That’s more or less the role the Maxima has played lately in Nissan’s lineup.
In theory, it’s the car for people who want something a bit more than the Altima offers, especially performance and style-wise … but not quite as much as an Infiniti (or a Lexus or a BMW) price-wise.
The problem in recent years has been not enough difference – including visual separation – between the Maxima and the Altima. They shared too much, functionally as well as stylistically.
The all-new 2016 puts an end to that trend.
Whether you like its new looks or not, there’s no longer any confusing this thing with an Altima.
The Maxima is Nissan’s flagship sedan – as fancy as it gets without crossing over to Infiniti.
It’s a bit larger on the outside than the Altima – but more personal on the inside. It has a driver-centric front row… and a bit less room in its second row,.
It also comes standard with a V6 (goosed in output for the new model year) while the Altima (which competes more directly with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry) comes standard with a four and offers a less powerful version of the V6 as its optional engine.
Base price is $32,510 for a 3.5 S – topping out at $39,960 for a Platinum trim. In between are SV ($34,49), SL ($36,990) and sportiest-of-the-bunch SR trims ($37,770), which get track-day 19-inch wheels and suspension upgrades.
Nissan has teased that a NISMO version (with upgraded brakes and other hot-shoe equipment) may be offered later this year.
Radical new look; an all-new interior. Updated (more powerful and fuel-efficient) drivetrain.
It’s longer, sits lower – and looks much meaner.
There’s also more front seat legroom (though unfortunately, less backseat legroom) and a bevy of new electronic and tech features, including a standard 8-inch LCD touchscreen, driver drowsiness detection and a handling/cornering aid called Trace Assist (more on this below).
Most important – it’s finally got real air between itself and the Altima sedan.
Previously, the Maxima and Altima were too close to each other for each other’s comfort. Both nice cars, but too much overlap.
The ’16 Maxima is now an objective notch up in physical size – and physical presence.
Has hair on its balls.
Dark Knight styling, inside and out.
Exceptionally roomy up front.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Some torque steer tendencies when you floor it.
Some body roll when you corner it.
Remarkably cramped back seat for such a big car (34.2 inches of legroom vs. 39.2 for the Avalon… and 36.1 for the smaller-on-the-outside Altima.)
V6-powered versions of the Honda Accord (and the Altima) are about as quick or even quicker… even if they don’t look quicker.
Nissan has kept it simple.
Regardless of trim, every 2016 Maxima comes with a 3.5 liter V6, continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission and front-wheel-drive.
This is typical for cars in this class.
The Toyota Avalon, for instance, also comes with just one combo (also a V6, but teamed with a conventional six speed automatic; more on this in a moment).
The Maxima’s V6 is the same displacement as in the previous Maxima (and the current Altima) but it’s been massaged to produce more power – 300 hp now vs. 290 before.
That, by the way, is also 30 hp more than the output of the Altima’s version of the 3.5 V6.
Tweaking helped, but so did shedding a few pounds. The ’16 Maxima weighs 3,417 lbs. vs. 3,550 for the old version.
As a result, it’s now noticeably quicker than the Toyota Avalon – which has a V6 the same size (3.5 liters) but less potent (268) that’s tasked with carting around a bit more beef (3,461 lbs.).
The muscular Nissan can blast to 60 in about 6.1 seconds vs. 6.4 for the Avalon. It’s not a huge difference, but sufficient to put air between the two – and back up the Nissan’s Batmobile image.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is there’s little air between the Maxima on a full-boogie 0-60 run and a V6 Altima doing the same. The Altima’s got less oats (270) but it’s also got less beef to haul (3,197 lbs.). The extra 220 pounds negates the Maxima’s horsepower advantage.
Also, its mileage advantage.
The V6 Altima rates 22 city, 32 highway – excellent for a powerful and quick mid-sized sedan. In fact, the V6 Altima’s mileage is slightly better than the mileage advertised by the larger (full-sized) Toyota Avalon (21 city, 31 highway) and the thing’s about half a second quicker to 60, too.
The Maxima’s CVT automatic has Normal and Sport settings (buttons on the center console) as well as what Nissan calls Shift Logic, which basically means it’ll hold RPM during cornering, so the car doesn’t lose its momentum mojo. This transmission – like all CVTs – hasn’t got fixed forward gears (1-2, 2-3, 3-4, etc.) that you move through as you accelerate (and decelerate) but to mimic the feel of that – just without the shift shock – Nissan has programmed what amount to seven forward ratios. In manual mode, you can hold the transmission in a given range – and keep the engine RPMs up for an engine braking effect going downhill or for hard-charging corner exits – and then tap the paddle shifter to move into the next-highest (or lowest ratio). You’ll feel (and hear) a change in engine speed, but the neck-snapping back/forth motion that would normally occur when a conventional automatic is hard-shifted from gear to gear doesn’t happen … because this CVT has no gears.
ON THE ROAD
Walking up to the Maxima, you experience that little rush of adrenaline that comes from a dose of fear… the good kind.
This car looks like it could get you in trouble.
The legal kind.
It has the low and menacing stance of a predatory reptile, like a Nile Crocodile. The crocs seem to be just sitting there, basking. But – just like that – one of these beasts can launch forward on their stubby but cruelly clawed legs and – before you realize it – your Pomeranian has been dragged back to the water to be consumed by the thrashing, belly-rolling croc.
So you open the door, get in. Sit low, behind a very encouraging flat-bottomed, meaty steering wheel with (in SR trims) ventilated velour trim on the thumb spats, tight-stitched leather covering the rest.
Your look out over a hood that has a stamped-in center bulge that reminds me a lot of the rear-facing Air Induction scoop my ’80 Camaro Z28 had… only my poor ol’ Disco-era Z didn’t have 300 hp under its scoop.
Diamond-patterned metal trim plates wrap around the dash and sweep past on either side, extending to each door panel. A stub shifter sits off center on the console, right next to your right thigh.
But does it live up to the image?
Yes … and no.
In a straight line, the thing is a front-wheel-drive muscle car. It would probably give my ’70s Trans-Am a run for the proverbial money. It may not have the Quadrajet moan when the secondaries open up (because this thing’s fuel-injected and hasn’t got secondaries) but the front end rises up just the same when you punch it and the car pulls left-right as you countersteer to keep it straight in a FWD rendition of the muscle car Acceleration Experience. All that’s missing is a tire-chirping 1-2 upshift, which of course this thing can’t do because there are no gears to chirp.
But stiil, it pulls hard – and right now.
Off the line and mid-range power delivery is top-drawer. In manual mode, using the paddle shifters, you can snap off instantaneous range (not gear) changes that make it feel even faster than it is.
But it’s plenty fast.
Fast enough, in fact, to get you into trouble – very much like my old muscle car.
Let’s just say that an older BMW 3 got on a press car Maxima’s tail coming up Bent Mountain, a series of wavy-gravy switchbacks that would provide an excellent backdrop for the next James Bond car chase sequence. Though it was front-wheel-drive vs. rear-wheel-drive, the Maxima put the Camel Clutch on its challenger and made him humble.
The Trace Control (which uses selective and automatic application of the brakes – just a little here and there – helped to keep the car on its line) and the SR’s 19 inch wheel/tire package helps even more.
But it could use some help with its brakes.
They’re just fine, hauling the big M down from high speed once or twice. Just not three or four times in quick succession. The heat builds up and the rotors groan; you feel the scoring going on – and know not to push your luck.
Fingers crossed, Nissan will fix this by offering the NISMO stuff in a few months or maybe next year.
Meanwhile, be careful about having too much fun.
At least the Maxima – unlike my ’70s Trans-Am – has (cue El Guapo) a plethora electric safety nets, in case you do get in too deep.
Nissan is channeling its inner Virgil Exner.
He was the famous (infamous, to his detractors) Chrysler designer who gave us stylistic defibrillators like the ’57 Plymouth Fury. Gaudy and insolent cars you either loved or… not.
But couldn’t help noticing, either way.
The new Maxima is such a car.
It’s about as wild-looking as government regulations (which Exner never had to worry about) will allow. It may not have jaunty tailfins (or a dual-quad Ramcharger V8) but it does have a scowl worthy of the ’57 Plymouth.
The side view is particularly striking. The way the roof and C pillar pinch together just aft of the rear door glass, conveying a floating (says Nissan) or “chopped” (says me) appearance.
It not only looks lower – and longer – it is both of those things. 1.3 inches lower – and 2.2 inches longer, end to end.
But it’s also less roomy inside.
More lopsided inside.
The previous Maxima had generous front seat legroom (43.8 inches) and smallish (for a big car) back seat legroom (34.6 inches). The ’16 has NBA forward front seat legroom (45 inches) but slightly less backseat legroom than the old car had (34.2 inches) and vastly less legroom than rivals like the Avalon (39.2 inches) have.
Even smaller (on the outside) rivals like the Accord sedan have better-balanced interior space: 42.5 inches of front seat legroom and 38.5 for the backseaters.
The Altima, too. It has the same 45 inches of legroom up front as the Maxima – but manages to have 36.1 inches of legroom for the backseaters.
But then, this car is all about the driver. Even the center stack is canted toward him. And yes, him. This is – cue Luca Brasi – a masculine car.
That’s ballsy – which is laudatory.
The Practical People can buy a Camry or an Avalon.
Or, frankly, an Altima.
This Nissan is also almost an Infiniti.
It can be outfitted with a heated steering wheel, panorama sunroof, 11-speaker ultra-premium Bose stereo, ambient interior lighting inside, HID/LED lighting outside, heated and cooled front seats, top-drawer leather and suede trim, adaptive cruise control, automated windshield wipers, moving object detection, et cetera, et cetera.
The main thing it lacks (if it is a lack) is rear-wheel-drive (or optional all-wheel-drive). Lately, this is the main thing, in terms of functional differences, that separates the premium brands from the bread-and-butter brands. All Infinitis, for example, are rear-wheel-drive (or all-wheel-drive).
It used to be that what distinguished a premium/luxury car from the ho-hum was the presence of amenities such as air conditioning, power windows, leather, a nice stereo. Today, the humblest Hyundai has climate control AC… and a touchscreen. Power windows – and locks and cruise and much else besides – are expected.
Amenities-wise, there has been a convergence. There’s no longer that much meaningful difference between a loaded Maxima and a loaded Infiniti … except that the former’s FWD while the latter is RWD.
And, of course, the price tag. Which confers the prestige.
That’s what you’re paying for, more than anything else.
But why do that, if you don’t have to?
THE BOTTOM LINE
There’s no confusing this new Maxima with an Altima.
Or, the Avalon.
It’s its own thing again.
And that’s a mighty good thing.
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