Is the "4DSC" Back with the 2009 Nissan Maxima?

June 24, 2008
2009 Nissan Maxima

2009 Nissan Maxima

Nissan has just announced pricing on its 2009 Maxima, which has been completely redesigned with new styling inside and out, 35 more horsepower, improved fuel economy, and increased standard equipment.

The new Maxima will start at an MSRP of just $29,290 for the Maxima 3.5 S, and $31,990 for the step-up SV model.

That continues the pricing overlap that’s existed with the current-generation Altima and Maxima, such that the Altima, at the top of its range, is actually the same price if not a bit pricier than the Maxima. The top-of-the-line 2008 Altima V6 SL starts at $28,670, but it bottom-lines at $32,230 by simply adding electronic stability control—an increasingly common safety feature—and the requisite nav-system package.

In that relative sense, the 2009 Maxima stands as a value, especially considering that, according to Nissan, it returns to its heritage as “The 4-Door Sports Car,” or 4DSC, as they like to say.

The new Maxima shares the same Nissan “D” platform that underpins the new Altima, Altima Coupe, and Murano, and is actually about two inches shorter with a slightly wider track. The so-called Liquid Motion design brings a new look, even if the proportions are about the same, and in the flesh the sculpted rear fenders especially stand out. recently had the chance to spend a full day in the new Maxima, on some of Southern California’s best, more serpentine mountain roads between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and left the driver’s seat very impressed.

Of course we were wary; as we’ve mentioned before, the outgoing Maxima suffers from pronounced torque steer—a tendency for the steering wheel to pull to the side under hard acceleration, or for the steering to unwind in a less-than-smooth way coming out of a sharp corner and hard onto the gas. The Maxima is still a front-wheel-driver, but engineers have worked some magic underneath—in the way of revised suspension geometry and reconfigured steering—that no longer makes it an issue.

On our drive route, we especially appreciated the 3.5 SV with the Sport Package; yes, there was a little more impact harshness over bumps, but handling felt considerably more secure. And while steering effort has been reduced, the steering feels more intuitive near the limit and even communicates the road surface a bit—thanks to a new twin-orifice unit that’s vehicle-speed-sensitive and has the quickest ratio of any Nissan. For those with mostly straight roads and frost heaves, we recommend the standard suspension.

What we weren’t so enthused about—as before—is the continuously variable, automatic transmission (CVT). Nissan says that the manual transmission isn’t coming back, as only 2 percent of buyers were opting for it when it was most recently offered. The Jatco CVT, which in Drive functions shifts "steplessly" to choose the most economical ratio for the type of driving, works well during leisurely driving, raising revs a bit when accelerating and dropping them way down when cruising. But it doesn’t work so well for twisty, hilly roads where quick power or engine braking are required for the best control. That’s where a new sport mode comes in; slide the shifter to the left and it simulates the ratios of a manually controlled automatic transmission. The function works well but can be annoying as it’s not always predictable how it’s going to respond; sometimes it produced quite a bit of engine braking on downshifts, for example, and other times almost none in situations seemingly almost identical. Paddle shifters are available, and they even did it right—they stay stationary while the steering wheel rotates.

The upside remains the very distinctive interior; take a look at the instrument panel and you’ll see why. The so-called Super Cockpit concept feels sporty and comfortable and clearly puts the Maxima’s interior in a class above the mid-size crowd, including the Camry, Accord, Altima, and Malibu. There are attractive-looking soft-touch materials throughout—except maybe the oddly textured, glossy dash top—and the front seats are easy to get in position for a wide range of drivers. We especially recommend the upgraded seats that come with the Sport Package. The same compliments can’t be said about the backseat, however; the back of the front seats are scooped out, which helps lower legroom, but most adults’ knees will still be above the scoop area, and the standard, huge power moonroof recess extends all the way to the backseat headroom, leaving a weird roofline that doesn’t allow enough headroom for six-footers.

There were a few other niggles inside; hands reaching for the paddle shifter for a downshift sometimes nudged the turn signal. And vehicles without the nav system get an odd-looking orange monochromatic screen that borders on unsightly. And Nissan supposedly spent lots of time working to give the Maxima an exhaust sound that sounds sportier from within the cabin, but with the CVT holding revs up near 6,500 rpm when blasting up to speed the smooth V-6 is droning too much like a raucous turboprop at takeoff.

But refinement and comfort are still a high point. The Maxima has a ride that’s almost as smooth and serene as the Avalon, while being more capable, yet it’s not quite as nervous as the TL in its Type-S iteration. We even started getting out of the car without knowing the engine was ever-so-quietly still idling (as we do on occasion with Nissans). But this is not news--the Maxima has had this sort of smoothness and top-of-the-class acceleration for about two decades.

Features aplenty give the Maxima a luxury-car feel inside, even if it doesn’t include the luxury-nameplate dealership experience. Available conveniences include a Bose premium audio system, hard-drive navigation system with 9.3GB Music Box hard drive, XM NavTraffic, XM Satellite Radio, Bluetooth interface, and iPod interface. A heated steering wheel and cooled front seats are now even on the options list.

They’re back calling it the 4-Door Sports Car, as they did in the Maxima’s ’90s heyday. But in these days of the $29,310 Pontiac G8 GT V-8, HEMI V-8 Dodge Chargers for about $31,000, and the company’s own 306-hp, rear-wheel-drive Infiniti G35 sport sedan starting only slightly higher, that’s a far harder claim to keep up with. —Bengt Halvorson

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