Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
With the introduction of the 2002 Nissan Altima, many were predicting the death of the Maxima, a car Nissan has been selling in the U.S. since 1982. It never made sense that Nissan would kill a car with such name recognition, but at the same time, the Maxima seemed obsolete, overpriced and underwhelming when compared to the quick and spacious Altima. For the 2004 model year, the Maxima will share a platform with the new Altima which sort of begs another question won't the new Maxima be little more than a fully loaded Altima?
While messing with a proven formula can always be tricky, our initial stint behind the wheel proves the new Maxima is clearly an improvement over the old and is much more than simply a decked-out Altima.
The Maxima still sports the same award-winning VQ-series DOHC, 24-valve, 3.5-liter V6 engine as in previous issues, but now that engine is good for 265 horsepower. That's a 10-hp increase over the 2003 model, but more importantly, the Maxima now offers 20 horsepower more than the V6 Altima.
The Maxima lineup has been reduced to just two trim levels: 3.5 SL and 3.5 SE. The SE is still the sporty model with a firmer suspension and bigger 18-inch wheels, while the more luxury-oriented SL has 17-inch wheels and a slightly softer suspension. The SE is available with an optional six-speed manual transmission while a five-speed automatic with shift-it-yourself mode is standard on the SE. Oddly, the SL comes only with a four-speed automatic.
All Maximas come with Nissan's Skyview Roof, which is sort of like a narrow moonroof that runs the entire length of the roof. The Skyview Roof cannot be opened like a traditional sunroof, but sliding doors inside on the headliner can be opened or closed to let in more light, or block out the sun. A traditional power sunroof is available as an option.
Without question, for 2004 the Maxima has moved up market. The new car is 1.4 inches wider, has a 2.9-inch longer wheelbase and offers increased trunk capacity. In 3.5 SL trim, the Maxima is clearly a near-luxury car that bridges the gap between Nissan and Infiniti models. An eight-way power driver seat, a dual-zone automatic climate control and a dash display that provides audio and trip computer readouts are all standard. The dash area in particular looks much more appealing than previous Maximas. Textured suedelike material adorns the door panels and dash area, giving the latter a sort of "floating" appearance. This kind of attention to detail is unnecessary, but Nissan planners learned a valuable lesson when complaints began to arise about the Altima's rather bland interior. Overall, the interior improvements work well not once did it feel as if we were riding in an Altima.
The optional Elite Package affixes even more luxury to the Maxima by changing the rear seating area into a more comfortable two-passenger setup. A rear center console is added that features controls for the seat heaters as well as a switch to operate the power rear sunshade. Additional high-end options include a more powerful Bose audio system, DVD-based navigation system and XM or Sirius satellite radio.
The front seats are comfortable for long-distance travel, and the rear seats offer excellent hip-, leg- and headroom. The Elite Package engenders a limolike feel to the backseat in terms of space and comfort. The new design of the center dash area looks bold, but most of the buttons are the same size, shape and color making it hard to figure out how to operate certain features without consulting the manual and/or taking your eyes off the road. After a few hours of seat time, nothing seemed out of place.
Our only complaint with regard to ergonomics is the small joystick-type button that must be used to access certain information in the main display screen. The button itself is not a terrible idea, but it is difficult to use when the car is moving. Once your finger is touching the knob, a bump or turn can cause unwanted adjustments.
We were able to drive the 3.5 SL and 3.5 SE both have a distinct character with the six-speed SE being the most fun. While the Maxima does exhibit a little torque steer under hard acceleration (especially when equipped with the six-speed), carving up back roads is still a rewarding experience. As the 3.5 SL is sprung a little more softly than the SE, there is more body roll around turns. On the open highway, the Maxima has a well-composed ride and the cabin remains quiet.
Now that the Maxima is a more upscale vehicle, educating the sales staff will be a huge part of its success. Nissan is upgrading its dealerships with what it calls "a more customer-friendly environment." With all its added content and features, the Maxima may be closer to competing with brands like Acura or even the company's own Infiniti brand, and those customers will not take kindly to the "hard sell" tactics many low-priced import brands resort to. A negative dealership experience may be the only weak spot in the Maxima's potential success.
Longer, wider, more luxurious and more powerful than its predecessor, the 2004 Nissan Maxima has definitely moved up market. Just like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the Maxima has slowly changed from a compact family sedan to a near-luxury midsize sedan. But unlike the Accord and Camry, Nissan has long exploited the Maxima's performance advantage; thankfully that has not changed for the 2004 model year. By offering a true alternative to other midsize sedans, the 2004 Maxima is proof that Nissan "gets it." The Maxima is a terrific car that has a lot to offer midsize-sedan consumers who want more than just appliance-like transportation.
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