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Nissan's new, seventh-generation Maxima looks great and rides well. It has a V-6 tuned for 35 more horses than last year and new options, including the automaker's Music Box audio system that can store up to 2,900 songs and organize them by mood, artist and title on an onboard computer hard drive.

But don't confuse the 2009 Maxima with its 1990s versions in which Nissan set the bar among Japanese-brand, four-door sports cars.

The new Maxima weighs as much as a Chevrolet Impala, and for the first time has no manual transmission at a new-generation launch. There's not even an automatic transmission.

The only tranny in the new Maxima is Nissan's continuously variable Xtronic gear machine, and while the CVT's efficiency boosts fuel mileage, it seems like a strange installation in a car that requires premium gasoline and touts itself as a sports car.

Perhaps it's more accurate to view it for what it is — the best, most sophisticated, five-passenger sedan in the Nissan brand lineup. Best of all, the changes allow this top Nissan sedan to distance itself from the similarly sized and sometimes similarly styled Nissan Altima sedan.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $30,855 for a 2009 Maxima S with 290-horsepower V-6 and fabric seats is nearly $5,000 more than a 2009 Altima with 270-horsepower V-6, CVT and fabric seats.

It's also more than the $22,775 starting retail price for a mid-size 2009 Honda Civic Si sedan with 197-horsepower four cylinder and manual transmission.

But the new Maxima starts lower in price than a 2009 Acura TL with 270-horsepower V-6, automatic transmission and $35,715 price tag.

Note that all the mentioned competitors are, like the Maxima, front-wheel drive, though the TL is available with all-wheel drive, too. All-wheel drive can help reduce the tendency for plentiful engine power to overtake the wheels and create torque steer — that disconcerting tug of the front wheels to one side or the other when the steering wheel isn't aimed straight during hard acceleration.

Unfortunately, there's only front-wheel drive in the Maxima, and the new model can be induced into torque steer without too much work.

No wonder, given the newfound engine power. The Maxima still uses Nissan's fine 3.5-liter, double overhead cam, VQ35 V-6. It has been revised — not just for more horsepower but for nine more foot-pounds of torque for a peak of 261 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm.

In the test Maxima SV, the engine was eager and strong. The car weighed 3,556 pounds but didn't feel like it when the accelerator went down. Smooth, steady power came on satisfyingly.

Maxima's transmission went about its business mostly in smooth fashion, too. CVTs operate without predetermined gear ratios. Instead, these transmissions continuously work to optimize power delivery along a spectrum of rpms.

Nissan has done more than most automakers to address CVT shortcomings, which include a high-pitch whine and an artificial or nonexistent sense of transmission shifts.

Indeed, the Maxima's CVT is programmed electronically to allow drivers, if they want, to manually shift from first to sixth gears via paddle shifters on the steering column. It's all done with computer software and isn't the way CVTs are normally supposed to work for maximum fuel mileage.

But engineers made the effort in order to give drivers what they'd expect in a Maxima — fun-to-drive character. Still, the manual shift mode hurts fuel economy, as I experienced in the test car in city driving, where I averaged less than 18 miles per gallon.

In regular CVT mode, the 2009 Maxima is rated by the federal government at 19 mpg and 26 mpg on the highway. This is equal to the rating of the 2009 Altima with lower-power V-6, and is a tad better than the 18/26 mpg rating for the 2009 Acura TL with front-wheel drive.

The Maxima rode nicely on all kinds of road surfaces, providing enough feedback for the driver to feel in control but not so much that passengers felt harsh impacts. The wheelbase of 109.3 inches is 1.9 inches shorter than last year's model, but there's still enough of a distance between front and rear wheels to absorb many choppy road sections without disturbing passengers.

Overall, the Maxima shrunk four inches in length, which gives it a right-size look. But it took a bit of maneuvering in the garage at home to fit it inside because I forgot the car has grown 1.5 inches wider.

The new dimensions plus the standout styling make it look richer and sportier than its predecessor. Bulged-out wheel flares and new headlights and hood creases also distinguish the Maxima from Nissan's other mid-size sedan, the Altima.

The test car was quiet inside, with a minimum of wind noise at highway speeds. But the interior wasn't so quiet that a driver would feel isolated from the driving experience.

I enjoyed the new interior — well-organized and tasteful without gimmicks. Though the new sleek roofline crimps some of the rear-seat headroom, there's still a decent 36.4 inches back there.

Rear-seat legroom is limited to 34.6 inches, with little toe space, and the trunk is a snug 14.2 cubic feet.

The new Maxima earned the top safety rating — five out of five stars — in federal government frontal and side crash testing. Standard safety equipment includes curtain air bags, traction control and electronic stability control but not a rearview monitor.

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