Nissan likes to tout the Maxima as a "four-door sports car."
While that may be a stretch seeing how the Maxima is a front-wheel-drive sedan with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) — two mortal sins in the sports-car Bible — it does have the kind of power and handling that make it stand out from its peers.
In fact, the Maxima is unusual because it doesn't come from a luxury brand. In terms of comfort and performance, it competes more directly with cars from Acura, Cadillac and its sister brand Infiniti than it does from the likes of Ford, Chevy, Honda and Toyota.
If you want the performance and refinement of a luxury car without the pretension of a luxury badge, the Maxima is a good start.
It has spectacular power and handling. A 3.5-liter V6 engine makes 290 horsepower that despite the CVT, feels thrilling when you step on the gas pedal and let it shove you into the back of your seat.
With the sport package, the Maxima's suspension is just as exciting as the engine, making it easy to forget that power is being sent to the front wheels. It's perfectly taut, ideal for feeling the nuances of the road and keeping the car under control in corners.
The overall feeling is one of mechanical precision, not the numb isolation of a traditional family car.
There's a big downside to injecting all that sports-car fun into the equation, though. Its fuel economy just isn't up to par.
The Maxima is rated for 26 mpg on the highway and 19 in city driving.
That's worse highway mileage than the Acura TL, Lexus ES, BMW 3-Series and Audi A4.
That's disappointing, especially considering Nissan's company-wide lovefest of the CVT is intended to save fuel. The rubber-band
transmission does a better job of being miserly when fitted to other cars in the Nissan lineup.
On the flip side, the Maxima is more of a bargain and produces more horsepower than the luxury cars it battles with in the marketplace. It starts under $33,000, which is slightly lower than the luxury-brand
competitors, but it offers lots of standard equipment even on the base model.
It's an even better deal with more options. My test car came loaded with all kinds of upgrades, from a navigation system to leather seats, and rang up around $40,000.
Considering it had many of the same features — and more excitement from the driver's seat — than the $68,000 Lexus GS I drove the
previous week, the Maxima starts to look like a bargain.
In fact, the thing that seems most out of place on this car is the Nissan badge on the hood. Nearly everything about it, from the body styling to its performance and the comfort of the cabin, combines for that "premium feel" that's typically found in more expensive cars than this one.
It's a Nissan that could just as easily be an Infiniti.
Derek Price is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.