With engine power pushing higher and rear-wheel-drive cars on the comeback, it seems natural that Nissan would have considered such a transition for the new-generation of its so-called “four-door sports car.” But officials said that Maxima buyers are among the most loyal in the sedan segment, and preliminary research indicated that where the Maxima is most popular—in the Northeastern states—buyers still clearly prefer front-wheel drive.
Once that decision was made, it seemed natural to use Nissan’s new FF-M platform, which is the basis for the current Altima, the new Murano sport-utility wagon, and the upcoming Quest minivan.
And it so happens the two cars (Maxima and Altima) are quite nearly the same size. The wheelbase is an inch longer, overall length is two inches longer, and width and height have increased slightly. It amounts to a vehicle that’s only also slightly larger than last year’s Maxima.
Both inside and out, the new Maxima was designed almost entirely at the Nissan Technical Center, in Atsugi, Japan, though U.S. product planners had considerable input.
2004 Nissan MaximaEnlarge Photo
Ditch the image?
Image aside, the Maxima also has a different sort of appeal due to the level of unique luxury equipment it offers, which you won’t find on the competitors’ option lists.
2004 Nissan Maxima
For example, the optional Elite Package (on the SE model) includes a four-seat layout with very comfortable buckets in the rear and a full-size center console between them. The package also includes a power rear sunshade and seat heaters for the back.
The Maxima also offers a new standard feature called the Skyview Roof, which is essentially a longitudinal (front-to-back) sunroof that lets light reach front and rear passengers. It doesn’t slide open, but there’s a manually sliding sunshade on the inside to control the light. A conventional, power-sliding sunroof is optional. Nissan admits that it helps keep a firmer roof structure than a comparable moonroof, and the arrangement doesn’t interfere with headroom like a sunroof mechanism.
All Maximas have an updated version of the familiar 3.5-liter VQ-series V-6 engine, still mounted transversely, and here making 265 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque. The engine has an electronic throttle, variable induction, and variable valve timing, plus one individual ignition coil per cylinder. A tuned, equal-length dual exhaust system with four chromed ports in back helps the engine breath more freely and creates a stronger sound to help match the sport-sedan image.
There will be no base model Maxima—only the 3.5 SE and 3.5 SL, with the SE being performance oriented and the SL being more comfort/luxury oriented.
The SE has a standard five-speed automatic transmission, yet a four-speed automatic is the only choice in the SL. Available as an option only on the SE is a close-ratio, six-speed manual transmission. Six-speed manual Maximas get a performance-oriented, helical-type limited-slip differential.
Curiously, xenon headlamps and heated leather seats are standard on the SL but optional on the SE. The excellent-sounding, top-line, 300-watt Bose premium audio system is also standard on the SL but optional on the SE. A DVD-based navigation system, offering a seven-inch monitor and bird’s-eye view mode, is optional on all models.
The Maxima has a strut-type front suspension that’s very similar to the Altima’s in front, but in the back there’s an all-new independent aluminum multi-link, inspired by the rear-suspension design from the Nissan Skyline sports car, replacing the beam-type rear suspension on the current Altima and on the old Maxima. The SE model takes special advantage of this setup as it employs high-performance V-rated 18-inch rubber.
2004 Nissan Maxima
Nissan’s Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) stability system is now optional on all automatic-transmission models but unavailable with the manual transmission.
But as with any high-powered, front-wheel-drive vehicle, there’s the pesky problem of torque steer, the undesired quality of a front-wheel-drive car to pull to one side or another when accelerating aggressively. The new Maxima’s V-6 does produce higher power and torque than that in last year’s model, but having recently driven an Infiniti I35 (mechanically the same to the outgoing Maxima) on an extensive trip, I say with some level of certainty, sadly, that the new Maxima has a heavier helping of torque steer than the much-loved outgoing model.
Behind the wheel, the driving experience is pleasant, with sharp steering and a comfortable but firm ride with excellent control over bumpy back roads. It’s on curvy, rough roads where the Maxima’s fully independent rear suspension setup shines. It’s much more composed near the limits.
While the outgoing Maxima carries itself with a certain weight and authority, the new model is about the same weight yet the feel at the wheel is rather light: It responds expertly to sudden maneuvers, yet it seems to need more small steering inputs than it should in straight-highway cruising.
The suspension tuning and wheel setup is a bit different between the two models, and going from an SE to an SL it wasn’t hard to feel that the SL has a bit more body motion—though without a significantly better ride.
2004 Nissan MaximaEnlarge Photo
2004 Nissan Maxima
A bit of the truth is revealed when you look at the Maxima’s numbers compared with the V-6 Altima. Considering that the Maxima is more than 200 pounds heavier than the V-6 Altima, the Maxima has about the same power-to-weight ratio as the Altima but actually has a worse torque-to-weight ratio.
So where’s the difference, and why would a smart buyer be motivated to buy a Maxima over an Altima?
The answer to that question is in the marketing. For just a few grand more than a fully loaded Altima, you can get the considerably more sporty looking, stylish, and elegant Maxima. Nissan has put together an extremely attractive package, with hot color combinations and excellent materials inside. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Nissan will sell some new Maximas based on the interior, which has nice cockpit-style gauges and controls, matte-aluminum-look trim, and surfaces that look like they’re from a more expensive luxury car.
The safety roster is a step up from the Altima, too, with dual-stage front airbags, front-seat side-impact airbags, curtain-type side supplemental bags, and front-seat active head restraints all standard.
For the first time, Maxima production is being moved to the U.S., alongside the Altima, at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn., assembly facility. The ‘04 will begin reaching dealerships next month.
The new Maxima delivers sharp, sporty styling, a class-leading interior, and appointments that suit its sport-sedan image. The Maxima might not deliver performance that blows the competition — or even its smaller Altima stablemate — away, but it looks to be a more exciting alternative in the sedan market.
2004 Nissan Maxima SE
Base price: estimated $28,000 base, $33,500 as tested
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 265 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 193.5 x 71.7 x 58.3 in
Wheelbase: 111.2 in
Curb weight: 3432 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 20/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front two-stage airbags, front side airbags, side curtain supplemental airbags, Brake Assist, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, air conditioning, Skyview roof, tilt/telescope steering wheel, cruise control, cassette/CD player, 18-inch alloy wheels and performance tires
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles