Thursday, February 5, 2009

2009 Nissan Maxima replaces size with style


Times are tougher than boiled brisket.

That's nothing new to Detroit. We've been chewing this entree for years, and we find little solace that the rest of the country finally gets a seat at our table. At least we have a country song written about us.

There's always a silver lining -- even if it's a tarnished silver plated one.

Optimism, you see, is free. The 2009 Nissan Maxima makes me optimistic.

Finally, a big sedan undergoes a redesign and comes out smaller.

Nissan chopped off nearly 4 inches in total length, from 194.4 inches to 190.6 inches. It's a span smaller than most people's hands, but it's monumental. A nip here, a tuck there cuts out all of the fat building up on America's selection of sedans. Size adds weight and saps the fun out of most everything. The leaner Maxima sheds 40 pounds -- not much, considering it tips the scales at 3,500 pounds but, still, a move in the right direction.

The wheelbase tightens up to 109.3 inches (down from 111.2 inches), but the car widens by 1.5 inches. All of this points to a performance flagship instead of floating boat.

A fast looker
Designers drew exquisite lines for the new Maxima. The sloping roof and lower profile gives this sedan a clean, performance-oriented silhouette. It looks fast.

The front end gets a straight line bigger grille and wrap-around L-shaped headlamps that look futuristic -- glass isn't supposed to be shaped like that. But that just draws your eye closer to this machine. It's not Rodin's "Thinker," but it's nice.

The fenders bulge out as if the car is flexing its muscle. (Technically, the Maxima is the same width as the previous generation except for the fenders, which now push out farther). The 18-inch tires fit well inside those fenders, and the optional 19-inch wheels look like the car has chewed on steroids, becoming an asterisk. The shoulder line comes off the fenders and moves all the way to the back. The back end is nearly as sharp as the front, though the car from the back could be mistaken for a hatchback. The long window stretches down the top, cut off by the spoiler. The big LED tail lamps push out to the edges and around the corner of the car, and the rear fascia wraps around the back end and hides the exhaust pipes nicely.

Nissan seems to have taken cues from its improving luxury brand, Infiniti, on how to build interiors. When it came to its cabin, the Maxima used to be simple and that's about it.

Now it's sporty and sophisticated with a techno-modern look inside. There's actually a cockpit -- something the Maxima desperately needed.

Lots of luxury
The car's smaller stature does take away from its interior dimensions, but not as much as you would expect. It now offers 43.8 inches of leg room (down 0.1 inch) in the front, it has less head room in the front (down 1.6 inches) and less shoulder room (down 1.6 inches). Perhaps the biggest hit for the interior was the trunk, which lost 1.3 cubic feet of space. (Now it offers 14.2 cubic feet.)

But the additions are quite measurable. My test vehicle, which came in the higher SV trim level (the base trim level is the S), included a well laid out dash and excellent materials -- no shiny bits of plastic to detract from the car's good looks. All of the touch points, such as arm rests and center console, have been softened, which adds to the car's luxury feel.

The well-bolstered leather driver's seat was comfortable, and the thick steering wheel felt good in my hands. Both heated up as well -- a great feature during Michigan winters. The seat also has a cool function, but I did not test it. There are a few other features on the seat, such as the manual thigh extension, eight-way electronic adjusting and lumbar support that can be easily moved to find the perfect driving position.

Nissan offers two types of second-row seats, either the traditional 60/40 split fold-down seats or the a second row with a pass-through opening that allows for longer items to go into the trunk and then extend into the cabin. If I were buying the Maxima, I'd opt for the fold-down seats because of their versatility.

Nissan moved the center stack up higher to help keep your eyes closer to the road, and there are a loads of other high-tech features. Keyless entry and pushbutton start add to the car's sophistication, but are expected nowadays. There is Bluetooth connectivity for the driver's cell phone and, as part of the SV's tech package, a 9.3 G Music Box hard drive, 7-inch monitor and XM Satellite Radio with real-time traffic updates.

And you'll want to avoid traffic jams, the new Maxima is fun to drive.

Through the years, as the Maxima evolved, it lumbered into a more traditional large sedan ride and performance. It always had giddy-up, but it felt more like a Clydesdale -- too big for serious sprinting.

By making the Maxima smaller, Nissan has put a lot more fun in this car.

That's a tall order for a front-wheel-drive vehicle. However, using the same platform as the Nissan Altima, Nissan was able to incur the benefits of front-wheel drive without installing the detriments. Engineers eliminated torque steer from the car -- a problem many powerful front-wheel-drive vehicles have that cause the car to steer sharply in one direction during aggressive acceleration.

Less room, more vroom
To firm up the ride, Nissan made the body 15 percent more rigid and reworked the entire suspension. The payout is a distinctively smooth and confident ride. Take the Maxima through big turns, and it bites down on the road. It feels much smaller than it is.

The steering felt clean and well-weighted, but not as exact as I would have liked. On the highway, the steering would start to feel disconnected from the road, offering a little play at highway speeds. Few things are worse than driving a car but not feeling the road.

The 3.5-liter V-6 is fantastic. It produces 290-horsepower and 261-pound-feet of torque. Nissan added 35 horses to this V-6 through increasing its air intake, making it more efficient when burning fuel and lowering exhaust back pressure. The result follows the same path as the vehicle's body -- a leaner, meaner machine.

Nissan also reworked the way the engine was mounted to help cut down on vibrations and noise. While I couldn't hear the engine, other than that pleasant vroom, I could hear the road and wind. This was one of the few areas I was disappointed about with the Maxima. While road and wind noise come with a sports car, this is also a sedan, so my expectation for a quiet ride was higher. Too much noise seeped into the cabin.

So, instead, I found myself turning up the stereo and enjoying the ride.

The continuously variable transmission with a manual mode was silky smooth. Unlike traditional transmissions that have a set number of fixed gears, a CVT has an infinite selection of gear ratios. Putting the car in Ds mode (it means "drive sport") lets the transmission become aggressive on upshifts, holding the gears longer. It feels much like a regular transmission, though it gives you better gas mileage. EPA estimates are 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

While I had never cared for the shiftless CVTs, the Maxima might change my mind.

I've already converted to the idea that smaller cars might be a good idea. And this Maxima makes my point. It proves, even during these tough times, a vehicle can reinvent itself as a leaner, cleaner, and more fun machine.