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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.
Meantime, we'll have to make do with the upgrades and improvements Nissan has made to the 2002 model, and they are substantial. Above and beyond the formidable V-6/six-speed drivetrain that should make the Maxima among the fastest vehicles in its class, Nissan has shape-shifted the front end of the car and the result is much more appealing. An atmosphere-gulping, wide-mouthed grille and new-for-'02 headlight assemblies featuring High Intensity Discharge (HID) Xenon bulbs, which sear the night with ultra-blue-tinted light. Visibility with HID lights is much improved and Nissan deserves praise for adding these to the Maxima's list of standards. There are also new clear/translucent taillight housings out back, in keeping with what's trendy, but the Modern Art jumble of ovoids and planes remains. This last aspect — the Maxima's less than stunning rear end — is the only lingering stylistic question mark floating above what is otherwise a very handsome, no-nonsense-looking sport sedan.
2002 Nissan Maxima SEEnlarge Photo