Most people would associate the words “mid-sized family sedan” with brands and models such as the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord, the Ford Taurus, and of course the Nissan Maxima.
Eight generations and almost 40 years later, Nissan’s flagship Maxima sedan still carries on proudly, but has changed quite a bit over the years from the square and mild-mannered Japanese-built Datsun 810 in 1981.
Back in those days, the “Maxima” was actually just a trim line to denote a fully loaded and more luxurious version of the Datsun 810, a la “810 Maxima”.
Today, the Maxima is assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, with engines assembled in Decherd, Tennessee.
What is it today?
Rare are the model lines that span over two decades, but there are a few notable exceptions including the Maxima. Other models that prove the rule include the Porsche 911, the Chevy Corvette, the Honda Accord/Civic, and the Toyota Camry/Corolla.
Arguably, the glory years of the Maxima were in the 1990s, but its star began to fade in 2004 with a controversial redesign that had its original fans feeling disconnected from what had made it successful.
Approximately around that time, Nissan also had another very successful mid-sized sedan, the Altima. These days, the Altima is now actually Nissan’s best-selling sedan, so Nissan needed to offer more space and luxury features to get customers to trade-up to the Maxima.
Since Nissan considers both the models their mid-sized offerings, they’ve even created a comparison webpage on their website to highlight the differences for potential customers.
While both sedans have four doors and seating for up to five, Nissan says that the Maxima is positioned as the more muscular and luxurious of the pair. While the Maxima has a standard 300 hp 3.5L V6 engine, the Altima only has a standard 2.5L 4-cylinder engine with 179 hp.
The 3.5L V6 is optionally available on the Altima, but has been detuned to 270 hp to set itself a bit more down-market from its big brother Maxima.
Indeed, Nissan goes to such lengths to market the Maxima as a 4-Door Sports Car that the subtle 4DSC words are stamped into the rear tail lamps.
Strangely, Nissan’s webpage also includes comparisons to not just the Altima, but also to a mixed bag of other competitors. These include the slightly more upmarket (arguably mostly by brand name) Acura TLX, the larger Toyota Avalon, and the BMW 3-Series compact luxury sport sedan.
How does it look?
Significantly revised in 2016, the styling alone allows the Maxima to stand out in its category. With its distinctively upscale look through its wide stance and low profile, Nissan says that its flagship sedan is a virtual clone of its stunning Nissan Sport Sedan Concept car.
The bold front end combines Nissan’s signature V-Motion grille, with new black accents for the 2018 model year. The boomerang-style headlights and two-piece taillights with their own integrated LED signatures throw back to the Nissan 370Z sports car.
Much of the Maxima’s highly distinctive profile comes from its floating roof treatment with blacked-out A-pillars similar to the Nissan GT-R. The result is a streamlined aerodynamic profile that has a bit of a jet fighter look to it. In fact, Nissan developed a special metal stamping technique in order to add a very distinctive character line to its body.
The blackout treatment is also applied to the B and C-pillars, creating a wraparound canopy appearance, once again much like a jet fighter.
How does it drive?
The midsized sedan segment isn’t typically considered a hotbed of performance, but the Maxima’s foundation for its refined handling and ride comfort includes a platform with a significant amount of high strengths steel, including the first use of 1.2GPa high strength steel in a Nissan sedan.
This contributes to an 82-pound weight reduction versus the previous generation Maxima, and a better power-to-weight ratio than the Acura TLX V6.
Strictly by the numbers, the Maxima offers best-in-class standard horsepower, standard forward collision warning, as well as the best front head and legroom.
The award-winning 3.5-litre VQ-series V6 engine develops 300 hp and 261 lb-ft of torque, with engineering tricks learned from the Nissan GT-R, such as sodium filled valves.
Unfortunately due to lack of interest, there is no manual gearbox offered any longer. In fact, there is no conventional automatic gearbox either, but instead Nissan’s latest Xtronic CVT transmission makes its appearance. Its D-Step shifting logic allows for rapid shifts at high throttle applications and its intelligent shift logic holds the RPMS when it detects high-G cornering, allowing for smooth re-acceleration on corner exits.
While the transmission is certainly no double clutch gearbox, the tuning is sound and engineers have managed to finesse out a bit of fun out of it. Perhaps not quite sports-car status, but the application of a naturally aspirated engine is refreshing in this day and age.
So the Maxima may not fulfil fill sports-car status, but it handles twisty roads very well for a big car, designed for daily drivability in mind. The suspension is a sophisticated affair with a front independent subframe-mounted strut/coil spring design and a rear independent multi-link double wishbone design with ZF Sachs dampers.
Large front and rear stabilizer bars help to keep the car level even in twisty corners.
Unlike its little brother Altima, the Maxima offers an exclusive Drive Mode Selector that let’s you choose between Sport and Normal modes. In Sport mode, the engine’s throttle response increases and the transmission changes for more aggressive shifting under braking and gear holding.
The steering weight also increases and the Active Sound Enhancement system further amplifies the engine note in the cabin.
But perhaps what lets the Maxima’s sporty intentions down the most is its overly heavy steering weight. Oddly, the steering is actually heavier during low speed manoeuvres, making it a bit of a chore when parking.
Even more perplexing is that activating Sport Mode makes it a bit less heavy. A quick scan through Internet forums reveals that many owners also have this complaint. Hopefully this is something that Nissan is taking note of as well.
Inside the Maxima
With a centre stack angled seven degrees towards the driver, another design lesson learnt from the GT-R, the performance luxury-style interior of the Maxima is nicely driver focused.
Despite not having a luxury name badge, there are nice touches such as stitching on the instrument panel, doors and console, and diamond-quilted inserts. A sporty heated D-shape flat-bottom steering wheel also finishes the package off nicely.
Perhaps my favourite part of the Maxima’s interior is Nissan’s unique Zero Gravity seats. Nissan says that the “Zero Gravity” nomenclature is due to the engineers’ inspiration by NASA and the weightlessness of space.
They are keen to point out how the human body assumes a neutral spinal posture in a weightless environment and therefore the seats have been designed with 14 different pressure points to put occupants in a neutral position.
Heated and climate-controlled on my Platinum trim test car, the seats’ unique shape and patented structures are supremely comfortable, providing continuous support from the hips up to the shoulders.
The result of all of this clever multi-density padding and design is a seat that feels comfortable regardless of whether you’re on a short jaunt across town, or on a long distance road trip.
Adding to the driver comfort factor is the Maxima’s range of safety, security, and driving aids. My top trim Platinum tester included everything from intelligent forward collision warning and emergency braking, to adaptive cruise control, to blind spot warning.
Interestingly, Nissan does not yet offer its semi-autonomous ProPILOT assist feature that is found on a couple of its cheaper vehicles such as the Nissan Qashqai or the Rogue.
But the Maxima Platinum is equipped with Nissan’s Intelligent Driver Alertness (I-AD) system, which helps to alert the driver when drowsy driving is detected. Using analysis of steering inputs to detect changes in driving behaviour, the I-DA system provides audible and visual warnings if the system judges that the driver may be drowsy.
As studies have shown that drowsy driving is involved in as much as 21 per cent of fatal car accidents, this system is certainly a unique feature that the Maxima offers in its class.
Other useful features include a Tire Pressure Monitoring System with Nissan’s Easy-Fill Tire Alert. According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, four out of five consumers are currently on the roads with improperly inflated tires. Inflating tires to the recommended pressures can extend the life of the tire by as much as 7,500 kms and also save on fuel bills.
Nissan has made using the system as straightforward as it comes. When filling the tires, the system flashes the exterior lights to indicate that the computer is monitoring the change in air pressure. Once it reaches the correct tire pressure, the vehicle will sound the horn. If there is an over-inflation, the horn sounds again and the hazard lights flash three times, signalling the need to release some air.
In order to compete in a fairly conservative segment, Nissan has attempted to modernize the Maxima by setting it apart with a rakish design, sporty aspirations, a splendid interior, and plenty of technology.
It certainly succeeds on most of these points here, especially in the styling department. While its “4 Door Sports Car” direction is perhaps a bit of a stretch especially given its artificially heavy steering, the Maxima’s well-appointed cabin, strong power plant, and much better than average vehicle dynamics definitely succeeds in livening up the daily commute.