Although the Nissan Maxima has been minimally sporty for years, it has always lived in the shadow of the combined sales might of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
But with the arrival of the all-new 2004 model, the four-door Maxima finally has a secure place in the market and wears the label of sports sedan well.
With the slightly smaller but also mid-size Nissan Altima growing in size, the Maxima grows as well.
The new Maxima is 2.9 inches longer in wheelbase and 1.4 inches wider and boasts a more commodious trunk, measuring 15.5 cubic feet. Styling is completely revised as well, with an exterior that boasts a family resemblance to the Altima.
All the added dimensions show up in the interior. Front seat space seems generous, and rear seat space is more ample than it initially appears.
Headroom seems tight in all seats, which might be why Nissan installs its Skyview roof as standard equipment. Skyview is a large, fixed glass panel that makes the cabin's tight headroom seem less apparent; when a sunroof is ordered, Skyview is not installed.
The front bucket seats have good back support, but the seat bottoms are much too short for long-term comfort or support, even for short drivers. Rear seat passengers fare better, with a supportive, comfortable seat.
The Maxima comes in two trim levels: the 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL. Nissan offered a pre-production 3.5 SE for testing.
Although the Maxima and Altima have similar exterior styling, they have a different feel on the inside. Both models have a modern look, but the Maxima's cabin is crafted with better-quality materials than in the Altima.
The center stack in the Maxima is crammed with buttons for audio and climate control. Both systems work well, but the driver must take his or her eyes off the road to operate them. Redundant controls on the steering wheel alleviate the problem somewhat.
All those buttons are positioned below a large screen that houses an optional navigation system.
The test car was fitted in a luxurious leather with seat heaters and a heated steering wheel -- a nice touch. Another nice touch was the power folding side mirrors. The only real faux pas was an interior light switch that I found too easy to turn on while attempting to open the sunroof.
The Maxima is drawn in an artful style, one that sets it apart from most of its competitors. Maybe it's the toothy grille up front, or the small sail panels that accent the rear window, or the graceful lines that wrap the rear of the car -- it's all quite interesting to look at.
Inside, the three-pod instrument cluster, straight from the Nissan 350Z, is nestled in the low-set dash. It's all beautiful and new.
But it's the performance that most satisfies.
Finally, the Maxima lives up to its four-door sports car moniker with the same powerful 3.5-liter V-6 found under the hood of the 350Z -- although tuned to produce only 265 horsepower instead of the 287 horses that the Z brings to the party. Still, power is plentiful throughout the rev range. In fact, there's so much power that torque steer is a real problem upon brisk take-offs.
Power is fed through a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual on the 3.5 SE, or a four-speed automatic on the 3.5 SL.
Fuel economy for models with the automatic is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway; the highway rating rises to 29 mpg with the manual transmission.
The completely revised suspension is now independent. Handling is vastly improved with a sporty feel that's increasingly common across the entire Nissan line.
Although not as hard-edged as the rear-drive Infiniti G35 sedan, the front-drive Maxima will certainly give its luxury counterpart a run for the money while still being able to deal with inclement weather.
Braking is excellent, with short, straight stops. That's not only because of the four-wheel disc brakes but also because Nissan employs electronic brake force distribution to ensure you are braking hard enough, as well as brake assist and anti-lock to ensure trouble-free stopping.
The ride is firm but not enough to rattle your fillings. Nevertheless, for those used to the Toyota Camry's soft ride, this ride will feel almost harsh.
Likewise, enthusiast drivers might find a touch too much body lean in corners and not enough feedback through the wheel when it's most needed.
Another downer might be the turning radius. Like an increasing number of big-engine, front-drive automobiles, the turning radius is enormous considering the size of the car.
But these are minor nits for a large, fast, fun four-door with above-average room, boatloads of style and more than a modicum of driving fun.
Although it's not a 350Z or even a G35, the new Maxima still has enough of their DNA to prevent this car from being just another boring Japanese transportation device.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
2004 Nissan Maxima SE
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Transmission: five-speed automatic or six-speed manual
Tires: P245/45R18 V-speed rated
Wheelbase: 111.2 inches
Length: 193.5 inches
Width: 71.7 inches
Weight: 3,450 pounds
Cargo volume: 15.5 cubic feet
Base price: $26,950
EPA fuel rating: 20 miles per gallon city, 28-29 highway
Test mileage: 18 mpg
Source: Morning Call