2004 Nissan Maxima Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2004 Nissan Maxima Sedan

(3.5L V6 6-speed Manual)

Still Crazy About It After All These Years

It's no secret that just a few years ago, Nissan was hurting. New models were slow to reach the market, and sales were down. After much hyped management changes began to shake things up at the start of the new decade, Nissan's once sinking ship began to turn around. New products hit the showrooms in droves, and buyers began to take notice. In 2003, Nissan and its Infiniti luxury division introduced five new models. Nissan launched an all-new 350Z sport coupe and Murano crossover vehicle. And Infiniti turned out two new sedans, the G35 and M45; the sporty G35 coupe; and its own crossover vehicle, the FX35/FX45.

For the 2004 model year, Nissan will introduce a new version of its Quest minivan, an all-new full-size truck called the Titan and the Pathfinder Armada, a new full-size SUV designed to go up against the thriving Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Expedition and Toyota Sequoia.

As if a minivan redesign and two new models weren't enough for 2004, Nissan has also taken on the challenge of revamping its popular midsize Maxima sedan. Now in its sixth generation, the Nissan Maxima remains a family-friendly yet sporty sedan, and for the first time in its history, the Maxima will be built here on domestic shores at Nissan's Smyrna, Tenn., manufacturing facility, the same plant that turns out Nissan's Altima, Frontier and Xterra vehicles. With the roomy and powerful Altima drawing a healthy share of family sedan buyers, this Maxima will be positioned exclusively as Nissan's premium midsize sedan.

An award-winning V6 engine has been powering the Maxima — first a 3.0-liter version, and then the 3.5-liter beginning 2002 — and the 2004 Maxima is no different, although the V6 has been refined to produce 265 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque — an increase of 10 hp and 9 lb-ft over the 2003 version. Nissan tells us that the additional power was created by modifying the intake duct and exhaust muffler to improve the intake/exhaust flow ratio. The new muffler also adds power while giving the Maxima an exhaust note worthy of a performance sedan. As self-respecting automotive journalists, we usually nod appreciatively whenever we hear the phrase "more power." We were unable to generate our usual performance numbers during the week the Maxima was parked in our garage, so we can't report hard acceleration and braking facts. But after spending time behind the wheel we're not convinced that the Maxima's engine needed even this slight overhaul, as we always thought it felt plenty strong in the previous-generation Maxima. Another member of our editorial staff exclaimed about around-town power, and praised quick acceleration above 3,000 rpm.

The Maxima now comes in two trim levels, the 3.5 SL luxury model and the sportier 3.5 SE. The 3.5 SL comes with a standard four-speed automatic transmission with a performance-oriented gated shifter, and the 3.5 SE gets either a five-speed automanual, also with a gated shifter, or a six-speed close-ratio manual gearbox. All Maximas with an automatic transmission have the option of adding Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) with Traction Control System (TCS) for added stability. A torque-sensitive helical limited-slip differential is optional when you select the six-speed manual in order to provide immediate locking should more traction be required, though our manual-shift 3.5 SE test car did not have that option.

After several days in the Maxima's driver seat, we decided that although we typically enjoy shifting our way through a gearbox, our editorial staff was divided when it came to the Maxima's six-speed. Some described the shifter as lightweight and not exactly performance-oriented, but claimed it redeemed itself by allowing for quick shifts, with an easy-to-operate clutch. Others remarked that the shifter was too high and the surrounding plastic collar was noisy, making it feel clunky and cheap. These editors thought the five-speed automanual might be more to their liking.

Braking performance was certainly adequate with no unwelcome surprises in any situation our test car encountered. Additionally, the brake pedal was easy to modulate. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) come standard, as well as BrakeAssist (BA), which senses panic braking and aids the driver by applying maximum pressure.

We put our 3.5 SE test car through a variety of driving during our week of testing, and were ultimately pleased with its comfortable ride quality and responsive handling. Suspension components include an all-new independent multilink design in the rear that has been adapted for the Maxima from the Japanese-market Nissan Skyline, along with an independent strut design in front. The 3.5 SE has a sport-tuned version of this suspension, as well as a set of 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels and tires. As we drove our 3.5 SE, we found the suspension tight with a comfortable ride, but without the performance feel expected in a true sport sedan. Steering was communicative, but one editor commented that she preferred the better-weighted steering of the Mazda 6 instead.

Inside, the Maxima's vast interior seems downright cavernous. The five-passenger version (a four-passenger setup with a rear center console is optional) provides wide and supportive front seats, but oftentimes we found ourselves unable to adjust the seat back to a position of optimal driving comfort, even while using the eight-way power seat. Front passengers will experience mucho legroom measuring 43.6 inches — over an inch more than the Acura TL or Pontiac Grand Prix. Rear-seat passengers will also be pleased to find 36.5 inches in which to stretch their legs — again, more room than the TL and Grand Prix offer. With the wide, flat expanse of the rear seating area, installing a child's safety seat was nearly as convenient as when securing a seat in a minivan. The seat fit neatly in the center position, without rocking on a hump even during gentle turns.

One editor commented that "the Maxima's seat looks smaller than the Altima's but in reality, it's no less roomy." Others appreciated the ample bench height, great cushioning and adjustable headrests, plus the 60/40-split folding feature used to expand cargo capacity. With its 15.5 cubic feet of trunk space, the Maxima one-ups the TL's 14.3 cubic feet, but not the Grand Prix's 16 cubic feet.

The interior was swathed in what Nissan describes as "luxury cloth," which really amounts to faux suede. Don't get us wrong, we really liked the look and feel of the upholstery, especially the covered door panels and the way the cloth trim wraps around the dash. Aiding the illumination of the comfy interior during the day is the natural light streaming through the Skyview roof, a two-window opening in the Maxima's roof instead of a sunroof. The Skyview is designed to allow light into the cabin while maintaining a solid roof structure, and our only disappointment is that the skylights do not open.

On the center stack, we found the display less appealing than the stereo and climate control system offered on the recently revamped Honda Accord, but if we're not awarding points for beauty, the Maxima still passes on functionality. While reading over our consumer commentary, we realized that consumers, too, have criticized the look of the controls and display screen, with one reader using the phrase, "cheap-looking." The 240-watt eight-speaker audio system with CD and cassette player and steering wheel-mounted controls was easy to operate after a quick glance over the LCD display screen and corresponding buttons. Choosing an uplevel Maxima 3.5 SL trim would buy you a 320-watt eight-speaker Bose premium system instead, but after performing a stereo evaluation, we doubt you'll find it necessary to spring for the extra power.

The Maxima 3.5 SE is a well-equipped sedan with few options available. The only items we would add are automatic on/off xenon headlamps and heated front seats — both of which are standard on 3.5 SL, but optional on the 3.5 SE. Plus, we would like to experience the optional navigation system.

For 20 years Nissan has been able to boast about the Maxima consistently earning the title of number one-selling import V6 sedan in the United States. Will the 2004 Maxima continue the tradition into the beginning of a third decade? With a base price of $27,490 (including destination charge), the Maxima 3.5 SE is a car we can heartily recommend. Its superior handling, features and materials make it worth the $4,000 step-up from its Altima sibling. It may cost you $1,000 more than a supercharged Pontiac Grand Prix, but it's still $2,000 less than a comparable TL sedan from Honda's luxury Acura division. In this case, the less expensive luxury of the Maxima gets our vote, hands down.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 9.0

Components: This great-sounding system is a bit of a departure for Nissan. It begins with a futuristic-looking center stack that incorporates many of the stereo functions through a dash-mounted LCD screen. Although this takes a bit of getting used to, once you've become accustomed to it, it's a snap. We found the display to be logical and user-friendly, and just a few minutes of fiddling with it made us comfortable with its functionality.

Now to the stereo. As mentioned above, this is a very good-sounding system. Unfortunately, we weren't able to figure out all the speakers in the system, since Nissan has seen fit to hide the speakers on the rear deck. Our guess, though, is that these are dual 6x9s. They put out a lot of bass and perform very well. Other speaker locations include a pair of full-range 6.5-inch drivers in the rear doors, as well 6.5-inchers in the front doors. The speaker components are rounded out by a pair of one-inch dome tweeters, tucked just inside the side mirrors.

Electronics include a cassette player, a CD player and the previously mentioned LCD screen. Ergonomics are very good on this system. Among the highlights are a large, ridged, detented knob for volume control (we much prefer these to the rocker panels some manufacturers use), as well as steering wheel controls that operate power, mode, seek-scan and volume. Although some of the buttons are crowded together, each control has a raised ridge on the lower portion of the button, and this acts as a very positive tactile communication. You quickly get the feel for this system, and it is easy to use.

Performance: We liked most of what we heard here. In particular, bass response was exceptionally tight and punchy, with great attack on kick drum and other low frequencies. Midrange frequencies had good detail and depth, too. However, we did feel the tweeters were just a tad raspy, with a slight hissiness in the upper register. The system distorted a little at full gain, but this was well within the acceptable range. Other instruments, such as saxophone and acoustic strings, exhibited a richness and depth not often found in cars in this price range. Overall, this was an impressive-sounding system that would likely please even the most discriminating listener.

Best Feature: Great overall sound quality.

Worst Feature: Overly bright tweeters.

Conclusion: Nissan is one company that seems to pay a lot of attention to its stereo offerings. Although this one wasn't perfect, it had a lot going for it. Sure, the video interface takes a little getting used to, but once you do you'll find the controls logical and well-appointed. We'd like to take this one home with us. — Scott Memmer

Second Opinion

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Having done my loop in the Maxima with a golf-fanatic colleague riding shotgun, it was inevitable that some links-related analogies would come to mind. First and foremost is the prodigious power of the Maxima's V6. That 265-horse bad boy packs as much punch as John Daly swinging a Big Bertha. And the power is everywhere — around town, brisk performance is a toe-jab away and there is a waterfall of acceleration on tap once the tach's needle swings past 3,000 rpm. But the Maxima offers more than just that thrilling 3.5 — the six-speed manual has an easy action and well-spaced gates that make running through the gears as smooth as Tiger Woods draining a 20-foot putt. Balance is also key whether one is hitting out of a sand trap or carving up serpentine roads, and the Maxima exhibits plenty of that athletic attribute, if our run through Malibu's canyon roads is any indicator.

But like golfing duds of old, the Maxima's style is somewhat quirky. In profile, it's a looker with a fastback roofline that lends it the sporty persona of a coupe. But what's up with that grille? Did they take the inserts from a '58 Buick Limited and put 'em in the Maxima's mouth? Then again, I have to give them credit for going with something other than the typical horizontal or vertical bar theme. Lastly, the tail has something of a big-butt look with its deep, unbroken fascia that tends to make the car look too narrow. The cabin, however, deserves no such barbs; Nissan did a great job with a design that's at once distinctive and, for the most part, user-friendly. This is one of the few cars where faux titanium accents work. And the suedelike trim (or is that terryclothlike?) tastefully applied on the doors and even around the dashtop makes for a cohesive theme. I'm still on the fence about the "Skyview" fixed glass panels in the roof; it would be nice if they slid open.

After taking my round with the Maxima SE, I reviewed the scorecard — pretty impressive, nothing but birdies and eagles with maybe a bogie for exterior design. For a sticker price of under $28 grand, this car is sitting high on the leader board.

Consumer Advice Editor Phil Reed says:
The Maxima has long been a part of my extended family, since my sister has succeeding generations of these Nissans dating back into the early '90s. Besides that, I've noticed this is a car that has engendered deep loyalty for many owners. Naturally, I wanted to spend some time in the new '04 SE to see if the tradition will continue. From one short drive, my feeling is that this is a car that will soon be reaching a whole new generation of buyers.

I wasn't a big fan of what Nissan did to the Altima so I was a little wary of the Maxima redesign. But as soon as I saw the new Maxima, I fell for its looks. While, at a glance, it resembles the same edgy styling of the Altima, I found it to actually be worlds apart. The Maxima just works for me with the simple sloping shape and the inset rear window. True, the grille is a bit tacked-on-looking, but the interior is elegant and distinctive with the feeling of quality that is missing in the Altima. The floating dash is a nice touch and the gauge cluster gives a hint of the performance side of this car's personality.

The SE trim has always been my idea of a sport sedan. With the six-speed, tight-gate shifter and the feel of the leather-wrapped wheel, you're ready to drive before you even pull out into traffic. The acceleration is strong, while the exhaust note remains understated — an attractive combination. The ride is comfortable without sacrificing road feel, and the steering is quick and sure. All in all, this is an impressive new chapter in a long legacy of solid performance sedans.


Consumer Commentary

"So far so good. I picked it up yesterday after shopping around. You can't go wrong with this car. There is nothing out there with the style this car just oozes out. I went for the six-speed manual transmission because, to me, they are more fun to drive. The only semiconfusing feature at first is the center control and data center. There are quite a number of buttons, but once you get the hang of it they're nice to have. Favorite feature has to be the styling — 18-inch wheels and that 3.5-liter bad boy engine. This is not your neighbor's old Maxima. Nissan went for the right hook and scored a knockout. Suggested improvement is to change the front grille. To me, it just doesn't look like it matches the rest of the car, but who cares, the only people that will see it is the driver in front of me looking in the rearview mirror that I'm going to downshift on and pass. Viva la Maxima." — wetbong, April 25, 2003

"I think that the Nissan Maxima is the best car in the world. It would be better if the rear bumper was a little smaller." — bomber, April 20, 2003

"Not a bad car when you consider the excellent interior design. Very comfortable and powerful. Turning is pretty good and the suspension keeps the car glued to the road on high turns. I like the six-speed manual gearbox, but to be honest, the exterior is very poorly done. I think Nissan hit a record low when designing the front portion of the car. Even the Aztec has a better front than that." — L-Lucy, April 28, 2003

"Excellent car to drive: fast, smooth, quick off the line. The ride is luxurious and tight at the same time. Visibility is something to get used to, as well as some of the design features (grille, dash/instrument panel — edges get cut off by the steering wheel), but looks great from the side and the rear! Huge on the inside and the outside. Plenty of room for the rear passengers, and a nice spacious trunk. Overall — a very nice car, although, somewhat overpriced…there come the rebates. Like the engine, suspension, manual transmission, ride quality, roominess, certain design aspects. Would like to redesign the front end, and the instrument panel. Replace the cheap manual shifter handle. Make the information screen color, or offer nav system standard (black and white screen looks cheap)." — Alexx, April 7, 2003

"Just got my 2004 Maxima, but it's a winner! Fun to drive, sporty, roomy, high-tech interior. Lots of bang for the buck! Like the cockpit design, and exterior styling. Also great handling, sports car power and comfortable appointments." — kpitzmc, April 4, 2003

"I drove the Acura TL Type-S and it could not compete. This thing is phenomenal. It drives like a sports car with the comfort of a sedan and the outstanding reliability that is synonymous with Nissan. And much cheaper than the Type-S. Nothing out there competes with it. Like the engine, stereo, skyview roof, suspension and vehicle information center. Package setup was odd. Made you get some things you may not want to get others that you did want." — littlesue, April 3, 2003

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