The Nissan Maxima has long been a big fish in an ever-shrinking pond of roomy, workaday sedans.
Despite fresher competition from the Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Avalon, according to Nissan, the Maxima has been the retail best-seller in the under-the-radar, full-size segment if you combine the past five years of sales. (Chevy sells far more Impalas annually, for example, but its numbers are bloated by sales to rental fleets.) But that still works out to only 45,000 Maximas or so per annum, which tells us two things: This is one unfashionable segment, and buyers see too little differentiation between the Maxima and the more affordable Altima.
Standing out from the Altima shouldn’t be a problem for the all-new 2016 Nissan Maxima. Nissan says the eighth-generation Maxima was inspired by jets -- Saab not being around to sue for copyright infringement -- and it won’t be mistaken for more ground-hugging family sedans, for good or ill.
Perusing the Maxima on the 2015 New York auto show stand in April, one wondered if Shiro Nakamura, Nissan’s chief designer, had spent too much time in the wild blue yonder. The Maxima looked to have more tortured skin than “50 Shades of Grey,” from the bulky chinstrap of its V-Motion grille to the woozy sine waves of its fenders. Hey, some people loved it.
Yet like other cars that look all crazy and disproportioned at first glance, the Maxima appears less radical on the street and even, dare we say, attractive from certain angles. And give Nissan points for boldness: Iconoclastic styling may be worth a try to re-establish the Maxima as the segment’s “four-door sports car,” a position it first claimed in 1989.
Dynamically speaking, the Maxima won’t knock the Mazda6 from today’s four-door, front-drive throne. But the Nissan is powerful, commodious, smartly outfitted, and ergonomically top-notch -- all sound reasons to buy a premium family sedan.
The 2016 Maxima is slightly shorter, lower, and wider, and torsional rigidity has been stiffened by 25 percent over the previous car. Acoustic laminated glass and Bose active noise cancellation cut bad road noise to luxury levels, with its V-6 sound piped into the cabin when you pop the Maxima’s new Drive Mode selector to Sport. That switch also tailors steering, throttle, CVT transmission, exhaust sound, and (for the racier SR trim) Active Ride Control that taps the brakes to quell fore-and-aft pitching.
The hushed, almost-an-Infiniti cabin is a Maxima high point. Genuine stitching traces the instrument panel, and drivers twirl a handsome flat-bottomed steering wheel. Nissan’s fatigue-fighting Zero Gravity seats add robust bolsters and there are available diamond-quilted inserts in leather or Alcantara.
A tandem 8-inch central screen and 7-inch driver’s display likely set the class standard for sharp graphics and no-fuss operation, including smartphone-style swiping, pinching, even widget programming. Actual smartphones can fit inside a deep covered console bin, which can also prop a phone to easily view its screen. The Maxima’s knurled Display Commander knob smoothly complements the touch display. Nissan’s raft of optional driver aids gets more loaded with a drowsy-driver alert system and a front collision warning that monitors two cars ahead in traffic.
With 61 percent new parts, Nissan’s 3.5-liter V-6 breathes better and burns hotter, with sodium-filled valves from the GT-R to help cool the fire, and the engine sounds less gritty than previous VQ mills. Horsepower rises by 10 to an even 300, with a stand-pat 261 lb-ft of torque. By shedding 82 pounds, Nissan claims the Maxima has a better power-to-weight ratio than the V-6-equipped Acura TLX or BMW 328i. Nissan didn’t offer a performance dance card, but we estimate a waltz from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.8 seconds.
The sportier Maxima SR gets firmer springs, shocks, and a thickened front stabilizer bar; a front Yamaha performance damper to soothe body vibrations; 19-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels and a unique rubber compound for its Goodyear Eagle F1 all-seasons; and available Bridgestone summer tires.
Traipsing through forested roads and McMansion-dotted exurbs in the Nashville area, the Nissan felt plush and fleet-footed, and it tracked faithfully -- at least until we asked it to break a sweat. The harder you push the Maxima, the more it reveals its front-drive, common-platform, understeering roots.
Nissan says its latest continuously variable transmission cuts internal friction by 40 percent. By glass-half-full standards, it’s one of the most natural-feeling CVTs yet and helps boost highway economy to 30 mpg. Drivers who rarely venture beyond half-throttle might never realize it’s a CVT: Sound shift logic never lets the V-6 surge or drone excessively. The system mimics a seven-speed transmission in its manual mode, which you can shift with silly-large paddle shifters on the SR. The Maxima will even zip through gears in stepped fashion in “D” mode, and the transmission can adapt to a spirited throttle foot.
But the mimicry remains just that, as the ersatz “shifts” feel slow and oozy compared with better conventional transmissions, including the crisp action of the Acura TLX we drove for comparison. The selectable Sport mode actually amplifies some performance weaknesses, producing artificially stiff steering that recalls some Hyundai helms: It’s like an obtrusive, invisible hand clamping down.
The market’s invisible hand can applaud the simplicity of Maxima shopping, with five grades, no options, and a logical walk-up in features. The Maxima starts at $33,235 for the SV and peaks with the $40,685 Platinum, with the SR version at $38,495.
Even if the 2016 Nissan Maxima doesn’t rise to bargain-BMW heights, it does seem to burnish its alternative appeal. Current owners are dramatically younger than the segment average and are roughly twice as likely to ferry children in back. Additionally, nearly one in five buyers is African-American versus one in 10 for the segment at large.
Those younger free thinkers may find the Maxima just right, even if picky enthusiasts find front drive all wrong.
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