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