This week, the eighth-generation of Nissan’s so-called “4-Door Sports Car,” the Maxima goes on sale at dealerships across North America. Having originally debuted as a 1981 model, the Maxima is Nissan’s longest running continuous nameplate, the Z having gone away for several years in the 1990s. I got a chance to take a quick spin in the all-new sedan recently and came away fairly impressed, but does it really deserve the sports car nomenclature? Read on to find out.
The first thing you’ll notice with the new Maxima is its striking new design. The design language which Nissan has dubbed “energetic flow” is said to have been inspired by a visit to Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, home base of the Blue Angels. While references to jet fighter-inspired design are always to be taken with a big hunk of salt, this new look that debuted last year on the new Murano is definitely eye-catching.
Whether you actually find it appealing is clearly a very subjective matter. I generally like most of it, especially the “floating” roof look with the blacked panel in the D-pillar and the sculpting on the flanks but the “V-motion” grille may be a bit overdone.
The “fighter” theme is carried over to the cabin where the new Maxima is the first Nissan sedan with a center stack canted toward the driver. While Nissan is far from the first automaker to take this approach, the two examples I drove both had excellent material quality and fit and finish. The dashboard and door panels are covered in leather with real stitching and all five available trim levels of the 2016 Maxima get two standard LCD displays. An eight-inch multi-touch display in the center stack includes navigation and the infotainment system while a seven-inch display in the instrument cluster can be reconfigured to provide a variety of information. Like the Cadillac CUE system the driver can even swipe information from the center screen to the left and it will appear right in front.
If any machine is to be credibly called a sports car, it must ensure that the driver is properly positioned for control. Here the Maxima succeeds admirably with a thick-rimmed steering wheel that is adjustable for rake and reach. The bottom of the steering wheel has been flattened out in the increasingly de-rigueur fashion but the parts you hold on to work very well. Equally important in anything with pretenses to performance is seating. Here the Maxima shines. The seats in the baseline S model I drove the most are the same as those found in the sportiest SR aside from the cloth upholstery in place of the leather in pricier models. After 90 minutes in the car, I encountered no strange pressure points and lateral support was outstanding, especially for a standard seat.
The rear compartment offers plenty of space for passengers although the sweeping roofline is likely to cause anyone over about five-foot-four-inches to duck more than expected getting in and out.
Of course the true test of a sports car is the powertrain and driving dynamics. As with the last 20+ years worth of Maximas, this one send torque to the front-wheels and no all-wheel-drive option is available. While I once would have scoffed at the idea of a 300-horsepower front-driver, modern chassis kinematics have largely eliminated that as a problem. I took the Maxima through some spirited corners and it felt both neutral and quite nimble for a car of its size. Considering the insane amounts of power that Nissan is planning to feed through the front wheels of the new GT-R LM Nismo at Le Mans, it’s clear that steering and tractive effort can coexist on the same tires if done right.
That said, while 300-hp from the updated 3.5-liter V6 engine is quite ample, it’s increasingly becoming the cost of entry in anything that presumes to be a sports sedan. Take for example the Dodge Charger which was mentioned in the pre-drive presentation. It starts at 300 hp with a V6 and goes all the way to 707-hp with the supercharged HellCat V8. On the other hand for the $32-40,000 price tag, this is very competitive. The reality is that no one really needs 400+ hp engines, but once you’ve had a taste? Well who wants to go back.
The V6 is backed up a redesigned version of Nissan’s X-Tronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). While many drivers don’t like the way CVTs feel on the road, especially when they hold a constant engine rpm while the car accelerates, Nissan has done a better job than anyone with its CVT design.
It operates in two modes, under light throttle it exhibits the typical CVT behavior of trying to keep the engine at its efficiency sweet spot and under these conditions, the behavior is not unpleasant. Get into the go pedal and it engages its D-step program with stepped shifts at higher revs. The updated tranny now has a 6.2:1 ratio spread, making it comparable to contemporary eight-speed units and it behaves as well as the best ZF gearboxes.
It even features adaptive shift control that uses accelerometer data to hold lower gears in corners. On the top three trim levels, there are also manual shift paddles behind the steering wheel. The paddles trigger shifts that feel nearly as quick as a dual-clutch gearbox, but even smoother. However, if you put the transmission in manual mode and accelerate, it will automatically upshift just shy of the 6,500 rpm redline no matter what you do.
Ride quality in the S model with 18-inch alloy wheels was very good, although I didn’t have a chance to try it on some of the more atrocious roads in this area, that will have to wait until a longer evaluation period. In a brief 20-minute outing in the sportier SR, the 245/40R19 tires did bring a slight but noticeable degradation in ride quality that could be picked up through frost heaves.
The SR gets some technical items not available on the S including a unique active ride control system and predictive forward collision warning. Unlike some other cars, the active ride control doesn’t adjust the dampers, but instead uses selective brake applications to control vertical body motions over bumps. I didn’t really get a chance to try this out to see if it really works but I will report back when I do. Like other modern cars with radar-based adaptive cruise control, the Maxima also uses the radar to detect potential collisions when the closing speed is too fast. Unlike the competition, Nissan also bounces the radar off the ground to detect what the car in front of the car in front of you is doing. Again, the opportunity didn’t arise to try this out, but hopefully it will soon.
Overall, the 2016 Maxima is an excellent large sedan with very good performance and driving dynamics. When Nissan first applied the 4DSC moniker to the 1989 model, the bar was far lower than it is today. Based on this brief exposure, this new model is fully competitive with the class, but to earn the sports car badge, I think it just needs something extra special that I didn’t find. Even without that, if you dig the design and are looking for a four-door sedan with some sporting cred, give the new Maxima a look.