Driven: 2010 Nissan Maxima

March 17, 2010
Sometimes preconceived notions get you in trouble. That might the case—at least to some shoppers—with the 2010 Nissan Maxima; but with a little more time chances are you're going to love this sedan for what it is.

And that might not be a four-door sports car, exactly.

Nissan sets the bar high in calling the Maxima that in nearly all advertising and marketing. It comes adorned with '4DSC' window decals. Even the window sticker proclaims, "The 4-Door Sports Car."

To some, that notion implies a lot of packaging sacrifices in the name of performance, and probably rear-wheel drive—in a car like the 2010 Mazda RX-8, for instance. But at least dressed up the way we tested one—a 2010 Nissan Maxima SV Premium Package model—it's very solidly a luxury car in all but marque, with a sporting edge that doesn't infringe on passenger comfort.

Ready to rumble on the outside, plush inside

The interior appointments—with premium leather, matte-metallic brightwork, and "Eucalyptus Wood-Tone" trim—are absolutely beautiful, and feel like they'd be at home in one of Nissan's Infiniti luxury-brand products. And from the outside the Maxima appears curvy and flamboyant, with just-right proportions and a low-but-upright grille, flanked by headlights that streak back to two points, with fenders that flare upward slightly, in a look that a friend described as "ready to rumble." To top it off, the Maxima comes with flared wheelwells and low-profile tires mounted on eye-catching alloys.

But those low-profile, V-rated performance tires somehow don't spell disaster for ride quality, as they often do. The Maxima has an excellent ride that nearly everyone but the geriatric set will like; it's excellent—quiet, on the firm side but very well-damped.

The suspension doesn't disappoint either, whether you're maneuvering around city streets or taking on tight canyon roads or fast sweepers. The body motion is buttoned down and the steering feels even somewhat communicative. At anything but a provocative yank of the steering wheel, or going into a corner too fast—where the front end plows—the Maxima actually feels well balanced. Brakes also feel sport-sedan firm and easy to modulate.

Now for the side that does disappoint slightly: power delivery. Stomp down on the gas, especially out of a corner, and you'd better be holding on the steering wheel tightly—and be prepared for a little bit of wrestling if you're on a split surface. In case you didn't remember, the Maxima is front-wheel drive, and while that might be appreciated in some vehicles, in a relatively high-power sedan such as the Maxima, it's just an inferior option compared to rear- or all-wheel drive.

Minds its manners better than most front-drivers

That said, the Maxima does it about the best as it can be done. There's only the slightest bit of load change up front when you're very abrupt and goose the gas mid-corner, but luckily there's none of the light-in-front feel when you accelerate into the upper reaches of Interstate driving.

The flip side of our disappointment in the latest Maxima is that there's no manual transmission available—just a CVT. It offers a choice of six ratios through excellent, sturdy paddle-shifters—mounted on the steering column, not on the steering wheel—but even when you're clicking through the ratios it feels just a little slushbox-like when you press the pedal to the floor. The 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 pulls smoothly, and the CVT is a near-ideal companion for everything but very enthusiastic driving, but the latest version of Nissan's fabled V-6 doesn't sound as good, and doesn't seem as creamy-smooth, as its predecessors when full-throttling it.

The 2010 Maxima is good on gas for such a powerful sedan. Over about 140 miles, most of it city driving, we averaged a solid 20 mpg in the Maxima, easily meeting its EPA ratings of 19 mpg city, 26 highway.

Another big advantage: interior space. Quite possibly due to its front-wheel-drive layout, the Maxima is both roomier and more refined inside than most other rear-wheel-drive sport sedans that maintain more of a performance edge. The backseat is nicely contoured and great for adults, provided they're not too tall—though we weren't sure about the odd clouded climate-control display and stiff-feeling controls, which didn't seem to match anything else in the vehicle.

Rapid, but not so edgy

For real sport-sedan enthusiast types, there's really no reason not to pick the Infiniti G37 Sedan, which is roughly the same price (though admittedly louder and more cramped). Without hesitation, for luxury shoppers who are a little hotfooted, we'd recommend the Maxima over a top-of-the-line Honda Accord EX-L, and probably the Lexus ES350, even though you give up the Lexus dealership experience that's part of the price. The Maxima is also tough competition, with a sportier edge, than the Ford Taurus Limited, Buick LaCrosse CXS, and Volkswagen CC.

The Maxima SV Premium Package model that we tested stickered at $37,310. That's pricey compared to some of these rivals, but it's absolutely loaded to the gills with equipment that's optional even on many luxury-brand models—xenon headlamps, a power rear sunshade, a dual-panel moonroof, heated seats and steering wheel, a nav system with rearview monitor, and iPod/USB inputs, for example.

Back off a bit—just a little bit, really—and you'll see the Maxima for what it does well; it's a comfortable and refined, yet very responsive luxury sedan, with none of the overly cushy, boatlike feel. Think of it primarily as that, and you'll be continually delighted with its performance side.

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