Nissan Maxes Out The Maxima

In 1980, Nissan took the engine from its 240Z two-seater and dropped it into a big sedan to create the Maxima. Over the years, the curious crossbreed carved out a niche--a big one, it turned out--as the wolf in sheep's clothing. Here was a car with the performance and handling of a hot rod and the bearing and comfort of a family sedan. Nissan's ads put it exactly right: the four-door sports car.

For 1995, Nissan has done it again. The fourth-generation Maxima, which went on sale last month, is full of the inspired contradictions that marked the Maxima from the beginning. Consider this: Nissan made the 1995 Maxima both speedier and roomier--while taking $2,400 off the sticker price. Or this: The Maxima's new cast-aluminum V-6 engine boosts performance--and fuel economy.

The biggest surprise is the Maxima's price, which starts at just under $20,000--about $600 below the V-6 Toyota Camry. The $2,400 savings over the 1994 version is a bit of an illusion, since the base 1995 Maxima lacks features that used to be standard, notably a $1,000 four-speed automatic transmission and, oddly, a $12 cigarette lighter. (The socket is still there, now labeled "12 volt DC," presumably for powering cellular phones and the like.) Still, the base GXE model is hardly stripped-down and includes dual air bags, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, and a tilt steering wheel. Antilock brakes are a $995 option.

At the other end of the scale is a new GLE version at under $25,000 with enough luxury appointments to pit it against such $30,000-plus upscale cars as Toyota's Lexus ES 300 or Nissan's own Infiniti J30. Sumptuous leather on seats and doors, and walnut interior trim are standard, as are an eight-way adjustable power driver's seat and remote-control locking system.

ARGUABLY STYLISH. The Maxima's styling is bound to be controversial. While handsome in profile, from the front the car is a hodgepodge of inharmonious shapes. Particularly jarring is the placement of the grille above a pair of air intakes.

Car buffs may say that Nissan's tilt toward refinement--its softer ride and quieter cabin--is a move away from the high-tech performance of past years. Not so. Even the base model does zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. That's faster than any of the big Japanese V-8s, and it will leave such American performance sedans as Ford's Taurus SHO and Chrysler's Eagle Vision TSi in the dust.

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