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2009 Nissan Maxima

Editor's Rating: star rating

The Nissan Maxima is good entry-level luxury sports sedan. The problem is there are plenty of better, less expensive ones

Up Front

I don't get the new Nissan Maxima. First introduced nearly two decades ago, the Maxima once was a pioneering vehicle—a sporty, well-appointed sedan billed as a "four-door sports car." After letting the model lose its identity for a number of years, Nissan (NSANY) has redesigned the Maxima for '09 in an attempt to return to those roots.

The trouble is that Nissan has also committed itself to continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVTs), which are now standard in most of its models. By definition, CVTs don't shift. They wind out in a single continuous skein, so you can accelerate from zero to 120 miles-per-hour with nary a change of gear. The Maxima also has front-wheel drive. So, to my mind, there's a distinct limit on how sporty the car can be. I mean, aren't rear-wheel drive and the shifting of gears integral to the sports car experience?

Nissan's solution to this dilemma is to simulate a traditional sporty driving experience. The Maxima's CVT includes a manual function that uses advanced software to create artificial "shifts." If you go with the fancy SV version of the car and pay extra for the Premium or Sport option package, you can even get steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters that allow you to flip through the simulated gears at the flick of your fingers. The Maxima's length has also been trimmed by about four inches while its track has been widened. It now has bulging fenders, squared off corners, and a hump in the hood that give it the muscular look of a hot, rear-wheel-drive car. The package works better than I expected, but there's too much artifice involved for my taste.

Don't get me wrong. The Maxima is a well-appointed entry-level luxury car with a powerful, 3.5-liter, 290-horsepower V6 under its hood that provides plenty of oomph. But it starts out at more than 30 grand and there are numerous alternative models that might suit your needs better, including two from Nissan. For instance, for less than the Maxima's starting price you could go with a well-loaded family car, such as the Nissan Altima (with which the Maxima shares its platform), Chevy Malibu, or Honda's (HMC) Accord, all of which are available with V6 engines nearly as powerful as the Maxima's.

If performance is a priority, Nissan's own Infiniti G35 is about the same size as the Maxima and only costs a bit more yet has a more powerful V6, is available with rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, and can be had with either a stick shift or a conventional five-speed automatic. Other attractive competing models: the Acura TL, which has been redesigned for '09 and is available with all-wheel drive; the Lexus ES 350 from Toyota's (TM) luxury division; or the Pontiac G8, which can be had with an enormous V8. Why buy a Maxima, especially considering its price?

The basic Maxima S starts at $30,855. It comes standard with a sunroof, cruise control, a sunroof, a 60/40 fold-down rear seat, auto-dimming rearview mirror, a six-CD changer, keyless ignition, power front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 18-inch alloy wheels, but there's virtually no optional equipment available on it. To add options, you have to go with the more expensive Maxima SV, which starts at $33,555 and includes additional standard features such as fog lamps, manual thigh and power lumbar support systems, leather upholstery, and an upgraded nine-speaker Bose sound system.

Loading up a Maxima SV raises the price to around 40 grand. In addition to paddle shifters, the $3,450 Premium Package adds an array of optional gear, from a moonroof, heated front-seats and steering wheel, to wood interior trim and satellite radio. The $2,300 Sport Package adds a somewhat different array of upgrades that includes a sport-turned suspension, 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels, and all-season sport tires. There are two technology packages (one priced at $2,400 and the other at $2,250) that add a navigation system with voice recognition and traffic monitoring, and sound system upgrades that include a 9.3-gigabit hard drive for storing music.

The '09 Maxima has two undeniable selling points. For starters, it earned the top Five Star rating in all categories from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as the top "Good" rating in frontal offset crashes from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Partly because of the efficiency of the CVT, the Maxima also has excellent fuel economy. It's rated to get 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, which is around the same as the Acura TL and about 3 mpg better than the Infiniti G35. In 331 miles of hard driving, I got 20.1 mpg in my loaner '09 Maxima.

Still, the new Maxima isn't giving Nissan much of a boost. U.S. sales of Nissan-branded vehicles fell 44.4% in November, to 38,974 (Infiniti was down 28%, to 7,631). Only one of 14 Nissan models—the Murano SUV—had increased sales in November vs. the same month a year ago. Even with the new '09 model hitting the showrooms, Maxima sales fell 37.2% in November, to just 2,718.

Behind the Wheel

The new Maxima is feisty. I clocked it at 6.1 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60 in automatic mode, which is about the same as a BMW 328i. The trouble is, my test car was several ticks slower in manual mode, an indication that the software that artificially "shifts" the CTV introduces inefficiencies that reduce performance.

Otherwise, the Maxima is fun to drive. The artificial shifts feel like genuine shifts and the engine has a hard growl when you accelerate. The shifter has been moved over to the side of the center console, next to the driver. If you pull it to the left, the shift stays permanently in manual mode. If you leave it in Drive, you can still use the paddles, but the system reverts to automatic once you stop shifting manually.

The Maxima's steering is surprisingly precise, with virtually no torque steer (the tendency of front-wheel drive vehicles to pull to the side during acceleration). The steering is also now speed-sensitive, providing help to the driver during parking and other low-speed maneuvers but allowing for plenty of road feel once the car gets moving.

The Maxima's interior is everything you'd expect from an entry-level luxury car. The leather is supple, the instruments well laid-out and the armrests comfortable. The easy-to-use navigation system interface is similar to the Infiniti's, with handy touch-screen controls as well as a central control knob. Knee and headspace in the rear seats is decent, though foot space is a bit limited.

However, the view out the front windshield is weird. The dash is oddly layered, and the bulges over the fenders and in the hood cut into the driver's sightlines. The hood also slopes down dramatically in front, making it hard to see the car's front end. The overall effect is like peering out of a bunker.

Also, the front door side-pockets are made of molded plastic and are too cheap-looking for a car in this price-class. And if you need to carry five passengers, don't go with the Sport Package. In that configuration, the fold-down rear seats are replaced by a pass-through to the trunk, and the middle of the back seat is an uncomfortably formed area designed to hold the armrest in place.

Buy It or Bag It

The '09 Maxima sells for an average of $33,101, according to the Power Information Group. It's much improved over the previous model. But I would have a hard time anteing up that much cash for a Nissan, even if it does get good mileage.

To me, the most attractive Japanese-made alternative in the same price range is the '08 Infiniti G35 (no data yet on the '09), which PIN says has been selling lately for an average of $34,278, barely a grand more than the '09 Maxima. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of the The McGraw-Hill Companies.) I also like the newly redesigned '09 Acura TL, which handles very well with all-wheel drive. However, the TL sells for an average of $37,918, according to PIN, nearly five grand more than the Maxima.

For those on a budget, there are numerous less expensive alternatives. The Pontiac G8 sells for $30,267. Nissan's own '09 Altima has about the same interior space as the Maxima and sells for $23,639. The sporty and redesigned Mazda6 sells for an average of $24,481, General Motors' (GM) Chevy Malibu for $22,689, and the Honda Accord for $24,231. Load any of them up with options and they're still a deal compared with the Maxima.

Click here to see more of the 2009 Nissan Maxima.

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