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Maxima commands road, bigger wallet

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  January 7, 2009 04:37 PM

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Maxima-Allston-609.jpgThe 2009 Nissan Maxima looks refined and stylish on an Allston corner. (Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)

(For a short overview on the 2009 Maxima, click here to read our earlier post.)

Like Volkswagen, Nissan has crossed the double-yellow line into premium territory, the path where the company’s luxury Infiniti brand has, until now, held its own.

Let’s start with the areas the Maxima doesn’t cross. For one, it’s no “four-door sports car,” as the “4DSC” rear window stickers have indicated on Maximas since the 1990s. That moniker is for super sedans like the Maserati Quattroporte or the upcoming Porsche Panamera. Granted, there’s generous injections of curvy rooflines, 18-inch wheels, and styling cues straight from the 370Z and GT-R, but like the Doobie Brothers sang, “front-wheel drive don’t make no sports car.” At 15 miles per gallon in the city, it does suck fuel like one, but I’ll bet a base Corvette or 911 would both burn less gas than the Maxima after my initial 180 miles.

The Maxima is also no longer under $30,000. Our 3.5 SV tester, with cold weather package (heated front seats, mirrors and steering wheel), xenon headlamps, Bluetooth, and technology package (navigation, XM radio/traffic, voice recognition, iPod dock) rang in at just over $37,000. The smaller Infiniti G37 with similar equipment costs just under $40,000.

To be fair, ten years ago Infiniti gave us the subpar G20 and I30 sedans and the Pathfinder-based QX4. Aside from mild exterior glitter and plusher interiors, every model was almost indistinguishable from its Nissan counterpart. Today, the brand has surged past its Mercury-like adolescence and grown into a true BMW competitor. Nissan, with the exception of the tin-can Versa, has increased its quality tenfold since then.

Audi and Volkswagen are parallel to this story – witness the curvaceous Passat CC and pricey (and popular) Touareg SUV. Besides lingering reliability concerns on certain VW models and the $70,000 Phaeton – which did nothing but confuse Audi buyers – Volkswagen is the best example for affordable car brands looking to move up in the market.

Perhaps $37,000 for a Maxima isn’t so unrealistic, then, when rich enthusiasts are forking over $80,000 for a GT-R. After a few hundred miles carving corners and being coddled in snug, supportive leather seats and sporty, well-finished controls, the price becomes reasonable. At normal speeds, the gearless CVT keeps the 290-horsepower V-6 under 2,000 r.p.m., and torque comes on smooth and progressive when summoned. With throttle planted and the CVT in sport mode, the Maxima will happily hold engine revs all the way to its 6,600 r.p.m. redline, and execute satisfying notes from the tuned exhaust on the way down.

There’s no cheap plastics or chintzy switchgear inside, either. In addition to a hefty metal knob, the navigation system operates by touch-screen and voice commands. Thankfully, the radio and climate controls also sport knobs and buttons so the screen isn’t the only option for turning up the heat or switching a station.

But although the XM traffic information was accurate and easy to read on the map, the rest of the system was thoroughly baffled by Boston. Heading to Everett from Cambridge Street in Allston took me over the river and through the congested streets of Somerville, and going from there to the airport zigzagged me up and down Revere. I searched the owner’s manual for the “give me one hour of my life back” command, and didn’t find it.

The three-spoke steering wheel is a tactile delight, with perforated leather and palm bulges in all the right places, but the steering itself is a disaster. It’s well-connected and linear, but the variable assist provides so much boost that it makes the Maxima feel twitchy and unsettled – despite the superbly taut and balanced suspension. That’s a big letdown for the drivers Nissan expects to pilot its flagship sedan.

Which brings us back to Infiniti and the G37. Sport-craving buyers might appreciate the Maxima’s increased passenger space, but the G37 boasts rear-wheel drive, a six-speed manual, and even more power for the same price (not to mention the Infiniti cachet). But brand snobbery aside, the Maxima slams its muscular shoulders against its real targets: the Acura TL, BMW 528i, Cadillac CTS and Pontiac G8.

This is a competitive, competent car, no matter what acronym is stuck to those windows.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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1 comments so far...
  1. I like the writing style and review here. The “give me one hour of my life back” was very witty. I hate palm bulges in steering wheels though. I had to buy a wheel cover for my expensive leather wheel (Audi) so the palm bulges would be eliminated and wouldn't cause hand pain after long drives; they put them right where my hands hold the wheel. Entry level luxury cars such as the Maxima are quite pricey today. The BMW, Caddy and Pontiac are all good cars. What a tough segment to battle for sales in. The Acura TL seems like a good car too, but the new styling in front is repulsive. As for the GT-R, I've read that there's a dealer markup bringing the price close to $100K. That's a car I'd wait 2 years for (if I had the money) so that the price wouldn't exceed MSRP by then.

    Posted by High_Taxes February 11, 09 11:09 AM
 

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