For the past 17 years, the Nissan Maxima has been a favorite choice of those who wanted a V6 sedan that offered a lot of bang for the buck in terms of standard features, performance and reliability. In fact, according to Nissan, 32 percent of Maxima's sales last year were repeat buyers.
But after recently attending Nissan's unveiling of the 2002 versions of its Maxima, Altima, Sentra SE-R, Xterra and Frontier, we couldn't help wondering about the fate of Nissan's flagship sedan. The handsome (and larger than last year's model) new Altima will be available with a stormin' 240 horsepower 3.5-liter V6, manual or automatic transmission and 17-inch wheels. With the Altima going so far uptown, the question that loomed large was "Why would anybody want to buy a Maxima?" Nissan representatives claimed that they considered this potential quandary seriously. They are confident that the improvements to the Maxima for '02 as well as cutting back on Maxima production should allow the models to coexist happily.
Scrutinizing the 2002 Maxima, subtle changes are evident, such as the front end and taillight styling tweaks. The grille now wears a bigger Nissan symbol and the lower fascia has a larger air intake. New for this year, and standard on every Maxima, are high intensity discharge (HID) xenon headlights. Yep, the same type of serious illumination that certain high-end carmakers make you pay a lot extra for. Out back, the taillights sport the clear lens treatment that is so en vogue today.
Jumping into the cockpit and scanning the gauges and interior decor, we noted that simulated titanium accents are found on the console and door panels. Seems that titanium is the flavor of the month, as everything from bicycles, sunglass frames, tennis racquets and even golf ball centers are made with this metal. Nissan is using this metallic finish in several of its new vehicles, and in the Maxima SE, even the gauge faces are titanium in color. A navigation system is now optional and features "Birdview," which gives a three-dimensional impression of viewing the route as if you were flying over it, as opposed to the flat, map-like viewpoint of other nav systems. More supportive seat design, a micron air filter and a trip computer with steering wheel controls round out the significant upgrades inside the Maxima.
Offered in three trim levels base GXE, sporting SE and luxury GLE the 2002 Maxima can be anything from a nicely equipped family car to an affordable sport sedan. GXE models now come with last year's optional "Comfort and Convenience" package as standard, which includes 16-inch alloy wheels, an eight-way power driver seat, six-speaker premium audio system with steering wheel controls, auto-dimming rearview mirror and a HomeLink universal transmitter. Stepping up to the GLE increases the luxury and looks with 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, a 200-watt Bose stereo with an in-dash six-disc CD changer, automatic climate control, power passenger seat and leather seating. The sport sedan enthusiast's choice would be the SE, with its six-speed manual gearbox, firmer suspension calibrations, high-performance 225/50VR17 rubber mounted on alloy wheels and the obligatory rear spoiler. If you want to know which 2002 Maxima you're looking at, check the wheels: Five spokes denote the GXE, six spokes are indicative of the SE and seven spokes signify the GLE.
With 260 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque, the Maxima's standard 3.5-liter V6 packs 33 more horsepower and 29 lb-ft more than last year's 3.0 V6. It also makes 35 more horses than a BMW 330i or Acura 3.2TL, and the same amount as the 3.2TL Type-S. And those other cars all compete in a more expensive segment. Speaking of segments, we consider the Maxima to be a "'tweener," a car that exists between two popular categories: the midsize family sedans (such as the Toyota Camry) and the entry-level luxury class (which includes the 330i and 3.2TL). Dress up the Maxima with a formal grille and more upscale interior, however, and it lands squarely in that latter market niche, badged as the Infiniti I35.
In addition to the stronger engine, other mechanical refinements include a "drive by wire" throttle control (that uses electronic control instead of the traditional throttle cable setup), a beefed-up automatic transmission (standard on GXE and GLE) and larger front disc brakes. The standard antilock brakes also feature brake force distribution (which gives the most braking power to the wheels with the best grip) and brake assist (which supplies full braking power when the brake pedal is applied suddenly, such as in a panic stop situation).
We wasted no time grabbing the keys to an SE fitted with the six-speed manual tranny, and we were thrilled with its eager and forceful charge to redline as we rowed through the gears. Once again, Nissan has turned out a creamy smooth and powerful V6 that seemed to enjoy running hard as much as we loved driving it that way. The gear spacing of the six-speed gearbox, both numerically and in terms of lever travel, was ideal. Even when driving aggressively, we didn't botch one up- or downshift while blasting through the gears. The feel of the shifter was improved over the rubbery feel of the last manual Maxima we tested a 20th anniversary SE five-speed. Braking was swift and progressive, two endearing traits when you've this much power to rein in.
The Maxima's chassis is unchanged why mess with a good thing? Responsive steering, flat cornering and neutral behavior when unraveling a twisty road make one realize that a ripping sport sedan needn't cost $40,000. Although we didn't have pricing as of press time, we don't expect any big increases over the 2001 Maxima lineup.
As far as handling the predicted impact the new Altima would make on the Maxima, Nissan plans to roll back Maxima production from nearly 130,000 units to 80,000. The biggest cut will be on the GXE model, which will only account for 5 percent of 2002 Maxima production, down from nearly 20 percent in 2001. The logic here is that most folks will go for a loaded V6 Altima versus a base Maxima. But should one want more luxury or performance features than the Altima will offer, the Maxima GLE and SE models will be ready to cater to that customer. Most other carmakers would be overjoyed to have a "problem" like this.