The Nissan Maxima doesn't do “conventional."
Story By: Will Sabel Courtney
Never has, never will (unless Nissan’s product planners take a nasty wallop on the head and undergo a serious personality shift)—and the 2016 Nissan Maxima keeps that trend going. It’s a family sedan—with styling straight out of Pacific Rim! It’s a sports sedan—with front-wheel-drive and a CVT! It’s an entry-level luxury sedan—made by the same people who build the Versa!
Okay, the last one was a cheap shot. Part of the reason Nissan can get away with making such an unconventional sedan is that they already make so many other vehicles—often times doubling down in a category, with one conventional choice and one unusual one. Want a midsize SUV? There’s the manga-spec Murano or the Peoria-ready Pathfinder. Prefer a smaller SUV? There’s the regular Rogue or the jazzy Juke. And if you want a sedan that can carry four people with ease, there’s the average Altima or the madcap Maxima.
At least, that’s the way it used to be. Nowadays, the Maxima sits a good half-segment above the Altima—mostly in price and content, but slightly in size, too. Nissan claims the Acura TLX is the Maxima’s most direct competitor; the Maxima’s really more like a fun version of the Toyota Avalon, but the TLX comparison isn’t out of line. Both cars are Japanese, priced around $40,000, aimed at people who have enough money to dip their toes into the luxury car market but not necessarily bound to the conventional luxury brands. They’d happily sacrifice a fancy badge for a little more room, a little more power and a lot more style.
And style is what separates the Maxima from pretty much everything else on the market. Nissan’s designers went down to Pensacola, Florida to find inspiration from the Blue Angels’ F/A-18 fighters; apparently, the designers have never heard of Pinterest. but I digress. The 2016 Maxima may not be able to pull six G’s, but with its low-slung floating roof, wide rear haunches, and angry, air-sucking front end, it does look like it could hold its own in a dogfight with a MiG-29 for a few seconds longer than the average four-door sedan. Bottom line, you’re not gonna mistake this thing for an Accord in a parking lot.
Dive beneath the skin, and the changes are a little less comprehensive than the Blade Runner skin might suggest—but Nissan still made changed plenty. The chassis is 25 percent stiffer than the previous-gem Maxima. The engine’s output is only up a few horses, but 61 percent of the engine is new. And yeah, that engine is still connected to the front wheels through a continuously-variable transmission—but the CVT’s been reworked with a new set of shift programming designed to keep you from hating it. Feather the throttle, and it acts like any old CVT, constantly maneuvering the ratio to find the ideal level of efficiency; push the throttle more than 38 percent down (don’t ask me how Nissan chose that number), though, and it turns into a synthetic eight-speed automatic with predefined fake gears.
It seems like a gimmick, but it works like a charm. This is coming from a die-hard CVT hater, too; the Maxima’s Xtronic tranny slurs imperceptibly between ratios while loafing through city traffic, yet slams between faux gears in sporty driving as though ZF’s name were on the transmission case. It’s the first time I’ve driven a car with a CVT and not found myself wishing I could rip out the gearbox and jam something else in there.
The front-wheel-drive layout—for decades, the kiss of death for any car with performance on its mind—doesn’t hold the Maxima back, either. There’s still a dash of torque steer at the car’s limits, but it’s negligible. Credit the car’s size, perhaps, or just Nissan’s (or the automotive industry as a whole’s) advances in lassoing the torque steer bronco, but Maxima drivers no longer need to fear having the steering wheel yanked from their hands when they introduce the accelerator to the carpet.
Sports cars—whether they have two doors or four—are as much about turning as going, though. At the car’s launch, Nissan offered journalists a choice of all five trim levels (the Maxima doesn’t offer options anymore, just different trims); I responded by being That Guy and dashing over to claim the Maxima SR, the one with the sportier suspension tuning and specially-designed 19-inch tires. They’re gonna call it a four-door sports car, I’m gonna take the sportiest one.
Spoiler alert: Nobody’s going to confuse the 2016 Maxima with a 911 GT3 from behind the wheel. (Or from any other perspective, I hope.) But the SR-trimmed Maxima holds a line just fine on twisty roads, staying balanced and planted even along pavement that had my co-driver reaching for the grab handle. I didn’t have a chance to push the car beyond six-tenths—Nissan only gave us enough time to touch Westchester County before turning back for downtown Manhattan, so there wasn’t a chance to hit the really fun roads—but odds are good that’s a tenth beyond where the average Maxima driver will push his or her car.
But while the average Maximator probably won’t spend much time driving like they’re lapping the ‘Ring, they will be spending a ton of time in the driver’s seat—and Nissan’s given the car’s interior an update as dramatic as the one they applied to the outside. Two-tone upholstery (complete with contrasting Alcantara upholstery on the flat-bottomed steering wheel), contrasting stitching on the upholstery, diamond-quilted leather seats with NASA-spec memory foam inside, even an iDrive-like infotainment controller called “Display Commander” that looks straight out of a horology catalog—the 2016 Maxima’s guts are packed with standard and optional interior features that make it a comfy place to pass the miles. The entire center console is canted towards the driver (purportedly another inspiration from the designers’ day in Pensacola), and the gauge cluster comes with a tilting visor straight out of the 370Z. The whole interior comes across as a nice combination of luxury and sportiness—pretty much what you’d expect from the Maxima.
Obviously, your features may vary, depending on which level of Maxima you choose. Even the basic S-level Maxima (starting at $32,410, tell your friends!) comes with navigation and keyless push-button start; the next-step SV adds on sonar and leather seats; then the SL adds a Bose stereo, smart cruise control (and a suite of assorted safety nannies), and a dual-pane moonroof. From there, the Maxima hierarchy splits; the SR adds on the aforementioned sport suspension and tires, along with a bougie interior, paddle shifters and a dynamics-control system for switching between shift modes and the like, while the top-trim Platinum forsakes the sporty stuff for a 360-degree camera system and powered memory seats, steering wheel, and mirrors.
For what it’s worth, I’m glad I grabbed the SR. And if you’re thinking about a Maxima, I suggest you do the same.
Price as Tested: $38,495
0-60: Pretty zippy
Power: 300hp, 261 lb-ft
Gas Cash: 22 city, 30 hwy
Miles Driven: 40