Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
Since the introduction of the 2002 Nissan Altima, things have looked bleak for the Nissan Maxima. With both cars sharing the same corporate D-platform and offering the same VQ-Series V6, Maxima sales have declined and now the Altima outsells it by a margin of 5-to-1.
Yet Maximists have held on to the despondent model, once memorably billed as a four-door sports car (4DSC), and they bought more than 52,000 examples of Nissan's flagship last year. The 2009 Nissan Maxima is their reward for enduring underdog status and failed styling exercises over the past few years.
With a new 290-horsepower V6, a new look and a new dedication to its heritage as Nissan's 4DSC, the 2009 Nissan Maxima once again looks and acts like not only the top sedan in Nissan's lineup but also a serious player among front-wheel-drive sedans from any maker.
The Curse of the Altima's Success Until now, who could blame reasonable buyers for gravitating toward the lighter, more powerful and less expensive Altima? Since 2002, the output of the Altima's V6 has swelled to 270 hp, while the Maxima soldiered on with just 255 hp from its own V6.
Along the way the Maxima started looking adventurous (well, silly actually) with a buck-toothed grille, a panoramic glass roof as narrow as a piggy-bank coin slot (an innovative idea at the time but unfortunately the early ones leaked), and four bucket seats. Suddenly, the Maxima was withering on the Nissan vine.
But with the introduction of the 2009 Nissan Maxima, there are new reasons to consider the Maxima as the top-of-the-line Nissan sedan. For starters, the 290-hp output of the Maxima's reworked 3.5-liter V6 now trumps that of the Altima, and is only outdone by the 306-hp of the 3.5-liter V6 in the 350Z sports car. And the programming of Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) has become even better.
Meanwhile, the Maxima's restyled exterior (which looks far better in the metal than in photos, by the way) is clearly intended to separate this car from the cookie-cutter clutter in the world of near-luxury sedans. The fashionable interior furnishings and competitive infotainment package are on par with its more costly Infiniti brethren, and the only thing missing is an Infiniti-style oval clock on the dashboard.
What's Up With the Maxima? For 2009, every Maxima is powered by the same 290-hp DOHC 3.5-liter V6 and driven by the same Xtronic CVT through the front wheels. The base model is known simply as Maxima 3.5 S and the better equipped (and, Nissan expects, better-selling) model is the 3.5 SV, which can be optioned with either a comprehensive Sport package or a generous Premium package (as this car has been). There are two available Technology packages matching either of the SV models. There's talk of an enthusiast's SR model, but that won't come to pass for at least another year.
Official pricing hasn't been released, but we expect the base Maxima S will cost about $31,000 and the SV should sticker at about $33,000. Our estimates of $2,600 for the Premium and $1,900 Technology option packages are based on current offerings from Nissan and Infiniti. If we go to the bottom line for this Maxima 3.5 SV Premium/Technology-equipped car (plus an additional $200 for a ventilated driver seat), the estimated total comes to $37,700. That's a pretty healthy price tag, but read on to learn why it's worth it.
Less Altima, More 4DSC In an effort to shed weight and add sporty driving dynamics, the 2009 Maxima's wheelbase has been shortened dramatically by 2 inches and the wheels have been pushed out wider by 1.4 inches in front and 1.2 inches in the rear. There are several measures to improve body rigidity, while the engine and transmission sit lower to improve the center of gravity. Aluminum suspension parts from the Infiniti parts bin have been blended with revised geometry, and the rack-and-pinion steering has been reworked.
And, yes, before the 2009 Nissan Maxima went into production, it was tested on the Nordschleife circuit of the Nürburgring.
All these chassis changes have produced a car that strikes an excellent balance between a comfortable ride and responsive handling balance. We did find, however, that our preproduction test car arrived a few psi shy of proper specification tire pressures, and the ride got slightly busier after proper inflation. Still, there are few front-drive cars riding on all-season tires that can manage to rip through our slalom test at over 66 mph, circle the skid pad with 0.83g of lateral acceleration and supply the kind of quiet, isolated ride that the Maxima does. Where the Altima's ride sometimes feels flinty and prone to shudder on harsh impacts, the Maxima remains composed.
We give extra points to Nissan for resisting the temptation to adopt electric-assist power steering in an effort to gain a single mpg of fuel-efficiency. Likewise, Nissan has avoided unnecessarily heavy steering effort, even though the hydraulic assist is based on the 350Z's system. As a result, the 2009 Maxima provides quick (a 15.2-to-1 ratio) steering that delivers a low-friction yet precise feel during cornering, and manages to provide the kind of useful buildup of effort and informative feedback from the contact patches of the tires that is uncommon in most front-wheel-drive sedans.
More Motor At the drag strip, the Maxima finally has the beans to outrun the Altima, but just barely, as a comparison of this car's test results and those from a 2007 Nissan Altima indicates. Both cars were equipped with the company's CVT. This time around, 60 mph arrives for the Maxima in 6.5 seconds (6.2 seconds with a 1-foot rollout as at a drag strip), compared to the 2007 Altima's 6.6-second best with a rollout. The quarter-mile also showed the slightly heavier Maxima's horsepower advantage with a 14.7-second run at 97 mph versus the Altima's 15.0-second effort at 95 mph.
It's not common for a manufacturer to simultaneously supply 35 more hp and a 1-mpg improvement in highway fuel economy. Nevertheless, the 2009 Maxima is rated for 19 mpg in the city loop and 26 mpg on the highway. We achieved a combined average of 17 mpg.
Coming to a stop, this 3,631-pound Maxima with emergency brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution needed only 128 feet to halt from 60 mph with all-season tires. This is better than the Altima, although not a world-class performance. Brake pedal feel is reassuringly on the firm side and offers very good feedback. There's very little idle stroke of the pedal before the brake pads contact the 12.6-inch front discs and 12.1-inch rear discs, and the overall brake action is quite linear and intuitive.
Where's the Oval Clock? What once was some sort of vaguely sporty assemblage of 350Z-inspired gauge pods, amber LEDs and hard plastic bits is now an attractive, high-quality collection of supple, supportive leather seating, sound ergonomics and up-to-date infotainment.
The interior is dominated by the center stack column, which showcases the Technology package's hard-drive-based navigation system with voice recognition, XM NavTraffic, 7-inch touchscreen color monitor and back-up camera, plus 9.3GB for music storage. The shift paddles, new dual-panel moonroof, premium leather seating (heated up front), power tilt-telescopic steering column with heated wheel, and Eucalyptus wood-tone trim only scratch the surface of the extensive Premium package's contents.
Even with the reduction in wheelbase and now-standard moonroof (dual-panel is extra), the rear accommodations are generous and comfortable. There are liverylike options such as a rear window sunshade and audio/HVAC controls hidden in the fold-down armrest.
The long list of standard Maxima equipment is only outdone by the lengthy descriptions within the optional packages. Suffice it to say the Maxima, in any form, is a raging bargain, especially if you dare to compare a Nissan to an Acura TL or Lexus ES 350.
So Why Isn't It an Infiniti? Collectively, the total effect of the 2009 Nissan Maxima would have been entirely appropriate for an Infiniti sedan. It's rich, comprehensively equipped, very comfortable, sporty and well worth the extra cash over the economical Nissan Altima.
So where's the oval clock? Answer: All current Infiniti vehicles are based on rear-drive platforms. Infiniti is rear-drive; Nissan is front-drive. Judged on its own merits, the front-drive 2009 Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV we tested is a fine car worthy of flagship status. Forget all that Altima-versus-Maxima trash talk. The Maxima is back.
While we can't entirely sign off on Nissan's claim that the 2009 Nissan Maxima represents the return of the four-door sports car, we can wholeheartedly say that this is the best Maxima yet, and by a mile. It's more fun to drive than a Toyota Avalon or Honda Accord. It has twice the personality of either a Toyota Camry or Hyundai Azera.
The 2009 Nissan Maxima finally has the look, feel and performance to proudly wear the flagship crown for Nissan. It's so good, in fact, that we seriously wonder if our Infiniti I35 scenario might have been the objective of the product strategists. Now, the only question that remains is whether the Maxima faithful have already bought themselves an Altima 3.5 SE or whether they've been waiting for this 2009 Maxima 3.5 SV?
2009 Nissan Maxima
Overall Grade: A
Premium Package, Tech Package
Price if optional:
CD, MP3, WMA
Yes (Tech Package)
Yes (Tech Package)
Bluetooth for phone:
Yes (Tech Package)
How does it sound: B+ Some factory-installed Bose audio systems sound great and some sound below average. This one sounds great. Thanks to deep bass pumping through two subwoofers and an excellent center channel, the system sounds almost as rich as the state-of-the-art Mark Levinson system found in the Lexus ES 350. Well-placed speakers give the new Maxima a great sound stage that offers depth and separation you can almost feel. The sound seems biased toward the front of the car, but that's easily fixed by bumping fade toward the rear.
How does it work: A Logical and redundant is the best way to describe the Maxima's interface. Every function has several ways to accomplish the same task. The result is that there is very little confusion — and with so many features controlled via shallow menus, there's also only a minimal risk of tech overload. There's also a nice combination of hard buttons and soft, screen-specific controls. The central control knob is a cue taken straight from Infiniti, and just as in Infiniti vehicles, it works well. Navigating the various features can be done with the wheel or the arrows inside the wheel. The bottom line is, you'll never have to crack the manual to figure out what does what.
The navigation system incorporates XM Nav/Traffic — a must-have feature. Because the nav is based on a computerized hard drive, it's quick to respond and recalculate. You even get 9 gigs of storage space for music, although thanks to Nissan's nearly perfect iPod interface, you won't use it much.
Special features: As part of the Technology package, the Maxima has an iPod-specific connection. The iPod interface is one of the best, including large text categories that exactly mimic Apple's. Full control of your iPod can be accomplished with the Infiniti-style wheel or buttons mounted on the steering wheel. The system is quick to recognize and read a connected device and the access for various menus is similarly quick. Several options for displaying artist, song title and album name make this interface better than that of other brands. Acura, for example has information screens that are generally separate, while Nissan's solution combines many features on one screen and offers several options for each function. For example, you can see just an iPod screen, or add a fuel economy display or have the iPod song info show up at the bottom of the navigation map.
Conclusion: An excellent-sounding stereo that combines easy-to-use features with lots of display options. The new Maxima's iPod interface is one of the best around — so good, in fact, that you probably won't use the hard drive.
Automotive Editor James Riswick says: The 2009 Infiniti I35 is a monumental improvement over its forgettable predecessor, which thankfully faded away from our collective consciousness like the music of the Baha Men. That car was duller than dull and exuded all the luxurious panache of a suit bought at Target. It was little more than a Maxima in a bowtie. This all-new I35, however, is a darned good, stylish luxury sedan that...
Wait a second, this is the Maxima? Really?
You'll forgive my confusion, then, as it seems that Nissan has a conundrum on its hands. For all intents and purposes, the excellent Altima replaced the Maxima as Nissan's midsize sedan. That left the flagship in limbo. It could have been transformed into some sort of full-size Avalon competitor, but that would certainly betray the Maxima's history as a "four-door sports car," even if it abandoned that mantra long ago.
Instead, Nissan moved the Maxima into the entry-level luxury realm. It feels like the Altima to drive — which is a good thing — but it certainly doesn't look like it, inside or out. Those unique headlights (they look better in person) and chunky shoulders at each corner imbue an avant-garde muscularity similar to the Infiniti G37. At the same time, the intuitive center stack design, humongous features lists and high-class materials are 100 percent Infiniti. In fact, I'd venture to say that this Maxima has a nicer cabin than our long-term G35.
So this is a good entry-level luxury car with a justified entry-level luxury price. Therefore, I must ask, why isn't this the new Infiniti I35? Lexus proves with the IS and ES that there is room for a pair of $30-something-grand luxury sedans — one sporty, one sedate. The I35 would be the less manic, softer riding counterpart to the more sport-oriented G35, and its front-wheel drive would make it Snowbelt-friendly besides.
Maybe the I35 bit is pure stupidity on my part, but without a luxury badge I just don't see this $37,000 Nissan finding many takers.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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