B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
In 1989, Nissan introduced a Maxima that had the public drooling. The car was an honest-to-goodness sport sedan that looked even better than it drove. In 1995, Nissan went a step further with the Maxima, improving the car's driveability and interior accommodations. To our horror, however, the once-beautiful Maxima didn't emerge from under the surgeon's knife unscathed. In the process of improving the drivetrain and interior, the designers lost their direction with the exterior styling. The resulting rhinoplasty and body sculpting made the car look unbalanced whether coming or going. In particular, the rear-end treatment and taillight cluster looked like something a fifth-grader might put together for a science project. Nissan realized their error, and began fussing around with different lights, fascias, spoilers and trunk lids for the next four years of the car's life. By 1999, they had a sedan that looked decent from the front, good in profile, and not too ugly from the rear. Better still, the car stood out nicely from Accords and Camrys in performance and comfort.
The 2000-model year is rolling around, and Nissan has turned out yet another substantially redesigned Maxima. In some regards, this is the best Maxima yet, in others, well let's just say that the car's most recent trip to the plastic surgeon has resulted in a vehicle that looks, um, unlike anything else on the road.
First, the good stuff. The Maxima's engine has always been a delight for automotive journalists and enthusiasts. The free-revving 3.0-liter V6 has been rated one of the 10 best V6 engines by Ward's Auto World for five straight years. Last year the motor made 190 horsepower, enough for us to name Maxima the winner in a sport-sedan shootout that included impressive competition such as the Volkswagen Passat and Ford Contour SE V6. This year Nissan has upped the ante by bumping the car's output to 222 horsepower and 217 foot-pounds of torque (up from 205 in 1999). The curb weight of the Maxima has also risen in the past year, however, so the extra power doesn't translate into a markedly faster car.
Part of the reason the Maxima has been such a hit with enthusiasts is that it has long been one of the only midsized sedans available with a V6 engine and a manual transmission. This tradition is continued on the '00 Maxima, where buyers of the SE model can save $500 by selecting the do-it-yourself gearbox. Although we appreciate Nissan's commitment to entertaining our right hand and left foot, we wish they had made the shift pattern smoother and the gear lever shorter. We cursed the Maxima's tractor-like gear selector and notchy detents as we missed the second-to-third shift during our first few days with the car.
Nissan improved the Maxima's handling by adding larger stabilizer bars and improving the car's structural rigidity, an impressive feat considering the '00 Maxima's additional 2 inches in wheelbase length. Steering, however, does not seem as crisp as we remember from the previous model, perhaps due to a change in the car's weight, steering gear and length. Braking is outstanding though, thanks in part to the standard antilock brakes found on every new Maxima.
Nissan added content to the new Maxima, making it quite competitive in the near-luxury segment. Standard on all 2000 Maximas are antilock brakes, remote trunk release, variable intermittent windshield wipers and remote keyless entry. SE models add 16-inch alloy wheels shod with 215/55R16 tires, an integrated rear spoiler, leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, and 120-watt stereo with six speakers, cassette and CD player. The sticker price for such luxury is less than $24,000. An inexpensive comfort and convenience package gives buyers a one-touch open sunroof, an eight-way power driver's seat and HomeLink transceiver. Want more? Select the leather package that offers sumptuous leather seating surfaces, automatic temperature control, a four-way power passenger seat, and outside temperature display. What does all of this cost? Less than $27,000. A 1999 model optioned to similar equipment levels cost last year's buyers nearly $500 more.
We like it when manufacturers cut their price, but we are less impressed when the efforts are obvious. The 1999 Maxima had a masterful interior that could satisfy drivers accustomed to much more costly vehicles. The 2000 Maxima may not be able to do that so easily. Put simply, the quality of the materials seems to have fallen this year--plastics are a bit shinier, storage compartments are a bit flimsier, the headliner feels a bit thinner. The changes aren't anything that reach out and smack you in the head, but we couldn't help feeling a little less special when seated behind the wheel of our test car. In fact, it made us wonder if the Maxima was worth the extra money it costs compared to a Volkswagen Passat or Mazda 626; cars that heretofore were always a step down from the Nissan.
At least there was a lot of room behind the wheel of the new car. The 2000 Maxima makes good use of its added size, offering passengers commodious accommodations more often found in large American sedans. The space afforded passengers has increased in nearly every dimension (rear-passenger head and shoulder room are down a fraction of an inch), and the added front and rear legroom is greatly appreciated. The space gained feels more substantial than it is, however, thanks to a dashboard that sweeps away from the front-seat passengers and up toward the windshield in a graceful arc. Short adults that ride shotgun might find this attractive since this dashboard design places the explosive airbag further from the front-seat passenger's head and chest.
Unfortunately, Nissan's exterior designers didn't meet with the same kind of success as the interior designers. Their attempt at updating the Maxima's exterior has resulted in a car that looks considerably worse than the one it succeeds. This is the second time in a row that they've redesigned the Maxima and ended up with a replacement that is less attractive than its predecessor. If this trend continues, they are likely to design something as hideous as the '96 Ford Taurus the next time around.
We have a bit of advice for Nissan on this issue: make taillights that look like taillights, not half-lidded cat's eyes. If you must put a spoiler on the Maxima, make it a small, tasteful spoiler, not one that wraps around the trunk lid like a crescent moon. And for God's sake, make the grille on SE model look less like a great big hole. We're all for the monochromatic look, but really, it looks like someone attacked the front of the Maxima SE with an earth auger.
We know we're picky. We like affordable, comfortable cars that go fast and look good. In 1989 the Maxima was just that. In 2000, Nissan has moved away from that ideal. We still like the Maxima, but are worried that future fiddling will dilute this car's greatness. As it is, the Maxima is moving away from its sport sedan roots and towards middle-class sedandom; a place dominated by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. We prefer Maxima's stature as a move-up car, something to be aspired to. All we can do is hope that Nissan doesn't muddle it anymore.
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