Front-wheel-drive cars are at a disadvantage compared to rear-drive cars. They begin to get a little squirrelly as the output creeps much past 200-hp, especially if the car has a manual transmission and no sophisticated traction/stability control system to rein it all in. Since front-driven wheels also have to manage steering, they get befuddled by torque steer where rear-drive keeps things separated.
The 2002 Nissan Maxima has always been a capable and swift sport sedan, but now that it boasts a throbbing 3.5-liter V-6, it’s so potent that it requires full-time attention to keep under control when driven hard.
The upgraded 255-hp engine (up half a liter and 33 hp from last year's 3.0-liter, 222-hp engine) wants to jerk the car into the next lane through the first two gears of the standard six-speed manual gearbox found on the SE, especially if you change gears hard and fast, like a would-be Jeff Gordon.
This car really flies, but you get the impression that the Maxima's front-drive platform is getting right close to the limit of its ability to deal with the mighty motive force of the 3.5-liter engine. If Nissan pumps up the volume much more, it will either have to upgrade the Maxima to rear-wheel-drive (my vote), or offer an all-wheel-drive system, which has been the route taken by Audi (A4 and A6 Quattro), Jaguar (X-Type) and Subaru (WRX), to name a few makes and models. While these cars may not be direct Maxima competitors, they are similar in that their powerful engines are made much more tractable by bolting an AWD system to their otherwise front-drive platforms.
Maybe next year, or the one after that.
2002 Nissan Maxima SEEnlarge Photo
2002 Nissan Maxima
The revised gauge cluster and control surfaces on the inside are also well executed, and there's a new six disc CD-changer, along with secondary tape player for audiophiles. A GPS — increasingly a must-have on mid-priced cars — is now optional, too.
No major changes to the stable for 2002 in terms of trim levels, though. The $25,449 SE (with the new six-speed manual transmission) remains the sport/enthusiast's model, with a tighter-sprung suspension and less chrome, while the $27,099 GLE is the top dog in terms of standard luxury and convenience trim. The least expensive Maxima is the $24,699 GXE, but it comes very well equipped as it sits.
In its price range, and then some, the Maxima remains a killer car, able to flummox 190-hp Toyota Camrys with ease, handily thrash 190-hp VW Passats ($24,250 for the GLS; $$27,075 for the 4Motion model) and crush like a beer can wimpy-by-comparison V-6 Honda Accords. Even supercharged (and automatic-only) GM sport sedans, such as the 240-hp Pontiac Grand Prix ($25,655) and its cousin, the Buick Regal GS, are easy pickings for the over-achieving, muscle-bound Maxima.
Chrysler's 250-hp 300M ($28,430) is probably the closest direct Maxima challenger, being both similarly powerful, almost-luxury in features and content, close in size and layout, but lacking an available manual transmission and being a tad less athletic overall. Still, it's as close to a fair fight as you're going to find at this price. To smoke the '02 Maxima requires you to step up a demographic (or three) and select from such machinery as the Lexus GS series, or the standard-bearer of four-door sports cars, the superlative BMW 540i six-speed. All of these cars are well into the $30,000-$40,000 ballpark, incidentally.
So the Maxima is the Big Kahuna of its market niche; it just needs to better manage its virility better. A six-speed, rear-drive (or all-wheel-drive) 255-hp (300-hp?) Maxima would be a world-beater. It would seriously crimp the style of heroes such as BMW's $53,900 540i — and set a new high-water mark in the under $30,000 sport sedan category.
Pray hard to the Motor Gods. It could happen.
2002 Nissan Maxima
Base price range: $24,699-$27,099
Engine: 3.5 liter V-6, 255 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual or four-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
Wheelbase: 108.3 in
Length: 191.5 in
Width: 70.3 in
Height: 56.3 in
Curb Weight: 3224 lb (manual); 3218 lb (auto)
EPA (cty/hwy): 21/28 mpg (manual); 19/26 mpg (auto)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, side airbags, HID headlights
Major standard features: 255-hp V-6 engine, four-speed automatic, air conditioning, power windows (one-touch) and locks, eight-way power driver's seat, cruise control, tilt wheel, six-speaker audio with CD player
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles