2009 Nissan Maxima SV Review
I just spent a week driving an all-new 2009 Nissan Maxima SV “four door sports car,” and while I wasn’t terribly endeared with the car when I first saw it in photos (I thought the front end was ugly) or on the racetrack (I had spent most of the day driving rear wheel drive cars with a lot more horsepower), I really came to enjoy the Maxima after spending a week with the car.
Nissan has dug up its “four door sports car” moniker that it first applied to the Maxima two decades ago with the launch of its 2009 model, and has made a big deal of the car’s [front wheel drive] handling, increased horsepower, and styling tie-ins to Nissan’s performance flagship, the GT-R.
To me, the practically square grille theme on the Maxima’s front end just does not flow with the slinky, curvaceous shapes elsewhere on the car. Yes, it has a shape similar to the grille opening on the GT-R, but unlike the Maxima, the GT-R also has several other angular shapes throughout its body. Also, while the GT-R has great proportions and an interesting shape, few would call it a great-looking car. But back to the Maxima – the car is far more interesting to look at in person. While in photos, the large square grille was first thing that my eyes were drawn to, but in person, the Coke bottle shape of the fenders is far more interesting. There really are some great curves on the front fenders, angling down toward the center of the hood (1968 Corvette Stingray-style, only with soft curves instead of sharp points), then the center of the hood bulges upward again. It’s really a striking thing to see from behind the wheel; you’re constantly reminded that you’re not driving a Camry when looking at the curvaceous front fenders from the driver’s seat. Both front and rear fenders also bulge outward, with sharp creases defining their upper corners as well. Elsewhere on the car, the C-pillar features a BMW-like Hoffmeister Kink and a decklid design that also pays tribute to the company from Munich. The headlights are another interesting styling feature, with a sort of arrow-tipped shape that reminds me of a warrior with paint applied below his eyes. Overall, the proportions are fairly good for a front wheel drive vehicle, with the expected amount of excessive front overhang. My test vehicle had 18 inch wheels, but 19 inchers are available with the sport package.
A few years ago, Nissans were known more for their driving experience than for their refinement and interior quality; compare the soon-to-be-replaced 2008 350Z’s interior to the 2009 Maxima’s to see the dramatic difference in quality and design. Gone are the hard plastics and lack of a cohesive design; the Maxima has some very nice upscale touches inside, such as a heated steering wheel, XM Satellite Radio, navigation system, soft-touch dash, dual panel sunroof (which covered the entire roof in glass, about a third of which could open), power tilt/telescope steering column, upgraded leather seats with a heated/cooled driver’s seat, iPod integration, and more. Every control felt nicely damped and consistent in the effort required to move it relative to the other controls. The only really big ergonomic lapsethat I ran into was in using the heated/cooled seat control; the knob is at the front of the center console below the center stack and in front of the gearshift. It’s nearly impossible to reach without stretching your fingers to get to it. Otherwise, the gauges were extremely clear to read and the car was easy to figure out without even touching the owner’s manual. I found the driver’s seat to be comfortable for stints longer than an hour, and appreciated that the bottom cushion could be extended forward for additional thigh support (as some BMWs’ seats also allow). The back seat, however, was smaller than it should be in a fairly upscale, expensive car. I would have had trouble “sitting behind myself” in the back seat with the driver’s seat adjusted to a spot of my liking. I didn’t attempt the usual car seat installation test, but it probably would have been better than in a Lexus IS350, but worse than in a Honda Accord.
I’ve driven several vehicles with CVTs over the years, including another Nissan product (the Versa Sedan), but the Maxima was the first time I’ve experienced one paired to a V6. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a CVT (continuously variable transmission) can use an infinite number of gear ratios rather than 4, 5 or 6 fixed ones as in a conventional transmission. The result is a sort of weird sensation of almost an automatic transmission that slips, but in reality, it lets the engine get to its ideal operating speed for conditions (around 6,300 RPMs when it’s floored) and it just stays there, adjusting the gear ratio on the fly as the car speeds up. Really, my favorite part of the Maxima (well, perhaps tied with the comfortable interior) was its acceleration. Stand on the gas pedal, and the car just GOES. Because there is no shifting, per se, it’s easy to lose track of just how fast you’re going without watching the speedometer. The Premium Package in my test Maxima came with metal paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, which allows the driver to select one of six fixed ratios to simulate shifting in a conventional automatic. They shifted extremelyquickly and the ratios were close together, but I couldn’t help but think that even with the fast shifts and close ratios, the CVT was probably faster just leaving it in normal Drive mode, varying the ratio and keeping RPMs right in the engine’s power peak. There is also a Drive-Sport mode that allows the car to wind out CVT-style for a few thousand RPMs, then does the simulated shifting trick very quickly, spending very little time in each simulated gear. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the V6 in the Maxima is the best-sounding Nissan engine I’ve ever heard, and that includes a G35 sedan, EX35 crossover, and Pathfinder SUV. There is more exhaust bark than intake noise, with that bark being of a delightful mechanical variety.
Throttle response was impressive from the 3.5 liter V6 engine, which is a member of Nissan’s popular VQ family. It’s rated at 290 horsepower and I felt that the CVT allowed the car to take advantage of all 290 of them. The Maxima definitely felt quicker than my own 304-horsepower Cadillac CTS, with part of the difference likely attributable to its lighter weight and the rest attributed to the CVT’s ability to keep the engine in its sweet spot most of the time. Steering feel was good for a front wheel drive car, but the day that I drove a 2009 Maxima back-to-back on a track with rear wheel drive cars, I noticed that it was significantly lighter in terms of effort required than it is on most of the rear wheel drive cars I sampled that day. Once I acclimated myself to the Nissan’s steering effort, however, it felt fine in everyday use. Body motions were well controlled for the most part, and the ride/handling balance was just a little more tilted toward the ride side, which is right in line with my personal preference. Finally, the large four wheel vented disc brakes bled off speed quickly, smoothly, and without drama. Brake pedal feel was also very good – it wasn’t spongy and had a fairly short travel, which I appreciated.
Acknowledging that I drove the car perhaps more aggressively than most owners would (or even most people paying for their own gasoline would), I saw an observed 18.8 miles per gallon, which is just about inline with the Maxima’s EPA city rating of 19 miles per gallon. The EPA rates the Maxima at 26 miles per gallon on the highway, but I didn’t spend more than a few miles on highway trips, so it’s hard to say whether or not the 26 figure is feasible or not. What I have observed, however, is that the more power a car has, and the more fun I have with its acceleration, the more inclined I am to drive with my foot on the accelerator. In low-horsepower economy cars, I usually manage to beat the EPA city ratings, but in the powerful, torque-heavy cars and trucks, I’m usually at or below that city figure.
Pricing is one area that the Maxima shows some weakness. Part of the problem is that the very good Nissan Altima sedan has a similar powertrain (though its engine is detuned to 270 horsepower) and similar dimensions, and can be purchased for about $8,000 less (though is available with far fewer luxury features than the Maximais). My test vehicle had a $32,650 base price, with just a few major option packages: the $3,450 Premium Package (moonroof, rear power sunshade, Xenon headlamps, heated seats, cooled driver’s seat, heated steering wheel, Bluetooth, XM Satellite Radio, upgraded leather seats), the $370 rear spoiler, and the $1,850 Premium Technology package (navigation system, hard drive, XM NavTraffic). The final MSRP including destination was a substantial $38,500. It’s not a lot for a well-built, well-engineered car, but it’s a lot for a front wheel drive V6 Nissan. So here’s the problem: as the Altima has grown in size and capabilities over the past few generations, the Maxima has moved up in price and stature as well, but may be offering too much luxury and performance for the Nissan brand. Nissan, of course, used to sell a rebadged Maxima at Infiniti dealers as the i30. I think it’s probably time to shuffle the Maxima, with a restyled nose, over to the Infiniti lineup, call it the i35, and call it a day.
Forgetting about the Nissan badges on the grille and trunklid for a moment, however, and the Maxima is a really nice sport sedan, if your definition of ‘sport sedan’ allows for front wheel drive. I couldn’t really tell whether it was one of the best-handling front wheel drive cars in the world, but the interior materials and design, coupled with the responsive CVT and torquey, powerful V6, make the Maxima a sweet car to spend time in.
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