Nissan’s Maxima just might push your buttons

ZOOMING INTO SPORT MODE: Maxima’s onboard computer can turn your average sedan into a throat-y driving machine.
ZOOMING INTO SPORT MODE: Maxima’s onboard computer can turn your average sedan into a throat-y driving machine. –Bill Griffith

Sometimes all it takes is something as simple as the touch of a button.

That was what turned today’s test car, the 2016 Nissan Maxima SL, from a refined and sedate large sedan into something akin to an actual sports sedan.

The button, labeled “Sport,’’ sits on the center console right next to one labeled “Normal.’’

If you still have any doubt about how significantly an onboard computer can change the performance parameters in today’s vehicles, our experience with the Maxima was a major league reminder.

Once the Sport button was pushed, a new driver information display screen appeared, throttle response became quicker, transmission shift points changed, the steering feel got tighter, and—this really happened—an active sound enhancement amplified the exhaust note in the cabin.

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Look closely at the LED taillights and you’ll see 4DSC embossed in the reflectors. The acronym, we believe, is for “four door sports car.’’

Blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and forward collision warning and mitigation with automatic braking earned the Nissan Maxima a Top Safety Pick+ from the IIHS. —Bill Griffith

Nissan, indeed, is billing the Maxima, especially the SR version with larger (19-inch) tires and sport-tuned suspension, as a sports sedan. There’s some website video showing it performing well against the likes of a trio of 2015s, the BMW 328i, Audi A4 2.0T, and Acura TLX V-6.

Our test Maxima, however, was a middle of the lineup SL with a price of $37,715 (including destination). The only add-on was $220 for mats and a trunk net for a bottom line of $37,935.

We found it to hit a nice sporty sweet spot in performance and handling without losing the refinement in ride and quietness that you’d expect a Maxima buyer would be seeking.

The SL rides above the base S and second step SV in the lineup but falls below the performance-oriented SR and loaded Platinum editions.

“TOP GUN’’ INTERIOR: Maxima’s D-shaped steering wheel was inspired by the cockpits of the famous Blue Angels of aviation lore. It has a center stack angled towards the driver, and zero-gravity seats. —Bill Griffith

We found some of the SL’s accoutrements to be welcome in this level vehicle, including a double panoramic sunroof, heated D-shaped steering wheel, ambient interior lighting, and active noise cancellation.

The latest in safety and high tech defense systems are sought after in this class of vehicle. Standard in the SL (and above) are blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and forward collision warning and mitigation with automatic braking. Combined, these earned the Maxima a Top Safety Pick+ from the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). The Platinum model adds a 360-degree parking camera and moving object detection when anything is moving around the vehicle.

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Story continues after gallery

Nissan Maxima and other Top Safety Pick+ winners

Long-time Nissan owners will appreciate the latest tweaks in the 3.5-liter V-6 engine, which now is rated at 300 horsepower and 261 lb.-ft. of torque.

It sends that power to the front wheels only via a CVT (continuously variable transmission). Nissan has a long history with CVTs and has this one set up to mimic seven shift points. This breaks up the drone that gives the CVT a bad rap but retains its fuel economy advantages.

The SL is rated at 22 mpg in city driving, 30 on the highway, and 25 overall. We came back with an average of 28.3 mpg in a week of driving that included a 250-mile round trip to Connecticut.

Traffic (actually, lack thereof) cooperated during our return, and we had a wonderful half-hour run over the hilly and twisty Connecticut Rte. 190 from Somers to Union with the Maxima in Sport mode.

Part of the performance improvement is a result of Nissan’s use of high-strength steel in the chassis, increasing torsional rigidity by 25 percent while cutting 82 pounds from the vehicle.

Nissan uses its V-Motion grille bar and boomerang-shaped LED driving lights to give the Maxima a signature front look.

Another exterior styling feature is blacked out roof pillars that Nissan designed as a floating roof it says was inspired by jet aircraft in general and the Navy’s Blue Angels in particular.

Inside, the flat bottom of the D-shaped leather steering wheel makes it easy for drivers to slide into the seat. In our SL, that wheel also was heated, a welcome touch even though it’s been a warmer than normal late fall.

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Nissan says the interior was inspired by the Blue Angels’ cockpits with the center stack slanted seven degrees towards the driver. Once into the seat, you’ll notice the start-stop button pulsating, sending a clear message that the Maxima wants to be out on the road.

The comfort of car seats (and their many adjustments) are a matter of individual taste, but my back and I found the Maxima’s zero gravity seats, which now have extra padding, a good match for a long drive. The front seat extender is a nice touch for drivers with longer legs.

Contrasting stitching on the instrument panel, doors, and center console combined to enhance a quality interior.

The rear seats had fine legroom but didn’t have as spacious a feel as you might expect in a large sedan.

Nissan touted the Maxima’s sports car abilities; we think it belongs on a shopping list with the Buick LaCrosse, Chrysler 300, Hyundai Azera/Kia Cadenza, and Toyota Avalon.

If you take one for a ride, don’t forget to hit that Sport button.

2016 Nissan Maxima SL

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $37,715/$37,935. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 25 city/30 highway/25 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 28.3. Drivetrain: 3.5-liter V-6, CVT, front-wheel-drive. Body: 5-passenger sedan.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 300. Torque: 261 lb.-ft. Overall length: 192.8 in. Wheelbase: 109.3 in. Height: 56.5 in. Width: 73.2 in. Curb weight: 3,533 lbs.

THE GOOD

Smooth powertrain, quiet and quality cabin, secure ride.

THE BAD

CVT seemed slow to downshift in Normal mode in trips with frequent slowing for lights and stop signs.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A fine choice among larger upscale sedans.

ALSO CONSIDER

Acura TLX, Audi A4, Buick LaCrosse, Chrysler 300, Hyundai Azera/Kia Cadenza, and Toyota Avalon.

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