Nissan returned to marketing the Maxima as a “four-door sports car” in this latest round. How does it stack up against the original 4DSC from the early 1990s?
I’ve always had an affinity for the Nissan Maxima. Some of my earliest memories were of riding in the front seat of my mother’s second-gen Maxima on a pillow, watching the motorized shoulder belt whir into place when she closed the door. Admittedly, I probably should have been strapped into a booster seat in the rear of the car, but hey, it was 1990 and child seat laws were not what they are now.
Luckily, Mom avoided any crashes, and I lived to appreciate seeing subsequent generations of Maxima plying the roads. I found something to like in all of them, though I admit finding something to like about the bloated sixth generation is more challenging than it is for other generations of the range-topping sedan from Yokohama’s finest motor company.
I have heard my stepfather say many times that Mom’s old Maxima would get you in trouble if you weren’t careful while driving it — its eager VG30E 3.0-liter V6 making it all too easy to travel at extralegal speeds in the 55-MPH era. That is where it was easiest to draw a parallel between that Maxima of my early childhood and the 2016 Nissan Maxima SR that arrived for testing this week.
Nowadays, it’s a VQ-series 3.5-liter V6 driving the front wheels — its 300 horsepower the most ever put down by a stock Maxima and nearly twice the number of horses unleashed by Mom’s gray ‘88 Max at full gallop. Despite the new Maxima’s considerable gains in size and weight since its second generation, the newest iteration of the VQ has plenty of muscle for putting country road dawdlers in your rearview.
Here is where the traditional fan of performance cars will speak up to say, “Yeah, but it still sucks because CVT,” or “…because front-wheel drive.” True enough, all that horsepower is put to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission. But Nissan has more experience than just about any other automaker at making CVTs by now, and the third-generation Xtronic CVT in the 2016 Maxima is an excellent dance partner, as automatics go.
Power delivery is as instantaneous as any multi-speed transmission in the segment. When I did an informal 0-to-60 test at the local airport, it pinned me back in my seat with appreciable force and laid rubber for several dozen feet. When I pushed the skinny pedal in anger to get around a slow-moving pickup truck that was hauling far too many cases of cola, the Maxima’s CVT made quick work of “downshifting” to a lower ratio to get the engine into the meat of its powerband. In short, even though I would, like most purists, prefer a good manual transmission, the CVT is not a deal-breaker here. In fact, it’s damned good.
Some Nissan fans, myself included, have wondered aloud why the Maxima has been smaller than the midsize, and cheaper, Altima. That’s something that continues with the 2016 Maxima.
So why pay $32,000 and up for a Max when you can get a much better price on an Altima? If you put price at the top of your priority list, the Max isn’t for you. But it offers a level of chassis refinement the Altima can’t touch. Also, all Maximas are powered by that brawny V6, while a tiny percentage of Altimas make it off the assembly line equipped with the same engine in slightly less-powerful guise.
Sure, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder Altima will get far better fuel mileage than the 27 MPG we observed in the Maxima, but it won’t be as fun to chuck around the backroads. The SR package brings suspension upgrades over the standard Maxima, including ZF Sachs dampers, monotube shocks for the rear, and chassis reinforcements Nissan claims give the car more torsional rigidity than a Porsche Cayman.
The Maxima has what Nissan calls an Integrated Dynamics Control Module (IDM) that manages a system known as Active Trace Control to keep the car on your intended line as you dial in more power on corner exits. IDM also manages active engine braking that will shift the CVT to a lower ratio as you brake into a corner so you have more power on-tap when you roll on the throttle. Finally, IDM’s Active Ride Control automatically applies brakes as needed on individual wheels to settle the car and help it feel more planted over bumpy pavement. The 2016 Maxima SR is probably the most fun you’ve been able to have in a stock Nissan sedan since, say, the B15 Sentra SE-R.
While larger especially in terms of back seat legroom, no Altima interior comes close to the cool diamond-stitch Alcantara suede leather seating surfaces in our Maxima SR. The Max’s front buckets have extendable seat cushions for longer-legged folks like me — much appreciated — and its soft-touch surfaces are of higher quality and number than the last 2015 Altima I test-drove.
The infotainment front was the only area where I felt somewhat disappointed by the 2016 Maxima SR. I experienced quite a bit of trouble getting my phone to sync with the NissanConnect head unit for Bluetooth music streaming. This worked so seamlessly in the GMC Terrain Denali I tested a few weeks ago. It was a real shame the Max had so much trouble in this area because the rest of the head unit was pretty great, including the large touchscreen, easy-to-use navigation system, and excellent Bose-branded speaker array that remained clear and punchy all the way up and down the volume range.
At an as-tested price of $38,750, the 2016 Nissan Maxima SR finds itself straddling a line between “regular” Japanese sedan prices and “luxury” Japanese sedan prices. A Lexus ES350 also has a 3.5-liter V6 driving the front wheels and starts at roughly the same price. That being said, the Max offers a mix of handling and performance the ES does not. The ES also does not give you our tested Maxima’s navigation, radar cruise control, or collision warning system at that price, and you can’t get Alcantara in an ES at any price. That’s a comparison that makes the Max seem like a solid value, even for guys like me who grew up seeing Maximas advertised at half the price of our tester.
Could I see myself driving my two sons, the oldest of whom is about the age I was when Mom had her ’88, in the 2016 Maxima? Oh yeah — in proper child safety seats, of course.
2016 Nissan Maxima SR
Base Price: $37,670
Price As-Tested: $38,750
Options: Sport Floor Mats, Trunk Mat, and Trunk Net ($255)
- Attractive design
- Comfortable, sporty, sexy interior
- Powerful engine, smooth transmission, good handling
- So-so fuel economy
- No manual transmission available in the “Four-Door Sports Car”
- Head unit refuses to play nice with my phone for Bluetooth music streaming
Disclosure: Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.