in the sportier SE model with its six-speed manual transmission. The Maxima is afflicted with the most turbulent torque steer I've experienced in some time. Call it "Wheels Gone Wild."

The Maxima wobbles off course during hard acceleration, as the front wheels fight for grip and the steering wheel twists hard against your hands. The electronic drive-by-wire throttle seemed to be part of the problem, making it hard to modulate the gas for a smooth take-off.

This obnoxious behavior used to be a common problem for powerful front-drive cars. But automakers including Acura, Audi and Cadillac have managed to make it a virtual non-issue, so I'm at a loss to understand Nissan's continuing struggle.

One more quibble: In the automatic SL, rocking the shift lever into manumatic mode produced a jarring metallic whonk as the lever butted into the gate.

SL models get 17-inch wheels and tires, while the SE adds 18-inchers. Tire grip is excellent, the steering smooth and linear, if a bit over-boosted. The SE model especially, with firmer tuning of its four-wheel independent suspension, acquitted itself well in the curves, though with a slight penalty in choppy ride quality.

Four-wheel disc brakes feature 12.6-inch rotors up front, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist, the latter a feature that boosts braking power when it senses the driver wants a full ABS stop. Tons of features are available, from seat position memory to a heated steering wheel to a 320-watt Bose audio system with 6-CD changer.

Alas, that brings us to the bottom line.

I drove both an SE model (base price $26,950), with a six-speed manual transmission; and the uplevel SL (base price $28,900) with a four-speed automatic. (Automatic SE models get a five-speed box).

A modest assortment of options brought even the lower-priced SE to $31,390. A well-stuffed SL can surpass $35,000. That's entry-luxury territory, and the Nissan just isn't sophisticated enough to play in that league.

Nissan shouldn't feel insulted over my measly one-star rating. Hey, I can recommend their own Altima or Infiniti G35 with no reservations.

For at least $4,000 less, you can own a V-6 Altima, which does virtually everything the Maxima can do, and looks better to boot. The Maxima's only advantages are a few horsepower, an upgraded interior and more standard features.

At $27,800, the Infiniti actually starts below the Maxima SL. For that, you get the superior rear-drive 350Z platform, higher style and quality inside and out, and near-BMW levels of performance. The warranty is substantially better as well, at 4 years/60,000 miles versus 3 years/36,000 miles for the Nissan. Ditto for free roadside service. Plus the huge advantage of pampering service at the luxury Infiniti dealer, rather than the plebian Nissan store.

Either way, the Maxima just doesn't add up.

Rating: One wheel (Out of four)

• Type: Front-engined, front-wheel drive mid-size sedan
• Base price: $26,950
• As tested: $31,390
• Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 265 horsepower, 255 pound-feet torque
• Fuel economy: 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway


gold member chik
37 Posts
Well, that makes me feel alot better....... I almost bought one of these Maxima's before test driving my new TSX. God definately had a plan for me on this one! :D

6 Posts
have to disagree...

I've test driven both the new maxima, tsx, bmw 330i, and g35. The g35 is all driver - I think the interior is less refined and just as cheap (if not cheaper) looking than the new maxima. The legroom in the back is HUGE compared to the bmw and tsx. Even the g35 seems small compared to the maxima.

What I hate about the new max is that if I can 6speed and nav, they make you buy the 6500$ elite package to get it, and force bucket seats on you in the back. That makes the car almost 35k with the sunroof. The engine is sweet though, and the guy is right about the torque steer - it's nuts. If you get that car, you must get the HLSD to fix the problem - but wait there is more, if you get the elite package 6spd, you can't get HLSD or traction control. Whats up with that?

The tsx is a lot smaller inside, although for me I think it will be adequate. Also note the gas milage of the 265 HP car (6spd to 6pd) is the same as the tsx.

If you have a family with kids or travel with adults in the back a lot, is the maxima that bad? It still 3-4k less than a comparably equipped g35. (6mt, gps, spoiler)

Ok let the flames begin! :>

GT40 enthusiast
163 Posts
Why they made it look like a Saturon ION, I have no idea...

The front grille is apalling and it should be changed right away, and I also heard the new Sentra's coming out will carry the same grille design? If they do that will make another ugly car.

The only thing that I found good about the exterior styling, was the vertical sunroof.
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