New face for an old friend
Nissan’s weighty front-wheel drive Maxima sedan is one of those models that just keeps on keeping on. When the first generation model went into local assembly at Wiri in south Auckland 15 years ago, it was both well-equipped and extremely good value for money. The same applies today.
The latest J31 series is, of course, no longer built in New Zealand, but it’s still a lot of bang for the buck and packs a fair measure of refinement and comfort. Nissan has resisted the temptation to continually increase dimensions. Shorter than the previous model with less front overhang, the 2006 model doesn’t take up much more roadspace than the first 1991 Maxima. Though there has been some expansion in size, the car conforms to its original profile and character.
Overall length is up 110mm to 4890mm, the wheelbase expands 125mm to 2775mm, and wheel diameter increases from the original 15 inches. Height has increased by 65mm to 1470mm, but overall width is almost the same. Not surprisingly given the greater strength and higher equipment levels, the J31 is nine percent heavier, at 1513kg.
The Maxima is still V6 powered, but the current model is blessed with an all-aluminium, 3.5-litre quad cam, 24-valve unit in place of the iron block 60 degree 3.0-litre installed in the original. Any weight penalty is more than compensated for by the silky smooth, award-winning, VQ35DE engine. It produces 170kW – an energetic 39 percentmore power than the first Maxima. Torque is up 35 percent, from 246Nm to 333Nm at the same 2800rpm, and the six-stage CVT (continusously variable transmission) is a marked advance on the conventional automatic transmissions used before.
When the first Maxima was launched here, the sharp pricing contrasted with the car’s higher list price in Europe. Remarkably, in markets like Britain, it was priced close to luxury Euros like the BMW 525i and Mercedes 230E, while the New Zealand retail was substantially less. The Maxima replaced the Skyline in New Zealand, and immediately challenged large mainstream competition in the shape of the Holden Commodore, Ford Fairmont, Toyota Cressida and Mitsubishi V3000. Today, some of these rivals have disappeared but the Nissan has consolidated its long-term standing with this respectable contender in the large car sector. In some markets like Britain, however, Maxima has long since gone.
The top-shelf Ti version I’ve been evaluating is $48,995, but the Maxima experience begins as low as $41,590 with the base Si, still with CVT auto, 16-inch alloy wheels and an impressive array of standard features. Both the ST and Ti have larger 17-inch rims, and just about the only item missing from the flagship Maxima is a sunroof. Spot the latest car by the anodised grille, larger parking lights and massive headlights. Detailing is thorough, down to body-colour inserts for the exterior chrome door handles and front foglights.
Twin gas struts support the bonnet, although few owners will ever be aware of that convenience. No-one looks in the engine room these days. If they did, they would find a particularly smooth, willing and quiet engine that provides the commodious Nissan with strong performance and reasonable economy given the size of the car.
A combined city and highway average of 11.2 litres/100km (25.2mpg) deteriorates in the heavy confines of town traffic, but the Maxima can be eased up to 10.2 litres/100km (27.7mpg) on the open road. Expect a range of just over 600 kilometres from the generous 70-litre fuel tank, and the makers recommend a diet of premium petrol. This is an easy working motor that runs at less than 1900 revs in top at 100km/h, and spins readily when needs want.
If the engine is good, so too is the new CVT transmission that is remarkably smooth and unobtrusive. The gearbox is great the way it holds back on a trailing throttle when descending hills, but occasionally the auto shifts down and hangs on to lower ratios unnecessarily at urban speeds. You can, of course, override this by selecting manual control, although this rather negates the point of having an auto. Most of the time the CVT behaves impeccably, and occupants scarcely note what the transmission is doing because
the mechanicals are so quiet.
The Maxima has a multi-link rear suspension with diagonal A-arms, and anti-roll bars at either end. The set-up is engineered for fine ride comfort rather than sharp handling. Vehicle dynamic control is standard but the car becomes somewhat ponderous when pressed through corners. Pitch the Maxima enthusiastically into a tight bend and the road manners might encourage you to tread more lightly in future. You will rightly come away with the impression that this is a large front-wheel drive saloon that’s happier being conducted quietly rather than enthusiastically. The 215/55 R17 Japanese Dunlop tyres on the six-spoke alloy wheels offer reasonable grip and strong brakes are supported by anti-locking, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist.
The driving position is good and the front bucket seats are extremely comfortable. Leather upholstery is a $3000 option on the Ti and adds a real luxury edge to the cabin. All-round visibility is difficult, despite electric operation of the driver’s seat that extends to height adjustment. Cruise control buttons are located on the leather-bound steering wheel, but there are no remote steering wheel controls
for the audio. At least the volume adjustment is adjacent to the steering wheel rim in the lower centre of the facia. The new dashboard is a welcome improvement on the previous model, with sharp instrument markings and easy-learn controls.
As before, the Maxima offers great interior space, with heaps of leg room front and rear, plus air conditioning vents for those in the back. Rear seat passengers are well catered for, with a large pull-down centre armrest that incorporates a recessed pair of cupholders. Not everyone is entranced by the computer read-out, but at least the monitor is large and the controls are easy to operate.
The intelligent or smart key that doesn’t need to be inserted into the ignition is a useful feature that is exclusive to the Ti. The Maxima’s natural rivals are two other Japanese V6 sedans – the Toyota Camry and Mitsubishi 380 V6 – rather than the Commodore or Falcon. The Mitsubishi is slightly more powerful but the Camry’s 3.0-litre V6 offers just 145kW in its most powerful form.
What the Nissan offers is more styling flair, a strong dose of occupant refinement and a specification worth more than a passing look. It’s also an old friend that has matured over the years.