James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
There's a certain type of executive in this country, one who doesn't go to work in a big-city high rise and one who's never going to be interviewed by that screaming guy on CNBC. Instead, this working-class exec has an office attached to the company's frozen food factory or the paper distribution warehouse. He (or she, certainly) makes good money and desires a luxury car, but doesn't want to show up flaunting a fancy-pants Bimmer or Benz in the same parking lot as the employees' Saturns and Sunfires. Or perhaps more likely, the company car policy just doesn't include that Bimmer and Benz.
For our working-class exec, we can think of no better car than the 2009 Nissan Maxima. With all its luxe bells and high-tech whistles, this is an honest-to-goodness luxury sedan for those who don't want or can't have the stigma or price associated with a luxury badge. This is a darn good car that rights the deviated course of a nameplate once dubbed the "4-Door Sports Car." While the 2009 Maxima is not quite the 4DSC its marketers are touting once again, it is a car with few flaws that's one of the best-handling front-drive sedans available — and that's without our test car's Sport package that sullied the ride.
This entire working-class exec concept might seem a little counterintuitive in today's America that's obsessed with designer labels, celebrity restaurants and the biggest wheels they can fit on their ride. So really, it wouldn't be surprising if high-end Maximas like our test car struggle to move from dealerships — a $37,000 price tag on a Nissan will be a tough pill to swallow given that vehicles with more desirable badges are available for the same price. However, those similarly priced cars don't come with all of the Maxima's neat-o toys, while several are quite simply inferior. We just hope there are enough working-class execs around to take notice.
Like all Maximas, our Sport model was powered by a 3.5-liter V6 good for 290 horsepower and 261 pound-feet of torque. Power is sent to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which provides infinite "gear" ratios that keep the engine in its ideal power band. It also maximizes fuel economy, which is an EPA-estimated 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway.
At our test track, the Maxima 3.5 SV Sport test car achieved a 0-60-mph time of 6.3 seconds, which is in the ballpark of top entry-level luxury cars' performance. In the real world, the potent V6 felt equally strong, and unlike other CVTs, the Maxima's is well suited to its engine. Still, those who've never driven a CVT-equipped car may initially feel like the Maxima is stuck in a hopelessly tall 1st gear, but most get used to it. The CVT can simulate six gear ratios that are controlled via steering-column paddles or the console lever. This mode can be quite fun during aggressive driving thanks to its lightning-quick shift response.
A particular bright spot in the generally shining 2009 Nissan Maxima is the wonderfully light and precise steering that should be appreciated by both driving enthusiasts and casual commuters alike. With its combination of low-friction weighting and high feedback, the Maxima's steering can be manipulated with the delicate touch of one's fingertips on the well-formed steering wheel as every nuance of the road is transmitted from tires to skin. This, in combination with a taut chassis derived from the Altima, produces impressive handling that should please all but the most demanding enthusiasts.
We had the opportunity to drive a pair of Maximas: one with the Premium package and the one discussed in this road test with the Sport package. The Sport's 19-inch wheels and sport suspension produced a frequently jarring ride on Los Angeles' pockmarked streets and highways, while not providing any significant handling improvement over the 18-inch wheels and regular suspension found on the SV Premium. In fact, the Premium produced better skid pad and slalom speed numbers at our test track. We therefore don't recommend the Sport package and suggest the regular SV instead. At the same time, if you are willing to sacrifice ride quality for a better-handling sedan, the Infiniti G35 fits that bill perfectly.
Seat comfort is very good, with a nice balance of butt-pleasing cushiness and distance-friendly firmness. Those who take to twistier roads may prefer more lateral support, though. Front-seat adjustment is excellent, allowing an ideal distance relationship between the driver, the tilt-telescoping wheel and the pedals for a wide variety of body types. The auto exit feature that tilts away the power-adjusting wheel and motors back the driver seat upon exit is also welcome.
The rear seats are near mirror images of their forward counterparts, as the Sport package includes rear bucket seats. This is great for outboard occupants, but perches the poor schmoe stuck in the middle up onto the buckets' edges and into the ceiling. Seating capacity could better be described as 4+1.
Other than the unfortunately Altima-like gauges and the lack of an analog chrome clock, the 2009 Nissan Maxima's interior could easily be mistaken for one built by Nissan's Infiniti division. The many buttons and knobs for audio, climate and navigation are well-placed and well-spaced so each function is easy to find whether you've gotten in the car for the first or the 101st time. (Honda, please take note.) The dual-zone automatic climate controls are a model of simplicity, while the stereo can be controlled via dedicated buttons or the multipurpose control knob placed below the 7-inch display screen. Sadly, Nissan has dropped the Preset A-B-C system that allowed you to mix and match FM, AM and XM radio presets within three banks — each is now separated into its own category.
No such complaints can be made about the iPod integration, which is the best solution for in-car iPod control we've seen to date. Plugged into the USB port beneath the center console bin, an iPod is completely controlled via the multipurpose knob and LCD screen menus that nicely mimic the iPod's actual controls. Playlists, songs, podcasts, etc., can also be selected with a toggle switch/button on the steering wheel, while lightning-quick processing speed sweetens the deal. This is a technology worth copying.
The Maxima's 14.3-cubic-foot trunk easily swallows a pair of golf clubs through a wide opening, while a large suitcase and a pair of smaller, overhead-friendly bags will also easily fit. The rear seats do not fold, but there is a center pass-through standard with the Sport package.
A child safety seat best fits in the outboard rear positions as the center is pinched toward the ceiling and isn't a particularly flat surface. Rear-facing seats require some creative maneuvering of the front seats to achieve a safe fit.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Maxima is one of those cars that looks striking from certain angles and awkward from others — particularly the unique headlights that drew mixed reactions from our editors. Nevertheless, the Maxima looks much better in the steel than on the screen.
The interior drew universal praise, though, with a design and craftsmanship worthy of its luxury-car price. In fact, the Maxima's cabin is probably a tad nicer than that of Infiniti's G35. Buttons and knobs move with well-damped precision, while the dash and sill tops are covered in a soft-touch material. The subtle red stitching on the various black leather surfaces is a nice detail. If there was one complaint, it would be that the faux metallic trim found on the Sport package lacks the posh ambience imparted by the Premium package's convincing wood-tone trim.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2009 Nissan Maxima is maximized for the luxury car buyer who'd rather not flaunt a luxury car badge. It could also be an alternative for Infiniti G35 customers who don't need the firm suspension and high-strung performance capabilities. Snowbelt shoppers should also take note of the front-wheel-drive layout.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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