With the 240Z, which it introduced in 1970, Datsun (a.k.a. Nissan) proved that it could build a vehicle so good that it would sell on inherent virtue rather than price advantage. But the sports car market is a fairly narrow one — hard-core enthusiasts can make a car a success while seeking characteristics most buyers would never even consider. Midsize sedans, on the other hand, need broad appeal and advantages that are instantly apparent even to buyers who don't know the difference between a carburetor and a carbohydrate.
While the 1977 810 was the largest sedan Datsun had ever sold in the United States, it was also a move toward the deepest part of the American mainstream. It wasn't just another Asian alternative to cheap American sedans like the Chevy Nova, Dodge Dart or Ford Maverick; rather, it's comparable to the well-equipped mainstream Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Mercurys of the day. It was also sophisticated enough to challenge such Europeans as the BMW 3 Series and Volvos 240- and 260-series. And it still had a price advantage over most of them.
Of course, Datsun wouldn't stay Datsun and the 810 wouldn't stay the 810 — but you knew that by the title of this Generations piece.
"Datsun has recently introduced what may well be one of the best buys so far in 1977," wrote Road & Track in its April issue of that year, "the 810 four-door sedan." For a magazine known for its muted praise, that sort of comment amounts to an emotional outburst — Road & Track loved the 810.
There was, after all, a lot to love about the 810. First there was the rear-drive chassis that featured an all-independent suspension consisting of MacPherson struts up front and semitrailing arms in the back. Then there was the engine, which was the same 2.4-liter, single-overhead-cam, 12-valve, straight six used in the original 240Z, but equipped with Bosch fuel injection rather than the old Z's carbs. Rated at 154 gross horsepower, it was making something like 125 hp using the "net" SAE standard that was by then the accepted way of expressing engine output. The standard transmission was a four-speed manual, while a three-speed automatic was optional. Nothing revolutionary, but good stuff nonetheless.
Sure, the 810 still used drum brakes in the back and a recirculating ball steering gear, but this was still a relatively sophisticated package built around a solid unibody structure. And with a base price of just $5,099, at a time when the four-cylinder BMW 320i started at $7,990, the 810 was a raging bargain, too. A five-door station wagon version was also offered, but it used a solid rear axle on leaf springs instead of the independent rear suspension.
"So, all the mechanicals of the 810 are tried and true, both in design and use," continued Road & Track during its first test. "What makes the car excellent is the blend of all those components. The six-cylinder engine transforms the car from the usual four-cylinder sedan where all the get-up has gone to one that gets up and goes. We noticed the markedly different performance as soon as we picked up the car and confirmed it during our acceleration testing: 0-60 mph in 12.2 seconds, which puts the 810 in a class with the Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT, BMW 320i and the Ford Granada five-liter. The time for the standing-start quarter-mile run was an equally impressive 18.7 seconds at a speed of 74.0 mph .
"The pleasing blend of proven components extends to the 810's handling characteristics as well. There is mild understeer and no abrupt transition during hard cornering as with many cars that use semitrailing rear suspension. Nor does it switch to oversteer if you back off the throttle during a tire-squealing turn."
So what about the exterior and interior design of the 810? Well, the cabin was roomy enough for a 183.5-inch-long car on a 104.3-inch wheelbase. And by the humble standards of the day, it was a well-appointed interior that featured such advanced technology as a quartz digital clock! But the exterior was pretty darn hideous.
Basically a scaled-up version of the awful styling then infecting Nissan's smaller sedans, the 810's shape managed the bizarre trick of being both overstyled and fully anonymous. There was a half-hearted attempt to make the car look upscale with the big, upright front grille. But that's as far as the tasteful styling touches went. The tail looked like it had been backed into a puddle of molten red and amber plastic. The 810 also wasn't particularly aerodynamic, and at least a few critics noted that the wind whistled around the A-pillars.
The inherent goodness of the 810's drivetrain, chassis and overall package, however, was apparently enough for it to overcome the dreadful styling to become a solid sales hit for Datsun.
Datsun barely touched the 810 for 1978 with the addition of power steering as a standard feature about the only significant change. Hey, no one was buying an 810 without power steering anyhow. However the 810 did pick up a major competitor with the introduction of the similar-specification Toyota Cressida that year. A two-door coupe version of the 810 was new for 1979 along with the adoption of four rectangular headlights in place of the four round ones that originally framed the car's face. The coupe used the same 104.3-inch wheelbase of the sedan and featured both small side-quarter windows that rolled down and large opera windows in the C-pillars. Furthering the 1970's penchant for tackiness, the coupe's interior featured a plaid upholstery fabric that was among the creepiest ever conceived. But again, under the skin the 810 shone; Datsun's new 280ZX used essentially the same suspension as the 810 under its sleeker sports car bodywork. The coupe also got a five-speed manual transmission swiped from the Z car parts bin as standard equipment. The 2.4-liter six was unchanged and now carried a 120-hp net rating.
What worked so well under the sedan continued to impress critics under the coupe. "We doubt anyone will mistake the 810 coupe for a BMW or Alfa," wrote Road & Track. "A bargain? Well cost is a relative thing. But where Datsun is concerned, it is still the most important factor."
However inflation and the plummeting value of the U.S. dollar against the Japanese yen made the 810 more expensive and less of a value in the market. Throw in the fact that the quirky styling was now aging and, no surprise, sales suffered.
Halogen headlights and cruise control were new options for the 1980 810 coupe, sedan and wagon, but the rest of the car was essentially unchanged. Why bother when there was a new 810 on the way? And that second 810 would prove so good, it would outgrow its own name.
There was nothing radical about the second Datsun 810, but it was cleanly styled and handsome in a way the old 810 had never been. In the early '80s, that was enough to make the car a hit.
In general specification, the 1981 810 didn't differ that much from the old one. The suspension still used MacPherson struts up front and a set of semitrailing arms in the back. The engine was still the same fuel-injected 2.4-liter SOHC straight six ripped from the Z car and it still made 120 hp. A five-speed manual transmission was now standard, but it still sent power back to the rear wheels. And the brakes were still discs up front and drums in back. However the steering gear was now a rack and pinion design.
While the sedan was still the heart of the 810 offerings and the station wagon was kept around for family-type buyers, the coupe was killed off since Datsun was now selling the 200SX to that niche.
America's new 810 was actually a revision of the four-cylinder Japanese-market 910 with the biggest change being an additional 3.9 inches of length spliced into the nose between the firewall and front wheels in order to accommodate the longer six-cylinder engine. Of course Datsun could have called the new car a 910 here in America as well, but why throw away what brand equity had been built for the 810 nameplate?
Compared to the old 810, the second one's 103.2-inch wheelbase was 1.1-inch shorter and overall length dropped by 0.6 inch. The newer 810 was also marginally wider and the interior was roomier. The cowl was significantly lower as well, dropping its waistline noticeably and increasing the size of the greenhouse. And the new design eliminated much of the irksome wind noise that plagued the original.
The 810 was offered in two trim levels, with "Deluxe" representing the base model and "Maxima" at the top of the range — which marked the first appearance of the Maxima name. "The Deluxe comes with a five-speed manual gearbox (the automatic is optional), an interior done in basic vinyl and a rudimentary set of instruments," explained Road & Track during its first test of the new 810. "Buy a Maxima, the model we tested, and you must take the fuzzy upholstery materials and the complete instrumentation, but can't have the five-speed manual. We'd prefer being able to order a Deluxe model with the full set of instruments or a Maxima with a good vinyl or perhaps even leather upholstery."
"The Maxima is loaded for American bear," wrote Car and Driver during its first road test of the second 810. "Gimmicks, comforts and competences are everywhere, and delivered in a very handsome package. The new 810 has gotten the sort of face-lift that snugs up lines without stretching too tight. The old 810 was just as much fun to drive, but it was unrepentantly gawky. The new car gathers a better grade of stares." They also noted the Maxima's most controversial feature — "a little artificial voice that will scare the wee out of you in the middle of the night at the Texaco station in Chetopa, Kansas, by whispering, 'Please turn out the lights.'" That's right, the 810 Maxima was in the vanguard of that oh-so-'80s fad — cars that talk.
Another early-'80s fad was the diesel engine and the 810 got one of its own midway through the '81 model year. The 2.8-liter diesel six was rated at just 80 hp. That's wholly inadequate against 3,100 or more pounds, yet at least a few were sold anyhow.
Road & Track measured its 810 Maxima traipsing to 60 mph in 12.3 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 19.0 seconds at 75.5 mph. Solidly competitive for the era and enough to make the new 810 a hit even though the Maxima's price was just a few bucks short of $10,000.
For no apparent reason, the 810 name disappeared with the coming of the 1982 models and all of Datsun's biggest sedans and wagons were now known as Maximas. This was also the year when Datsun began its transition to using the "Nissan" brand name. So both names appeared on most of the company's products.
Substantive changes to the Maxima were slight, however. The instrumentation graphics were revised, new velour upholstery was installed and the headlights were now quartz halogen units. The Deluxe model was also gone as all Maximas were, well, Maximas.
For 1983 the Maxima got a new grille and slightly revised taillights, but the most significant change was that a new four-speed automatic transmission replaced the old three-speeder. Also the station wagon got a new four-link rear suspension.
In a giant (and legendarily disastrous) eight-car comparison test conducted in Mexico, Car and Driver was unimpressed by the '83 Maxima. "Both the Toyota Cressida and Datsun Maxima are growing whiskers which are especially noticeable with so many fresh faces around," it wrote. "Rear drive consumes an uncomfortable amount of their cabin space, both cars have gone a bit soft around the edges, and the typical plethora of buttons and gadgets has reached the point of sensory overload. Japan's strong points are still technically advanced powertrains (the Cressida's earned a perfect 27) and reasonable price tags."
The Nissan name change was complete by the 1984 model year and the unloved diesel engine option was dropped, but except for some slight trim changes and audible wear warnings from the front disc brake pads, the Maxima soldiered forward pretty much unchanged. But not only would this be the last year for this generation Maxima, but it would be the end of rear-wheel drive for the line as well.
About the least changed thing about the all-new 1985 Maxima was the styling. "This year," wrote Car and Driver upon its first test of the new car, "taking note of the Teutonic philosophy which holds that higher efficiency in all things means higher performance in all areas, Nissan has shrunk the Maxima's wheelbase by about three inches to 100.4. At the same time, the adoption of front-wheel drive, a transverse V6 and a 181.7-inch overall length has added about an inch to legroom. Headroom within the unit body has also grown an inch or so, and the trunk has swelled to 15 cubic feet." Still, with its square cut lines and blunt nose framed by rectangular headlamps, it was recognizably a successor to the previous Maxima.
There was nothing exotic about the new Maxima. The suspension once again relied on MacPherson struts in the front and now used them in the back as well. Finally, the front disc brakes were joined by a set of discs in the rear, too. The fuel-injected 3.0-liter V6 was the same SOHC, 12-valve unit installed in the rear-drive 300ZX sports car, and it fed either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transaxle. As ordinary as that engine seemed, its 154-hp output was a vast leap forward for the Maxima — a full 34 hp more than before. And that meant this car was seriously quick for its time, as Car and Driver's five-speed-equipped Maxima SE ripped from zero to 60 mph in just 8.4 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 16.5 seconds at 80 mph.
Both the Maxima sedan and wagon returned to start the front-drive era. The sedan was offered both as a base "GL" and sportier "SE," with the wagon coming only as a GL. The GL models had the automatic transmission standard, while the SE came only with the manual.
The new Maxima was, on the whole, an impressive advance. "Nissan has made a bold and risky move from rear drive to front drive in its flagship sedan and hasn't stumbled in the process," wrote Car and Driver's Don Sherman. "To the contrary, the new Maxima is worlds better than the machine it replaced. The handling is decent, the ride is fine and the usual torque-steer and steering-kick gremlins are nowhere to be found. My compliments."
With such a solid start for the new-generation Maxima, about the only change Nissan made for 1986 was the addition of an anti-theft system.
A slight wedge was added to the front grille for 1987 and the Maxima line was reconfigured to be offered in either base "GXE" or sportier "SE" trim. The SE was now available with either the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. For 1988 there was a new optional "Sonar Suspension" system that adjusted shock damping based on road condition information gleaned from sensors.
By this time, the first front-drive Maxima was played out. The next one would be a greater step forward than even Nissan could have imagined.
If there's one thing the 810 and Maxima hadn't been until this fourth generation, that thing was beautiful. The new 1989 Maxima sedan was downright pretty. And it was bigger. But it was no longer available as a station wagon.
"The new Maxima was designed with the U.S. market in mind," wrote Road & Track at its introduction. "In fact approximately 90 percent of total production is expected to be exported to Yankee shores. Unencumbered by Japanese size requirements and tax penalties, Nissan's designers had the flexibility to create a substantially larger Maxima. Compared with last year's car, it's 6.3 inches longer, 2.4 inches wider and has nearly 4 inches more wheelbase. 'We first asked ourselves what interior dimensions would be necessary to provide sufficient space for five American adults to ride in comfort,' says Hiroyuki Shiratori, Nissan's senior manager, product planning and marketing group No. 3. And you know, when the senior manager [of] product planning and marketing group No. 3 talks, people listen."
Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally), the '89 Maxima's 104.3-inch wheelbase was identical to that of the original '77 810's. But the '89 Maxima, at 187.6 inches from nose to tail, was just over 4 inches longer overall than its ancestor.
Despite the growth in size, this Maxima carried over much of the previous-generation Maxima's established engineering. The suspension consisted of struts both fore and aft, and the 3.0-liter V6 still had SOHC heads and fed either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transaxle. The engine did get a boost up to 160 hp, and an electronic antilock braking system was available on the SE's four discs (GXE models reverted to rear drums). It was detail and tuning changes combined with radically improved ergonomics and appearance that made this Maxima a car Nissan could call a "Four-Door Sports Car." In fact, the carmaker called it the "Four-Door Sports Car" so often that it put little "4DSC" stickers on the side glass.
"The interior is where this sport sedan differs from the competition," enthused Road & Track about the '89 Maxima SE. "Immediately commanding attention are the gauges. On the Maxima SE model, they have a vintage-car look with white faces and black markings, a treatment that's different yet doesn't compromise readability . When darkness falls and the instrument panel lights come on, the gauges assume a negative image — white markings against black backgrounds. In either mode, they're easy on the eyes."
Car and Driver rounded up six import sedans for a comparison test and rated the '89 Maxima SE "a strong fourth, just one point out of third and two points out of second." Where did it come up short? "Unfortunately," the magazine concluded, "the Maxima's chassis isn't as capable as its drivetrain. Our Maxima, fitted with 205/60HR15 Toyo tires, could do no better than 0.76G on the skid pad, a mediocre performance for a modern sport sedan. Moreover, the suspension is on the soft side, requiring a gentle touch at the wheel to keep the car from bobbing around." The magazine also measured its Maxima SE running to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds and turning the quarter-mile in 16.5 seconds at 84 mph.
With this Maxima a solid hit for Nissan, it was not surprising that only a few trim changes were made to the car for 1990. The Maxima's sideview mirrors were slightly redesigned for 1991, and there was another round of trim changes, but that was about it.
A new grille and minor trim changes were part of the 1992 Maxima. But the big news that year was the adoption of new aluminum DOHC heads for the iron-block 3.0-liter V6 on SE models — putting four valves over every cylinder. That change pumped output up to 190 hp and the SE's suspension was tweaked to make the best use of it. Those changes vaulted the Maxima SE to the top of Car and Driver's desirability list — in a three-car comparison with Toyota's Camry SE sedan and Ford's Taurus SHO, the Maxima SE won. "The SE romps from zero to 60 in 7 seconds flat," Car and Driver gushed, "and fails to match the SHO's 141-mph top speed by only four mph. Its braking and road-holding figures wind up within a hair-split of the others, and they all tied at 20 mpg on a rollercoastering Ohio trip."
Nissan celebrated the Maxima SE's new dominance by installing a standard driver-side airbag in the car for 1993. Otherwise the status quo was maintained. The company didn't change much about the car for 1994, either.
Though it was at the end of its production life, this generation of Maxima was still attractive and beloved by many buyers. But the world marches on and there was a new Maxima coming.
The 1995 Maxima may not have been as pretty as the car it replaced, but it made up for it by being quicker, better-handling and all around more plausible as a four-door sports car.
"The 1995 Maxima is roomier, more luxurious, softer and quieter than its predecessor," reported Road & Track in its first road test, "while outperforming the old car in every measurable category. An all-new engine and rear suspension make their debut here. A strict diet shaved 150 pounds from the previous design, while Nissan claims that the car's structure is 10-percent stiffer than before.
"Engineers stretched the '95 Maxima's wheelbase 2 inches but overall length remains the same, effectively pushing the wheels toward the four corners and increasing rear seat legroom 1.1 inches. Width is up marginally, mostly to address 1997 side-impact regulations, which the Maxima now meets." It didn't look as good as the outgoing model, but it wasn't exactly ugly, either.
The star of the new Maxima was that new 3.0-liter V6, the VQ30DE, the first member of Nissan's renowned VQ family of V6s that power 21st-century Nissans ranging from the 350Z sports car to the Murano SUV. "The Maxima's new four-cam, 24-valve all-aluminum V6 is a gem," the Road & Track editors continued. "It replaces both the SOHC 12-valve, 160-hp base engine (around in one form or another since 1983) and the '94 SE's DOHC 24-valve 190-horsepower engine of the same displacement and shares not a single part with those cast-iron V6s."
"For starters, it's 108 pounds lighter than last year's 3.0-liter, helping improve the Maxima's front/rear weight distribution. A two-stage chain cam drive (which permits use of smaller exhaust-cam sprockets) and cast-aluminum timing-chain cover and oil pan (which incorporate mounts for accessories) make the engine more compact, giving more space to the passenger compartment."
While being light and compact is always good in an engine, what was most enchanting about this one was the power it produced. The 190-hp rating wasn't any more than the previous year, but the thick 205 pound-feet of peak torque at a reasonable 4,000 rpm gave the engine a much friendlier power band. And when that torque was channeled through the SE's five-speed manual transmission, the result was a scintillating performance — zero to 60 in just 7.4 seconds and the quarter-mile flying by in 15.7 seconds at 90.0 mph, according to Road & Track. It was intoxicating power.
But it wasn't only the new muscles that made this generation Maxima a solid contender. The MacPherson strut front suspension was familiar enough, but the rear suspension was now a beam axle supported by trailing arms and a lateral link. Normally, a reversion back to a solid rear axle is nothing to celebrate, but this beam axle worked very well and produced handling that was balanced and nimble even if it still pushed into understeer at the limits. This was a serious driving machine, even if the SE's standard P215/60R15 all-season radials were modest rubber indeed.
Besides the SE (and a new high-luxury content GLE model), the GXE also carried forward with the four-speed automatic standard and a much softer suspension underneath it. Car and Driver ranked the 1996 GXE (which, like all '96 Maximas, was virtually unchanged from '95) a disappointing fifth out of six in a comparison test with mainstream six-cylinder cars like the Chevy Lumina, Ford Taurus, Dodge Intrepid and (the winner) Toyota Camry. "The steering effort is low," reported Car and Driver, "and this car turns into corners just a bit quicker than we'd expect. While that creates a sporting feel, the high body-roll angle says tourer. The overall suggestion to the driver is mixed, quite unlike the firm, controlled stride that makes the Maxima SE one of our favorites.
"The unfocused GXE personality shows in the interior appointments, too. While the quality of the materials is unquestionably high, the overall impression is noncommittal. The exception is the instrument cluster, where the large, round dials, long needles and minimalist markings will delight the classicist."
A mild redesign of the Maxima SE's nose and tail made it easy to distinguish the 1997 model from those that came before it. The old wheels were also ditched in favor of 16-inchers now wrapped in P215/55R16 Toyo tires. But this Maxima generation was proving to be a huge sales success (over 305,000 sold in the first two years), so further tweaks were deemed unnecessary.
Edmunds.com got its first exposure to the Maxima with the 1998 model year when side airbags were added to the option list of the SE and GLE. In a comparison test of sport sedans, we picked the Maxima SE as our favorite over the Volkswagen Passat, Mazda 626 and Ford Contour. "The Nissan's driving experience is what sets this car apart from its competition," we concluded. "Like a Mazda Miata, the Maxima feels like an extension of the driver, not just a tool to get from Point A to Point B in a hurry. Want to make a sharp right turn? It's almost as if the car knows before you do. Need to downshift for a quick pass on a two-lane road? The Maxima's gearshift falls to hand like a fly ball into Lenny Dykstra's glove. Yup, this car so impressed our assembled group that our evaluation sheets were filled with comments like this: 'Of all the cars I've driven today, this is the one I would buy.' 'I've read about this car for years, and it's actually as good as everyone says.' 'It handles like a dream, a perfect 10.' Pretty high praise for a car that was riding on the oldest platform in (the test)."
This generation of Maxima played out through 1999 with not much more than a new traction control system on the SE and GLE models and new three-point belts for the rear-seat passengers. No one ever loved how this Maxima looked, but it was going to be tough to top its personality.
Suitably impressed by the fifth-generation car, we were eager to get into the new 2000 Maxima. "The 2000-model year is rolling around and Nissan has turned out yet another substantially redesigned Maxima," we wrote in our first road test of the new car, "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."
What excited us most? Since it wasn't the styling, you probably already guessed that it was the VQ30DE-K (the K is for Kaizen, which loosely translates to "improvement") 3.0-liter V6 engine that now made 222 hp and 217 lb-ft of torque. Of course, curb weight was also up, so the extra power's influence on acceleration was muted. All three trim levels (GXE, SE and GLE) of the Maxima returned for '00 and all got the revised engine and extra performance.
We were less excited about the new Maxima's interior, despite the fact that with the wheelbase stretched an additional 2 inches (for a total of 108.3 inches), there was more interior room in most dimensions. "Put simply," we concluded, "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."
While the new car was longer, most of the suspension and other elements carried over from the previous Maxima. The SE was now available with optional 17-inch wheels and tires, and both the five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions were offered on all models. Car and Driver had one SE blasting to 60 mph in just 7.0 seconds and running the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds at 91 mph.
An automatic-equipped SE model later competed in a 2000 Edmunds.com family sedan comparison test, finishing a respectable fourth in a field of nine. Author Scott Mead summed up the road test staff's impressions thusly: "At our as-tested price of $26,468, the Maxima is priced in the middle of the family sedan pack, but delivers a lot more than the price reflects. Packed full of features (like a one-touch up-and-down driver window, one-touch open and close sunroof, HomeLink transmitter and auto on/off headlamps), the Maxima SE is a great family car and a sports car wrapped into one package. If Nissan could smooth the rough edges from the styling, there's no telling how many units they could sell."
The Maxima celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2001 with a special edition of the SE that we tested. Road Test Editor John DiPietro wrote, "Nissan tarted up a 2001 SE model with exclusive features such as ground effects around the lower body perimeter, bronze-tinted headlights, drilled aluminum pedals, aluminum gearshift knob and the obligatory (though discreet) 20th anniversary badging, floor mats and key. This lily is gilded further with the addition of a moonroof, power driver seat, 17-inch wheels/tires and auto-dimming rearview mirror." But the substance of this special model was greater than just trim.
"The 20th birthday Maxima also boasts 5 more horsepower from its 3.0-liter, 24-valve V6 than the other Maximas, (earning a 227-horse rating) and a limited-slip differential to help put those ponies to the ground." DiPietro continued, "The driving experience for the anniversary model is virtually identical to that of the standard SE, which is mostly a very good thing. Acceleration is strong and smooth, with one editor comparing the engine's refined nature to that found under the hood of a certain German car — high (and risky) praise in this group. The five-speed's shifter drew some negative comments from various Edmunds staffers, who felt the joy of driving a potent, manual transmission sport sedan was blunted by the rubbery action of the Maxima's shift lever. Clutch action was criticized by a few as being non-linear and engaging too quickly, though in fairness, this particular press car had quite a few auto journalist (read hard-fought) miles on it and was unlike other Maximas we've driven in this regard."
The big news for 2002 was that the engine got bigger as the Maxima got a version of the VQ-series V6 now displacing 3.5 liters. In a follow-up test, we were impressed. "Nissan is increasingly using this engine in a variety of products, including the Pathfinder, Altima, 2003 350Z and Infiniti G35," wrote our Brent Romans. "For 2002, its advanced architecture includes enhancements like continuous valve timing control, a variable induction system, a silent timing chain and electronically controlled throttle. These changes help to increase horsepower to 255 and raise torque to 246 lb-ft.
"Yep, a 255-hp Maxima. This is certainly all-star power. It has 33 more hp than last year's car, 15 more than a '98 BMW M3 and is just a shade below the Acura TL Type-S. And, in Maxima tradition, it can be transferred to the front wheels through a manual transmission. There is some torque steer when you stomp on it in first gear, but it's not enough to be a concern. More importantly, there's one more gear to pick from for 2002."
Not only could the SE be had with that six-speed transmission, but that gearbox was also available with a limited-slip differential resulting in excellent traction under most conditions. Other changes included yet another new grille, new headlights and clear lens taillights.
Even though our test car didn't have that trick diff, it was a rocket. It blasted to 60 in just 6.3 seconds and swept through the quarter-mile in just 14.9 seconds. Easily the quickest Maxima yet, but it was facing competition from inside Nissan itself. "But if you're in the market for a sporty family sedan, you should really consider an Altima 3.5 SE," Romans concluded, noting of course that the Maxima's little brother was powered by a similar VQ-series 3.5-liter V6. "It will do everything the Maxima can do and take a smaller bite out of your wallet."
The Maxima made it through 2003 virtually unchanged in anticipation of the all-new Maxima to come for 2004. In fact it would be so new, it wouldn't even be made in Japan anymore.
Taking a cue from Toyota, which had been building its larger Avalon sedan in the same American plant as the Camry, Nissan moved Maxima production to its plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, for the 2004 model year. And just as the Avalon was based on a stretched Camry platform, Nissan redesigned the new Maxima around a stretched Altima platform. The Maxima's lineup was also pared down to a choice of either the sporty SE or luxurious SL.
"Without question," Road Test Editor Brian Moody wrote upon our first taste of the new car, "for 2004 the Maxima has moved upmarket. 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, 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 in 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."
With gracefully arched new styling and a distinctive "Skyview" roof (a narrow glass panel that stretches nearly the whole length of the roof itself), the seventh-generation Maxima looked nothing like previous versions. The 3.5-liter V6 gained 10 hp over the previous generation for a grand total of 265 hp. A six-speed manual and five-speed automatic were the available transmissions for the first two model years.
"We put our 3.5 SE test car through a variety of driving situations during our week of testing," wrote News Editor Kelly Toepke in our full test, "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."
For 2005 changes included a shorter throw for the manual shifter, additional chrome accents (both inside and out), auto-dimming sideview mirrors and an additional 12-volt outlet to run accessories. For 2007, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) replaced both the manual and traditional automatic. A change in horsepower measuring procedure for '07 also yielded a 10-hp drop in stated power, although actual output didn't change. The Elite package (that provided a unique four-passenger seating configuration with a rear center console) was eliminated for 2008.
Despite its long, successful family lineage, this Nissan Maxima clearly showed that the nameplate was losing its way. It tried to simultaneously compete against larger sedans such as the Toyota Avalon while also providing the sort of exciting driving experience for which the Maxima was known. Ultimately, it did neither well and struggled to make a case for itself against its less expensive Altima sibling. A drastic change was certainly in order.
When the eighth-generation Maxima debuted for 2009, Nissan tried to recapture some of the 4-Door Sports Car magic. Deviating from the norm, this Maxima was smaller than the car it replaced and the less expensive Altima. Instead of being a flagship in terms of size, it would be one in terms of luxury equipment, interior quality, refined driving dynamics and strong V6 power.
"With all its luxe bells and high-tech whistles, the Maxima is an honest-to-goodness luxury sedan for those who don't want the stigma associated with a luxury badge," wrote Automotive Editor James Riswick in his test-drive of a Sport-package-equipped Maxima. "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 — with or without the Sport package."
In fact, the Sport package (that included 19-inch wheels, sport-tuned suspension, heated power tilt-telescoping steering wheel, driver memory functions, heated front seats, rear bucket seats and Bluetooth) was deemed unnecessary. The Premium package provided all the same luxury goodies but without the 19-inch wheels and sport-tuned suspension that ruined the ride.
Upon driving the Premium-equipped Maxima, Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton wrote, "All the chassis changes have produced a car that strikes an excellent balance between a comfortable ride and responsive handling. Where the Altima's ride sometimes feels flinty and prone to shudder on harsh impacts, the Maxima remains composed." The steering was another bright spot. "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," Riswick wrote.
Under the hood, this Maxima featured a 290-hp version of Nissan's venerable 3.5-liter V6 driving the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. Although this amount of power tends to result in nasty torque steer in front drivers (such as the previous generation Maxima), the new car bucked this trend commendably. We found the responsive CVT to be one of the best examples of this type of transmission known more for saving fuel than impressive performance. In track testing the new Maxima went from zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds.
Inside, the eighth-generation Maxima featured a design that could easily be found in Nissan's Infiniti luxury brand — all that was missing was the signature analog clock. The high-quality materials would be at home in a luxury car and were a big improvement over the previous generation. The Tech package added a hard-drive navigation system, voice recognition, real-time traffic, a rearview camera, digital music storage and an excellent iPod interface. Since it shrunk in size, the Maxima's cabin was hardly what we'd call spacious. Its available rear bucket seats made it more comfortable for two people while the front seats were deemed to be quite comfortable and the driving position friendly.
In total, this generation Nissan Maxima is impressive, if perhaps rather pricey, given its non-luxury badge. But for those who want to stay under the radar, it's an impressive sedan that returns this iconic nameplate to respectability.
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