When an auto manufacturer cares enough to give you 45 seconds after you've switched off the ignition to close the windows you've stupidly forgotten to power up, you know the designers were thinking of us average Joes.
This attention to detail in Nissan's Maxima, the flagship model that tops its two-tier lineup of compacts and midsize sedans, is seen throughout its engineering and design. Small touches mean a lot when you spend hours daily in your vehicle, and Nissan provides many, such as a power outlet on the dash for your cell phone, an on/off fog light switch on the headlight lever, an auto-reverse function for the power sunroof in case you left your surfboard sticking through it, and a light that happily blinks when the traction control is doing its work and limiting wheelspin. After all, you may have PAID for a traction control system but have you actually seen it?
As for styling, Nissan's 2001 model is still very European. It is basically the same as its brand-new 2000 fifth-generation version with very minor changes. Designed with the kind of elegant sculpting back and front one admires in the top luxury cars from Germany, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, the new sedan is understated externally but high-performance within. Moving away from too many Japanese carmakers' preferences for bland, homogenous architecture, or adding too many design elements, Nissan's Maxima creates a subtle but dramatic impact that distinguishes it from every other car in the company's lineup.
As European cars have begun to discard the jellybean look for more exciting, edgy styling, Nissan has caught the mood and moved right in. Nothing extraneous mars the fluid bodyline and smooth, sweeping roofline. Even the side-view mirror design is restrained, joined neatly to the A-pillar. My favorite part of the car is the back end where gracefully designed taillights are sculpted to sit between the quarter-panel and bumper.
A call for loyalists
If you're a Maxima loyalist and roll over your car budget every two years to the newer model, you'll find literally thousands of improvements in the 2001 version versus the previous Maximas. While most of the changes are small and undetectable, the major change, engineered last year, is beneath the aerodynamic hood. You'll definitely feel instant, rocketing power once you press down on the gas pedal. The V-6 engine boosts horsepower to 222 ponies, thanks to air intake resistance reduction, while torque jumps to 217 ft-lb due in part to a rotary valve type variable-intake system. The 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve engine, the same as in the last generation of Nissan's 300ZX sports car and making the 2001 Maxima the class-leader, gives you 20 miles per gallon city and
28 miles per gallon highway, in spite of a marked increase in performance.
2001 Nissan Maxima SE interior
2001 Nissan Maxima SE interior
Handling is a lot more responsive with an innovative rear suspension and a rear stabilizer bar, while control has been improved through changing the steering gear. I found the special sport-tuned suspension a little hard on the bones over bumps but nice to have a feel of the road. Steering vibration has been cut due to more rigidity in the steering column. Buyers said they wanted more sensitive brakes, so Nissan engineers came up with an anti-lock braking system (ABS) that's been upgraded from an eight-bit unit to a 16-unit that gives drivers better control. While ABS is standard on all Maxima models, an optional traction control system (TCS) is available, giving you increased performance during starting, acceleration, turning, lane changes and in winter driving conditions. In cases of wheelspin, the TCS works together with the ABS system and sends signals to switch the automatic transmission shift schedule and reduce torque through fuel control. You may not need to know all these technical details, but rest assured the technology works.
While "sporty" and "fun to drive" are terms that have been so over-used they should be drowned in the ocean, the fact is that the Maxima's high-performance engine and handling characteristics, carried over from last year's model, are indeed responsive enough to warrant calling it great to drive, and if you want true sportiness, you can order one with the kind of 17-inch wheels usually found on roadsters.
While we're discussing "fun to drive" I must admit that the five-speed I tooled around in improved the muscle tone in my right forearm but it wasn't exactly the kind of fun I was seeking. Sticky and notchy, the shifter was a reluctant partner on an 800-mile test drive, but I was assured by male colleagues they had no such trouble. Shrugs and remarks like, well you're a girl, dismissed my complaints. Well, unless the women who buy the Maxima with a five-speed manual want mismatched muscles in each arm, I'd venture to guess they'll pick an automatic every time.
Along with the shifter, I also whined about the adjustable center console. Unless I drove with its lid up in order to allow my elbow to dip into the storage tray and remain somewhat level with the shift stick, I couldn't change gears easily. Oh well.
So what's inside? This five-passenger midsize sedan sits on a larger wheelbase than its predecessor, measuring 108.3 inches with an overall length of 190.5 inches, making the passenger compartment bigger all around. Like the 2000 version, doors swing wider, the trunk opening has stretched, and driving is less fatiguing thanks to less noise, more ergonomically designed seats and a steering wheel set at a more comfortable angle. The glass on all doors is thicker, and their seals strengthened, helping to keep out noise. The 2001 update adds steering wheel mounted audio controls (optional on the GXE).
Split fold-down, lockable rear seats are a convenience, and the center console that sweeps up into the dashboard puts controls and switches in more reachable positions.
The best-selling V-6 import since its debut in 1981 with 1.7 million on the road, the 2001 Maxima is at dealerships in four versions: the $21,049 GXE, the $23,649 SE, the $26,249 GLE, and a special SE 20th Anniversary Edition with a peppier 227-horsepower engine than the standard V-6, 222 horsepower engine, a viscous limited slip differential, and spoilers. Only the GLE has standard automatic transmission. The GXE and SE have a five-speed manual with automatic an option. Other features and options include heated four- or eight-way seats, wood trim, green-tinted glass, rear window defroster, sunroof, front and side airbags, remote keyless entry, child seat anchors, air conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, and a rear 12-volt power outlet.
My tester added four different special equipment option packages: a $1,799 group of extras that included a sunroof, 17-inch wheels, eight-way power driver's seat, HomeLink, intermittent wipers and a cargo net; a $1349 package with leather seats, auto climate controls, four-way power passenger seat, and outside temperature display; an $899 Bose audio system, and finally, the Meridian package with heated seats and side-view mirrors, side airbags and trunk lid trim.
All in all, the thoroughly comfortable, powerful, affordable and good-looking Maxima is a fine sedan, especially for long trips, and comparable to those several thousand dollars higher in price.
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