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We got our first chance to test out the newly-redesigned, 2000 Nissan Maxima last fall, albeit in heavily camouflaged form. The car’s curves were covered over with awkwardly shaped panels taped and bolted together. And as one might expect, the sedan was rough and raw, a pre-production prototype still being tweaked and tuned.
Yet even our brief time on the Nissan test track near Phoenix left a strong impression. The extra 32 horsepower under the hood tossed us deep into our seats as we launched down the straight, and gave us another jolt of adrenaline as we pulled through the corner. Steering was precise, handling predictable. So, despite the camo, there was no mistaking the fact that Nissan was aiming to bring the Maxima back to its roots, restoring the sense you once got that this was really a sports car in midsize sedan skin.
We were eager to get another crack at the 2000 model when,
early this spring, the first finished cars were collected for a media preview on
the lush back roads of California’s Monterey Peninsula.
A family sedan with presence
In a segment that tends towards the conservative, where the term “family sedan” is often used to disguise the sins of bland sameness, the Maxima has always been a standout. It made its debut way back in 1977, when the company was still called Datsun, and the 810 badge was bolted onto the fender. When Datsun became Nissan, the 810 became Maxima. But it remained a driver’s car with just enough performance to remind you of Nissan’s legendary Z-car.
The Maxima remained true to that mission, at least until the last generation sedan. Facing financial pressures, Nissan “de-contented” the car. Most of the changes were subtle and hidden in ways the average motorist wouldn’t notice, though the decision to shift from an independent rear suspension to a solid-beam axle wasn’t easy to ignore. It highlighted an overall character shift you could see as well as feel, threatening to transform the sporty Maxima into yet another faceless bland-mobile.
It’s something Nissan could ill afford. The automaker has
struggled to regain the identity and loyal following it had under the Datsun
nameplate, and no car short of the Z has been more important to establishing its
image. With the Z-car scheduled for a revival, we headed to Monterey looking to
see if Nissan had rediscovered the Maxima’s sporty “DNA.”
On the midsize mark?
What we discovered after a day of driving was certainly promising, though in some ways, Nissan has still missed the mark.
The new car’s powertrain is clearly one of the strong points for the 2000 Maxima. At 222 horsepower, the standard, 3.0-liter V-6 engine delivers a lot of punch. Torque, by the way, is up six percent to 217 lb-ft. Even though the new car is 185 pounds heavier, at 3,299 lb, you clearly feel a sense of improved performance.
The 2000 Maxima offers a smooth-shifting four-speed automatic, though during our day of driving, we found ourselves favoring the precise feel and added performance of the five-speed manual gearbox. So did many of our colleagues, so time with the stick was limited. Both transmissions enhanced the refined feel of the car. And should it matter to you in this era of dollar-a-gallon gasoline, the fuel economy rating for the manual package rises one to 28 mpg. You lose a mile-a-gallon with the new automatic.
These days, there’s a growing movement favoring rear-drive in this class of car. It’s a legitimate argument, on the whole, but you’d have a hard time showing any faults in the 2000 Maxima’s front-wheel-drive configuration. There’s little, if any, sense of torque steer. We get a moderate amount of body roll during some emergency evasion maneuvers at the Peninsula’s Laguna Seca race track, but it’s negligible in normal driving. Overall, handling is precise and predictable. This is a very agile sedan.
As for that sold rear axle, Nissan has done a credible job making it perform nearly as well as an independent rear. On a smooth track and open, well-maintained highways, only the most adept driver would notice the difference. On rough roads, though, it’s likely to generate a bit more jounciness.
Kudos to the engineers who designed the 2000 Maxima’s
brakes. This standard anti-lock package has the stopping power you’d expect from
a sports car.
The derriere complaint
If we were pleasantly surprised by the new car’s performance
and handling, we were admittedly underwhelmed by its styling. Oh, the 2000
Maxima is a handsome enough car, one that’s not going to scare anyone away. But
it doesn’t really rise above the crowd as much as we were expecting when we saw
only the heavily camouflaged version.
2000 Nissan Maxima 2
The new car bears the stamp of Jerry Hirshberg, the California-based design chief who has been given unprecedented authority for a “gaijin” at a Japanese carmaker. Hirshberg focused much of his attention on the Maxima’s rear, the side you’re most likely to see on the road, he boasts. Perhaps. And that derriere is one of the car’s nicer elements. But there are some odd design elements, such as the front bumpers that flare out slightly, adding a subtle hint of imbalance to the nose.
Overall, the ’00 Maxima simply doesn’t stand out the way
some had hoped. Hirshberg is quick to recall that the Japanese have often come
under attack for their frequent and radical redesigns. “We decided to give the
car a sense of heritage,” he stresses. Fair enough. But we would have preferred
it if he’d gone back two generations, rather than one, for the Maxima past was a
more distinct design that could have been better updated for the next
2000 Nissan Maxima interior
Hirshberg’s team deserves nothing but kudos for the new Maxima’s interior design. It has a glove-like quality, though it avoids creating that claustrophobic feel that you get with some “cockpit” designs. Instrumentation is large and easy to read, though some folks might not like the black-on-white color scheme of the gauges. Controls are all placed within easy reach. The height of the center armrests can be adjusted—a very nice touch. About the only complaint is the tilt-only steering wheel. The lack of a telescope control is surprising, considering the competition in this near-luxury segment.
The new Maxima has added 2 inches to its wheelbase, and you
measure the gain in the added roominess of the interior. The biggest gain is
seen—and felt—in the rear, where there’s an added 1.9 inches of legroom. Seats
up front are comfortable and supportive, with a sporty bucket design that
matches the car’s intent. The rear comfortably holds two adults, though we’d not
want to be the fifth passenger stuck in the center, which is elevated a bit to
clear the center hump.
Three levels of driving pleasure
The 2000 Maxima comes in three distinct trim levels, and even the base GXE comes with plenty of standard equipment, including the aforementioned anti-lock brakes. Add air-conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks, remote control locks, and an AM-FM-Cassette sound system. The mid-level SE adds 16-inch alloy wheels, an upgraded sound system, a rear spoiler, fog lights, and leather-trimmed steering wheel. And the luxurious GLE gets the automatic transmission, power seats, leather upholstery, variable wipers, automatic temperature controls and a high-power Bose audio package.
Perhaps the biggest selling point for the 2000 Maxima, though, will be cost. Nissan has announced an “aggressive” pricing strategy that trims nearly $2,100 off the average model when compared to comparably-equipped ‘99s. The GXE starts at $21,049 with the manual transmission. The sporty SE starts at $23,649 for manual transmission and $24,149 for automatic. And the top-of-the-line Maxima GLE has a starting price of $26,249.
The 2000 Maxima will have plenty of competition to square off with, including the V-6 versions of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. It’s a solid contender, and if you’re among those who like the styling, the cost advantage could win you over.