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First Drive

Maxima Gets a Dose of, Well, Viagra

May 13, 1999|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Nissan's Maxima has always been a whippet, the first of the better mid-sizers to exorcise the idea that four doors must mean carpools, weed whacking and one foot in the burbs.

That has been the Maxima maxim for two decades, which is five generations in auto years. It's also a reputation that could be roundly enhanced by the 2000 Maxima SE with five-speed manual transmission, 17-inch alloy wheels and an exhaust that snorts because there's a 222-horsepower V-6 dictating the passionate pace.

The five-speed SE, however, will bring no new fortunes to Nissan, whose overall sales are in the gurgler, as less than 10% of Nissan's buyers are interested in the pure naughtiness of manual shifting.

No matter, because the SE (starting at an estimated $24,000) can be delivered with a four-speed automatic. And the SE is only one puppy in a Maxima litter that includes the GXE primer ($22,500) and the GLE ($26,200), which offers all the comforts rarely found at home (leather seats, automatic climate control and a 200-watt Bose sound system).

There are no four-bangers or engines of middle to heavier horsepower to muddy the mechanical mix, as is the case with Honda's Accord and Toyota's Camry. Every Maxima comes with the 222-horsepower V-6--a 17% increase in oomph--and that makes it heftier than anything else in the luxury mid-size class.

As its engine has long been rated (by Ward's Auto World) as one of the industry's best, so have Maxima's stiff chassis and sophisticated multi-link rear suspension always been regarded as among the best to have beneath you when one's mood and the road home turn frisky. That powertrain-chassis combination alone should start repacking 'em into Nissan showrooms, which last year moved only 113,000 Maximas, down from 128,000 in 1996.

Despite its slumped shoulders, Maxima remains the nation's best-selling V-6 import sedan, and the competition has a wide gap to close. Yet probable success for the Maxima will be much more than the sum of its muscles. Styling. Design. Engineering. There's the final concert for success. Or failure.

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Designed inside and out by our local gang at Nissan Design International Inc. in La Jolla, the 2000 Maxima is far from being the radical looker that many expected from Jerry Hirshberg, the studio's new president. Particularly as the talented, personable, denim-shirted and articulate Hirshberg (the new face and voice in Nissan's television commercials) is perceived by industry insiders to be the company's chosen salvationist.

But Maxima was too far into its design cycle for the healing hands of the freshly empowered Hirshberg to become really inventive. He did supervise the concept. And it is a particularly elegant shape, an easy transition of a handsome if subdued looker that always seemed to be on the brink of something really attractive.

The front isn't as busy as that of the current model, and such simplicity may well have been learned from Mercedes-Benz, where the elementary still suggests dignity. There's a wonderful encircling of the rear by a trapezoid of rounds and sharp edges that actually throw shadows.

Hirshberg acknowledges the influence of Germany's Autobahn system, birthplace of some of the world's finest--and most expensive--performance sedans.

"The rear view especially leaves what we call a memorable visual calling card," Hirshberg says of the new Maxima. "We want other drivers to know that they've just been passed by a sedan with confidence and character."

This mightier Maxima has a longer wheelbase for improved stability, more trunk space and increased interior headroom and legroom, all within a friendly, deeply sweeping cupola created by the console and dashboard.

Prices are down by several hundred dollars across the range. Gone are the cheap plastics on the GXE, its matronly fabrics and seats that supported as well as a deadbeat dad. Lurches have left the automatic transmission.

The car is quieter but still has a distance to go before matching the interior silence of Acura and Lexus. Blame that on the tautness of the chassis and suspension, because you can't get top-notch handling without reducing the luxury ride and increasing road and tire rumbles.

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Sadly, public perceptions are pretty indelible. It will take more than one good car to right Nissan's past, whatever the wrongs might have been. Some say the company was design-timid. Others blame an abbreviated product line, as well as a loss of edge and identity when Datsun became Nissan.

Nissan, in good humor and in no great departure from the national norm, chooses to blame the media. That's why company publicists issued a faux news release asking automotive journalists to cease and desist with attributing such negatives as "ailing," "struggling" and "beleaguered" to Nissan.

Positive replacements, it was suggested, might be "scrappy," "revitalized" and "Viagra-ed."

May "2000 Maxima" become the eventual compliment.

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Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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