Nissan engineers had a real tough assignment this time around. The Maxima was already a capable, fine-performing luxury-sports sedan -- and it looked darn good, too.
But this is 2009, and a lot of the competition was looking and performing darn good, too. So, for the seventh generation of Maxima (which debuted 20 years ago as a 1989 model), the assignment: Get emotional, get wild, and anything is open for discussion. Even switching to rear-wheel-drive, which didn't happen but that's OK.
Voila! The Maxima was reborn with more exciting looks, 35 more horses yet better mileage figures, a new platform with improved handling, and new interior treatments that put it on a par with Lexus and Infiniti.
Mission accomplished. Well, almost. The CVT (continuously variable transmission), which is not as disturbing as some, still detracts from the sporty performance this sedan was gunning for. But paddle shifters offer a spirited ride by simulating six gears at the touch of a thumb -- and the shifts are quite responsive, too.
A drive-sport mode ups the rpm but doesn't do much for acceleration. Sounds better, though.
Thinking outside the box, Nissan didn't fall for "bigger is better." It actually downsized its flagship by reducing the wheelbase 1.9 inches, shrinking its length by four inches and height by a half-inch.
It is, in my view, better looking than ever with angled, wraparound headlights like on the racy GT-R sports car, a sleek, sloping hood and wider grille. Its aggressiveness is enhanced with dual exhausts and optional 19-inch wheels
Maxima is built upon a new platform, what it calls the D platform, same one on which the Altima sits. Nissan credits it for improved performance and says it negated the need to go to rear-wheel drive because it virtually eliminated torque steer. I guess "virtually'' is the key word here, because there is still some of that torque steer when cornering more aggressively.
But, generally, performance is excellent, with crisper steering than last year and stiffer suspension. Nissan said it increased body rigidity 15 percent, and front-strut mounts are 100 percent stiffer. Noise and vibration, however, was reduced by mounting the engine at six points instead of four.
That engine is a modified version of last year's, a 3.5-liter V-6 that puts out 290 hp -- 35 more ponies than '08. Zero to 60 is slightly better, at 6.1 seconds, instead of 6.3.
In spite of the power boost, mileage was improved a tad to 19 mpg city, 26 highway.
Inside, perforated-leather seats are firm and supportive. The driver's seat has an optional thigh extension for long hauls. And the new seat design offers more knee room for those in the back seat.
Interior look and feel is exceptional, really, with rich leather trim, chrome accents around gauges, vent ring and audio switches. The shifter was moved closer to the driver this year for easier grasp. Cruise-control switches are within easy reach of the right thumb -- hand never needs to leave the wheel.
The big 14.3 cubic-foot trunk can handle golf clubs and big suitcases. There also is a rear-seat pass-through, but the seats do not fold down unless you crawl into the trunk for the latch.
Maxima is available in two trim levels, the S and SV. Both are well equipeed but the SV adds leather seats, 9-speaker Bose sound system fog lights and turn-signal indicators on the side-view mirrors. Then you can add a sport package or luxury package (think moon roof, sunshades, memory seats and Eucalyptus wood-tone trim and satellite radio).
Nissan engineers took some positive strides with the new Maxima SV. It is a good-looking, responsive performer, and yet it would be a mistake to call it a true sports car. Maxima's real attraction is its level of comfort and luxurious appointments.
MSRP: $30,160 to $32,860